Burgstahler, S., & Bellman, S. (2005). Perceived benefits of work-based learning: Differences between high school and postsecondary students with disabilities. The Asia-Pacific Journal of Inclusive Education, 2(1), 1-20.
Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.
Scott Bellman, MA
University of Washington
Although students with disabilities benefit from work-based learning experiences as much as, if not more than, their peers without disabilities, fewer participate in them. The authors of this article share the results of a study that explores specific benefits of work-based learning experiences perceived by high school and postsecondary students with disabilities. In a survey after participating in work-based learning experiences, participants in this study reported gains in their motivation to work toward a career, knowledge of careers, job skills, ability to work with supervisors and co-workers, and knowledge of accommodation strategies. However, high school students and their college counterparts differ in their perceptions of specific gains as a result of work-based learning; for example, high school students report more benefit in learning to work with supervisors, while postsecondary students report more benefit in learning complex job tasks. The authors share lessons learned that may be of value to professionals working in career development, disability services, cooperative education, internship programs, counseling, advising, and human resources.
Rapidly changing economic factors and technological innovations have contributed to increasingly complex job markets throughout the world. Young people vary in their level of preparation and readiness to enter today's work force. Many high school graduates underestimate the need for a college degree, and many college graduates, after the excitement of earning their diploma, find that they have underestimated the value employers place on practical experience. Participation in quality work-based learning can help students as they transition from the school setting to work environments. Such experiences provide opportunities to strengthen occupational competencies, develop a network of contacts, and practice skills that lead to securing and retaining a job.
Studies have found that 6-9% of students participating in postsecondary education in the United States of America have disabilities (Henderson, 2001; U.S. Department of Education NCES, 2000). These students are often not fully included in school-to-work programs, even though they benefit from work-based learning activities as much as, if not more than, their peers without disabilities (Burgstahler, 1995b; Burgstahler, 2001; Johnson & Rusch, 1993; Lowry, 1990). Knowledge gained in the workplace can reinforce academic learning and work-based learning experiences have been identified as a critical component for student achievement in special education programs (Colley & Janison, 1998). It is unfortunate that many career counselors and cooperative education supervisors at both high school and college levels have limited exposure to issues unique to students with disabilities, even though they may have vast experiences in placing students into jobs and internships.
Participation in quality work-based learning opportunities is of critical importance to students with disabilities, given that unemployment and underemployment continue to be significant problems for this population. As reported by the National Organization on Disability in the United States, about 32% of adults with disabilities work full or part time, as compared to 81% of adults without disabilities (National Organization on Disability, 2000). Obstacles to career success include the difficulty of finding successful role models, lack of adequate support systems, lack of awareness and availability of accessible technology, and low expectations on the part of people with whom students with disabilities interact (Aksamit, Leuenberger, & Morris,1987; Burns, Armistead, & Keys, 1990; Fonosch & Schwab, 1981). These obstacles can interfere with students' completion of postsecondary programs and transition to professional careers, especially in fields requiring advanced technical skills (Burgstahler, Bellman, & Lopez, 2004; Dunn, 1996; Kim-Rupnow & Burgstahler, 2004a; Malcolm & Matyas, 1991).
Preparation for paid work is identified as a high priority by the United States Department of Education, which also recognizes that current preparation is not always delivered effectively (U.S. Department of Education, 1994). Although stakeholders often disagree about the relative value of specific strategies for preparing students, work-based learning is regularly identified as an effective practice (Cunningham, Redmond, & Merisotis, 2003; Hughes, Moore, & Bailey, 1999). Students with disabilities have reported that work-based learning experiences are valuable to them as they prepare for the world of work-specifically in increasing their motivation to study and work toward careers and their understanding of core competencies (Burgstahler, 1995a; Burgstahler, Bellman, & Lopez, 2004). Through job shadows and informational interviews, students learn about job tasks, entry-level requirements, and work environments. Through job placements, internships, and volunteer work, students apply knowledge and experiences gained in school settings to work environments (Benz, Yavonoff, & Doren, 1997; Briscoe, Pitofsky, Willie, & Regelbrugge, 1996; Brown, 1998; National School-to-Work Learning and Information Center, 1996; Phelps & Hanley-Maxwell, 1997; Richardson, 2001; U.S. Department of Labor, 1989; Wonacott, 1992). Research and practice identify the following characteristics of quality work-based learning experiences (Luecking & Gramlich, 2003).
DO-IT, which stands for Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology, (www.uw.edu/doit/) serves to increase the academic and career success of people with disabilities, using technology as an empowering tool. Based at the University of Washington campus in Seattle, Washington, United States of America, DO-IT has worked with students with disabilities and those who support them for over thirteen years through a wide variety of innovative projects funded by Washington state, the United States federal government, foundations, and corporations. In addition to DO-IT's ability to sustain a high level of funding, evidence of the success of DO-IT practices include its prestigious awards such as the President's Award of Excellence for Mentoring in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics fields, an Outstanding Program Award from the Association of Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), the professional association for postsecondary disabled student services officers nationwide; and the National Information Infrastructure Award for exemplary use of the Internet to further education. More than eighty articles have been written about DO-IT in magazines and newsletters by authors who are not DO-IT staff (e.g., Marmer, 1995; Roos, 1994-1995).
Since its inception in 1992, DO-IT has benefited hundreds of students with a wide range of disabilities during their transition from secondary schools to postsecondary institutions and employment. A body of research supports the efficacy of its practices (Burgstahler, 1995a, 1995c, 1997, 2002a, 2002b, 2003; Burgstahler, Bellman, & Lopez, 2004; Burgstahler & Cronheim, 2001; Kim-Rupnow & Burgstahler, 2004a, 2004b).
Two ambitious projects of DO-IT, both funded by the United States Department of Education, sought to develop and sustain collaborations between students with disabilities, their parents, school programs, community organizations, and employers, and assure that students with disabilities were included in work-based learning programs. One project (grant # H432M990010) targeted high school students, while the other (grant # P116D990138-01) offered similar services and support to postsecondary students. As part of DO-IT's AccessCAREERS (Careers, Academics, Research, Experiential Education, and Relevant Skills) efforts, these projects served to increase the participation and success of individuals with disabilities in postsecondary education and challenging careers. Project staff recruited high school and college students with disabilities and then matched them with over 349 work-based learning experiences. In addition to these experiences, more than 3,400 students participated in AccessCAREERS events and workshops to learn about interviewing and disability disclosure strategies, resume preparation, the labor market, networking, and accommodations. Project staff emphasized steps represented by the CAREERS acronym developed by DO-IT:
C is for Careers. Think about what interests you. Be imaginative; then narrow down the list.
A is for Academics. Determine which academic programs best suit your career goals.
R is for Research. Research careers that spark your interest, maximize your strengths, and minimize your weaknesses.
EE is for Experiential Education. Practice job search skills. Participate in internships, service learning, cooperative education programs, or other work-based learning opportunities.
RS is for Relevant Skills. Use on-the-job experience to learn practical "real world" skills. Apply what you've learned in school to the workplace. Test which accommodations work best for you.
Participants received support and encouragement via email from project staff, mentors, supervisors, and peers. Working professionals with and without disabilities acted as electronic mentors. Topics of discussion included interviewing, disability disclosure strategies, format of cover letters and resumes, job search strategies, and other disability-related issues.
Methods for achieving project goals were team-based and student-centered. Students were active participants in their own career choices. As many stakeholders are unaware of the impact technological innovations can have on the potential of individuals with disabilities (Closing the Gap, 2005), staff from both projects worked to unite key players that include educators, career development professionals, counselors, advisors, community programs, and employers. AccessCAREERS staff cultivated collaborative relationships with employers that produced a wide range of work-based learning options. Employers with little or no experience working with students with disabilities were encouraged to start with job shadows, informational interviews, and mock interviews and, as they became more comfortable, to offer more intensive experiences such as internships (Burgstahler, Bellman, & Lopez, 2004). Activities in these projects also helped educators and career development, counseling, and advising staff learn about effective strategies to place students into job shadows, internships, and permanent employment.
An example of one collaborative effort on the University of Washington campus was the creation of a publication called the Opportunities News for UW Students with Disabilities. Project staff facilitated a collaboration between the career center, the counseling center, and the Disability Resources for Students office to create this publication. Its design and delivery specifically targeted college students. This newsletter, sent regularly to students with disabilities and available in multiple formats, announced opportunities for students to learn about technology, apply for internships and scholarships, connect to resources, engage in research, and attend job fairs. The collaborative group developed newsletter content, coordinated events, and distributed the newsletter to students with disabilities. The newsletter was also made available to faculty members and departments on campus. The DO-IT Opportunities News publications are now tailored to and available on six college campuses and are produced with funding from the United States National Science Foundation (cooperative agreement # HRD 0227995). To date, over 6,000 copies of these publications have been shared with students who have disabilities.
AccessCAREERS staff developed printed publications, video presentations, and web resources that continue to be used by stakeholder groups. Freely available online, these materials, along with a searchable knowledge base of questions and answers, case studies, and promising practices can be found in the AccessCAREERS website at www.uw.edu/doit/Careers/.
Experiences in AccessCAREERS activities supported the overall value of work-based experiences for students with disabilities, however, until the current study was undertaken, no attempt had been made to compare the specific benefits of work-based learning participation for high school and college students. Such information would be useful to existing and new programs that provide work-based experiences for high school and/or college students with disabilities. A research study was undertaken in order to answer the questions:
As part of an exploratory study, a work-based experience survey was developed and administered to both high school and postsecondary participants after their participation in work-based experiences as part of AccessCAREERS projects. The types of experiences they were involved in include the following:
A total of 349 work-based learning experiences were completed in the AccessCAREERS projects-244 by high school students, and 105 by postsecondary students. Approximately 70% of the participants were invited to complete surveys after their experiences, resulting in an estimated response rate of 38%. Fifty-five surveys were returned from high school students and 38 from postsecondary students.
In the work-based experience survey, participants were asked to estimate changes in their motivation to study and work toward a career, knowledge of career interests, acquisition of skills needed to succeed at work, understanding of skills needed to effectively work with co-workers and supervisors, and understanding of disability-related accommodations. Specifically, students were asked to rate each of the following statements on a 5-point scale, where 1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree.
I have learned the skills I need to effectively work with supervisors.
I have learned skills I need to effectively work with co-workers.
I am more motivated to study and work toward a career.
I have learned the skills I need to succeed in specific job tasks.
My knowledge of my career interests has increased.
I learned about disability-related accommodations I may need at work.
The work-based experience survey contained three open-ended questions to allow students to share their experiences. Participants were asked to list two skills learned from their work-based experiences and necessary accommodations (if any) for their work-based experiences. They were also asked to describe what they gained most from their work experiences. Informal observations and anecdotal information about the work-based experiences undertaken by participants were also collected by project staff.
Respondents were from a variety of schools and programs of study. Survey respondents were 50% male and 50% female. They belonged to a variety of racial and ethnic groups including Caucasian (79.8%), Chinese (3.6%), Japanese (3.6%), Hispanic or Latino (2.4%), Native American (2.4%), African American (2.4%), Vietnamese (2.4%), and Pakistani (1.2%). Types of disabilities included mobility impairments (53.6%), learning disabilities (22.6%), visual impairments (9.5%), hearing impairments (8.3%), attention deficit disorders (3.6%), health impairments (4.8%), and other cognitive impairments (1.2%). Note that, as some students reported more than one disability, the total exceeds 100%.
Table 1 and Figure 1 summarize the average ratings of high school and postsecondary school respondents to survey statements of outcomes from their work-based learning experiences, where the rating scale was from 1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree.
|I have learned the skills I need to effectively work with supervisors.||4.45||4.08|
|I have learned skills I need to effectively work with co-workers.||4.33||4.32|
|I am more motivated to study and work toward a career.||4.22||4.00|
|I have learned the skills I need to succeed in specific job tasks.||4.00||4.53|
|My knowledge of my career interests has increased.||3.76||3.73|
|I learned about disability-related accommodations I may need at work.||3.72||3.83|
The largest difference in responses between high school and postsecondary students related to learning skills needed to succeed in specific job tasks, which was rated much higher by postsecondary students. Students also differed on the importance of learning to work with supervisors, which was the most important item for high school students.
Participants were asked to list two skills learned from their work-based experiences. Responses to this open-ended survey item were as follows, in order of decreasing prevalence:
Learning to work well with others
Improving communication skills
Learning job tasks
Gaining technical skills
Learning to work well with others
Improving communication skills
Gaining technical skills
Students were also asked to list necessary accommodations (if any) for their work-based experiences. Response categories are summarized below, in order of decreasing prevalence:
Accessible telecommunication devices
Materials in accessible formats
Facility barriers mentioned specifically by students included inaccessible doors, meeting areas, and restrooms. Their requests for furniture included chairs, step stools, and adjustable desks. Adaptive technology mentioned specifically by students included the use of a computer, alternate keyboards and mouse interfaces, scanners, screen readers, and software to assist with writing.
Participants were asked to describe what they gained most from their work-based experiences. Results are summarized below.
Acquisition of marketable skills
Increased ability to work with others
Acquisition of marketable skills
Increased ability to work with others
Although the most common themes are shared by both groups, high school students offered a wider range of responses which included comments about gaining a sense of independence, self-esteem, and learning requirements needed to enter a career, learning to manage a personal assistant, and understanding the work environment. As stated by a high school student intern, "My problem solving skills have really started to grow. This goes along with being more independent and taking care of things myself, or at least attempting to, before seeking assistance". Another high school student reported, "I learned how people react to a disabled person at the work place and that there are a lot of jobs out there that I can do".
Staff observations as well as anecdotal information gathered during conversations between participants and project staff suggests that, while in high school, students with disabilities have a greater need for skill building related to working with supervisors because of their limited experiences in receiving the instruction and feedback necessary for completing job tasks. As reported by a high school student intern, "I met two really cool people at the internship, but the supervisor really made me nervous. I just wasn't sure what kinds of things she wanted to hear about."
High school and postsecondary students with disabilities participating in work-based experiences in AccessCAREERS projects placed an equal and high value on learning to communicate with co-workers. They reported gains in their motivation to work toward a career, knowledge of careers and the workplace, job skills, ability to work with supervisors and co-workers, and knowledge of successful accommodation strategies. However, staff observations, anecdotal reports, and survey results suggest that high school students and college students differ in their perceptions of specific gains as a result of work-based learning. Differences between the high school students and postsecondary students with disabilities engaged in work-based learning include those discussed below.
The results of this exploratory study are consistent with previous research that has documented the value of work-based learning activities for students with disabilities. The current results, however, should be considered in light of limitations that may have influenced them. Participants were not randomly selected; participants self-identified or were recommended for participation by teachers, parents, or other advocates. Results were based on voluntary submission of surveys and self-reporting. No control group of students with disabilities who did not participate in work-based learning activities was available and long-term impact of project activities is not known. Although caution should be exercised in generalizing the results, they suggest that further study into the impact of work-based learning activities on high school and postsecondary students with disabilities is worthy of further research.
Understanding the difference between the needs of high school and postsecondary students with disabilities can benefit professionals who work in career development, disability services, cooperative education, internship programs, counseling, advising, and human resources by helping them tailor their services to maximize the benefits to students. Implications for practice include those described in the following paragraphs.
Understanding the difference between the needs of high school students and postsecondary students with disabilities can help stakeholders tailor services to maximize the skills and self-efficacy developed during work-based learning experiences. Students who completed a variety of work-based learning experiences completed a survey developed to answer questions about the perceived impact of work-based learning experiences on career-related attitudes, knowledge, and skills. Students reported gains in their motivation to work toward a career, knowledge of careers and the workplace, job skills, ability to work with supervisors and co-workers, and knowledge of successful accommodation strategies. Staff observations and survey results suggested differences between the two groups. First, high school students and their college counterparts differ in their perceptions of specific gains as a result of work-based learning; for example, high school students report more benefit in learning to work with supervisors, while postsecondary students report more benefit in learning complex job tasks. Second, the two groups have different needs regarding the development of self-advocacy and job retention skills. This article discusses implications for practice and shares lessons learned that can benefit those who impact the availability of work-based learning opportunities for high school and college students with disabilities, including professionals who work in career development, disability services, cooperative education, internship programs, counseling, advising, and human resources.
For information on DO-IT programs, publications, and videos, consult the DO-IT website at www.uw.edu/doit/ or contact DO-IT, University of Washington, Box 355670, Seattle, WA 98195-5670, USA; 206-685-3648 (voice/TTY); 206-221-4171 (fax); firstname.lastname@example.org. Permission is granted to use, adapt, and translate DO-IT videos and publications for educational, noncommercial purposes as long as the source is acknowledged.
The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Sara Lopez and Michael Richardson in conducting the work-based learning activities and exploratory research reported in this article. The completion of the reported projects and the development of this article were funded by the U.S. Department of Education (grants #P116D990138-01 and # H432M990010) and the National Science Foundation (cooperative agreement # HRD 0227995). The opinions, positions, and recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States government.
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