By Dr. Amy Spriggs

Career and life skills are crucial for students with disabilities because their post-school outcomes are not promising—individuals with disabilities are eight times less likely to be gainfully employed than those without disabilities. Individuals with autism are the least likely to become employed as adults.

Research has shown that participation in vocational training or job-related activities in high school can lead to better post-school outcomes for individuals with autism and other disabilities. Here are seven steps to creating positive school-based employment opportunities for adolescents with disabilities:

1. Align your program to established standards

Integrate academic skills into activities and align the curriculum to common core standards, alternate assessment standards, and college and career readiness standards.

2. Connect activities to real-life experiences

In other words, teach the way it is taught on a job. Use real tools to perform real tasks that students would experience on the job, so that they can easily make connections to the job world. For example, students can practice setting and busing a table to learn table service skills or checking the spark plugs on a small engine to understand auto repair. Opportunities to practice job skills in the classroom before entering the workplace ensures a better chance for a positive outcome upon graduation.

3. Use evidence-based practices when teaching job skills

To better serve students with disabilities, programs need to include evidence-based practices to ensure well-grounded instructional processes and content. These practices include systematic instruction (including time delay and system of least prompts), hands-on project-based learning, video modeling, and visual supports. Evidence-based practices promote independence of task completion and social and communication supports which lead to more successful outcomes for varied levels of learners.

4. Integrate activities into the school community

Providing a foundation for school-based enterprises and including the school community in career education activities help to affirm students’ skill sets and gain confidence as they prepare for entry into community employment. For example, students might set up a restaurant experience where they greet, serve and bus tables. Alternatively, students could host a car washing enterprise or design a landscape scheme for the school grounds.

5. Take a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach

It’s particularly important for students with special needs to be provided with flexible and multi-faceted instruction that acknowledges their different learning styles. UDL provides:

  1. Multiple means of representation (i.e., the curriculum is presented in various ways), such as hands-on activities, video modeling, teacher modeling, pictures and text with audio supports.
  2. Multiple means of expression (i.e., students can show mastery in several ways), such as allowing students the opportunity to say an answer, point to a picture, complete a worksheet, or complete a hands-on task.
  3. Multiple means of engagement (i.e., activities vary with materials and types of activities to engage students). When programs are dynamic and hands-on they create active learners, who are engaged and motivated to learn, leading to better post-school outcomes and success in the job world.

6. Natural reinforcement

Developing skills prepares students to make informed career decisions, achieve gainful employment and have better job performance, which in turn makes it more likely for them to receive praise and enhance their self-esteem. Celebrate their successes along the way to continue to see positive growth.

7. Identify supporting resources

Students with disabilities need access to quality career education and job skills training programs to increase their chances of success on the job. Programs such as Project DiscoveryAutism Internet Modules by OCALI, and Council for Exceptional Children are great places to start.

If you follow these seven steps, students with disabilities can learn about their career interests and passions in a realistic and meaningful way, and have the opportunity to practice those skills in the classroom to gain entry-level job skills. Doing so will lead to a better placement in the community and a provide the best chance for success beyond school.

For more, see:

Dr. Amy Spriggs is an associate professor in the Department of Early Childhood, Special Education and Rehabilitation Counseling at University of Kentucky. 


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