Learn and Earn: Supporting Teens

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Supporting high school students in preparing for careers

As adolescents go through high school, they learn to take on more initiative, responsibility, and independence. Parents and adults know that, in spite of their evolving maturity, many teenagers need support and encouragement as they begin take the initiative, act responsibly, and grow in their independence.

Parents and mentors of youth with disabilities have unique opportunities to promote their successful transition to postsecondary education, employment, and full participation in adult activities. Families and mentors assist in the transition process by providing adolescents direction in their exploration of interests, guidance in career and college planning, and encouragement and support.

Employment Issues

The number of students with disabilities entering and completing postsecondary education has increased dramatically in the last decade, yet people with disabilities are still underrepresented in the employment arena. Barriers to employment include lack of adequate support systems; little access to successful role models; lack of access to technology that can increase independence and productivity; and, most significantly, low expectations on the part of people with whom they interact.

High school students may think they have plenty of time to decide on their career paths and acquire the skills they will need to market themselves successfully. They may also believe that completing a college or job training program will guarantee them a job. This is not true in every situation.

As future employees, students with disabilities face unique challenges. Like other students, they need to find a way to meet the specific qualifications of the desired job. They also need to demonstrate transferable skills—in other words, skills acquired through education and previous work experiences that can transfer to a new employment situation. Transferable skills include communication, trouble-shooting, decision-making, leadership, and problem-solving. These are some of the skills that cross jobs, career, and industries. It is never too early to get off to a running start.

Career planning and preparation should begin upon entering high school and occur throughout postsecondary studies. Remind students that they do not need to settle on one area to pursue right away, and can change directions. But, they do need to prepare for the long run-for their lifelong career or multiple careers. In today's competitive job market it is essential that students possess skills and relevant job experience that will set them apart from other applicants for a job. One way students can start narrowing career interests and developing job skills is through work-based learning experiences.

Why Should Students with Disabilities Participate in Work-based Learning?

Through the interaction of study and work experience, students can enhance their academic knowledge, personal development, and professional preparation. Specifically, work-based learning opportunities can help a student

For students with disabilities, work-based learning offers additional benefits. Participating in work experience can give them chances to determine if they can perform the essential functions of particular jobs with or without accommodations. In a job setting, students can also practice disclosing their disabilities and requesting accommodations from employers. In addition, they can test which accommodations work best for them. These experiences help students with disabilities develop the confidence and self-advocacy skills needed for success in challenging careers.

Below are descriptions of typical activities and services offered at many high schools:

Cooperative Education

Cooperative education programs work with students, school staff, and employers to help students clarify career and academic goals, and expand classroom study by participating in paid work experiences. Students work in trainee positions in fields of interest and may also earn academic credit.

Independent Study

Some academic programs allow independent studies as an optional program component. Students work one-on-one with individual teachers to develop projects for credit. Projects can range from research papers to work experience within their field of interest.

Informational Interview

Informational interviews help students gain personal insight into specific careers from people in the field. They meet with people working in their areas of interest to ask questions about occupations, job duties, education requirements, qualifications, and companies.


An internship is an intensive learning experience outside the traditional classroom over a short period of time. Students work in a supervised learning situation, paid or non-paid, with an employer doing planned learning activities. Interns learn about occupational fields and specific job tasks, while developing work-readiness.

Job Shadowing

Job shadowing provides students with a realistic view of one or more occupations. Students visit a business to observe the everyday functions of their occupational area of interest. Experiences may vary in time from one hour to a full day.

Service Learning

In service learning experiences, students provide community service in non-paid, volunteer positions. These programs increase the relevancy of academic learning by giving students opportunities to apply knowledge and skills while making meaningful contributions. Students with service learning requirements should pursue opportunities related to their career interests.

Providing Support

Parents, family members, and mentors can help young people become self-determined and access career preparation resources. They can empower them and reinforce their plans for success. Here are some ways to provide support:

Additional Resources

The World Wide Web houses a wide variety of information, including information about jobs, career preparation, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A good place to start is DO-IT's AccessCAREERS website at www.uw.edu/doit/Careers/.


A 13-minute video, Learn and Earn: Supporting Teens, can be freely viewed only at www.uw.edu/doit/Video/. It can be purchased in DVD format by completing the order form at www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/Order/video.order.html.

About DO-IT

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) serves to increase the successful participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs such as those in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Primary funding for DO-IT is provided by the National Science Foundation, the State of Washington, and the U.S. Department of Education. DO-IT is a collaboration of UW Information Technology and the Colleges of Engineering and Education at the University of Washington.

To order free publications or newsletters use the DO-IT Publications Order Form; to order videos and training materials use the Videos, Books and Comprehensive Training Materials Order Form.

For further information, to be placed on the DO-IT mailing list, request materials in an alternate format, or to make comments or suggestions about DO-IT publications or web pages contact:

University of Washington
Box 354842
Seattle, WA 98195-4842
206-685-DOIT (3648) (voice/TTY)
888-972-DOIT (3648) (voice/TTY)
206-221-4171 (fax)
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Founder and Director: Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

DO-IT Funding and Partners


The contents of this publication were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, #H324M990010. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement bythe federal government.

Copyright © 2012, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2001, University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.