How can students with disabilities gain work experience while in high school or college?

Date Updated

Work-based learning opportunities can help students:

  • clarify academic and career interests.
  • pay for education.
  • gain academic credit.
  • apply practical theories from classroom work.
  • develop human relations skills through interaction with co-workers.
  • gain exposure to specialized facilities not available on campus.
  • develop job-search skills.
  • develop résumés and cover letters.
  • identify career assistance programs.
  • develop contacts for employment after graduation.

It is important to remember, however, that it is work experience the student with a disability must have - not necessarily paid work experience. There are alternatives to paid employment that have special utility for all students and especially students with disabilities. Some examples include internships, cooperative education, job shadowing, service learning, independent study, and informational interviews.

What is an Internship?

An internship is a time-limited intensive learning experience outside of the traditional classroom. Internships give broad overviews of occupational fields, while providing opportunities to experience work responsibilities and develop work-readiness skills. College credit may be provided depending on the academic program.

What is Cooperative Education?

Cooperative education programs work with students, faculty, staff, and employers to help students clarify career and academic goals, and expand classroom study by participating in paid, practical work experiences. These programs provide opportunities to work in trainee positions in fields of interest and to gain career-related experience as a part of academic programs. Academic credit may be arranged.

What is Job Shadowing?

Job shadowing, where the student visits a business to observe one or more positions, provides a realistic view of one or more occupations. The student observes essential functions of occupational areas of interest. Experiences vary in time from one hour to a full day depending on the amount of time employers can provide as well as the student's level of interest. Job shadowing experiences offer opportunities for career exploration. However, they do not typically generate academic credit.

What is Service Learning?

Service learning programs offer students opportunities to become concerned, informed and productive citizens by providing community service in non-paid, volunteer positions. These programs increase the relevancy of academic learning by providing opportunities to apply knowledge and skills while making contributions to the local community. Academic credit may or may not be arranged depending on the field of study.

What is an Independent Study?

It is often possible for students to earn academic credit for work experiences outside of a structured career-based program. Many academic programs allow independent studies as optional program components. If a student chooses this option, they would work one-on-one with an individual faculty member to develop projects for credit. Projects can range from research papers to work experience within the field of study. Work experience, coupled with documentation, such as a journal or paper, is an excellent way to practice and demonstrate the skills learned in college.

What is an Informational Interview?

Informational interviews, where students meet with people working in their chosen careers to ask questions about particular occupations or companies, allow students to gain personal perspectives on their career interests. Through informational interviews they can learn more about their career interests from the people who work in the field every day. Those experiences do not typically generate academic credit.

What is Career Services?

A career services office provides a variety of career and job search services to students and alumni. It acts as a liaison between students, alumni, faculty, staff, and prospective employers by organizing campus interviews, employer information and career fairs. Many career services offices also provide job listings and job lines for students and alumni to access in their search for employment. Some help students develop career plans and job search skills through individual counseling and job search workshops.

For more information, see It's Your Career: Work-Based Learning Opportunities for College Students with Disabilities