It's Your Career: Work-Based Learning Opportunities for College Students With Disabilities

How Students Can Prepare for Career Success

Most students expect to work after college graduation, but the fact is that it takes the average college graduate three to six months to secure employment after earning a degree. Career planning and preparation should occur throughout your college studies. You need a career-seeking strategy and a little experience to keep from being just another resume in a stack of hundreds.

As a future employee, a college student with a disability faces unique challenges. Like other students, you need to find a way to meet the specific qualifications of the desired job. You also need to demonstrate that you have transferable skills—in other words, skills you've acquired through education and previous work experiences. Transferable skills include communication, troubleshooting, decision making, leadership, and problem solving. These are some of the skills that cross jobs, careers, and industries. Opportunities to acquire these skills are available on campuses nationwide.


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Why Participate in Work-Based Learning?

Work-based learning experiences can help you choose careers, network with potential employers, select courses of study, and develop job skills directly relevant to future employment. You can enhance your academic and personal development, and your professional preparation. Work-based learning opportunities can help you:

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

As a student with a disability, work-based learning can also give you a chance to practice disclosing your disability and requesting accommodations from potential employers, as well as determine which accommodations work best for you.

Many colleges offer programs that help students gain work experience before graduation. These may include internships, cooperative education, job shadowing, service learning, independent study, informational interviews, and career services. You will need to do some research to find those best suited to you. Below are descriptions of typical services these programs offer.

What is an Internship?

An internship is a time-limited intensive learning experience outside of the traditional classroom, where you are placed in a supervised work-based learning situation with employers. Internships give you broad overviews of occupational fields, while providing opportunities to experience work responsibilities and develop work-readiness skills. College credit may be provided depending on your 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 your fields of interest and to gain career-related experience as a part of your academic programs. Academic credit may be arranged.

What is Job Shadowing?

Job shadowing allows you to visit a business to observe essential functions of one or more positions, providing you with a realistic view of an occupation. Hours depend on the amount of time employers can provide as well as your level of interest. Job shadowing experiences do not typically generate academic credit.

What is Service Learning?

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

What is an Independent Study?

It is often possible for you to earn academic credit for work experiences outside of a structured career-based program. If you choose independent study, you 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 your field of study. Work experience, coupled with documentation, such as a journal or paper, is an excellent way to practice and demonstrate the skills you've learned in college.

What is an Informational Interview?

Through informational interviews, you can learn more about your career interests from the people who work in the field every day. Meeting with people in your chosen career allows you to ask questions about particular occupations or companies, and gain personal perspectives on your career interests. Through informational interviews you can learn more about your career interests from the people who work in the field every day. Interviews 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 for students and alumni. Some help students develop career plans and job search skills through individual counseling and job search workshops.

Which Employers Participate?

Federal and state agencies and public, private, and nonprofit businesses seek college students for placements across the country and overseas. The majority of opportunities are for sophomores and above, but some employers also offer opportunities to freshmen and high school students. Microsoft, Boeing, USDA Forest Service, Weyerhaeuser, IBM, NASA, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities are just a few of the thousands of employers nationwide who offer valuable work-based learning opportunities to students.

Who are the Team Players?

Many work-based learning opportunity providers are committed to assisting all students, including students with disabilities, as they prepare to enter the professional world. If you are...

A college student with a disability:

  • Register with campus work-based learning programs, such as career services and cooperative education, so they can notify you of opportunities.
  • Participate in available orientations, seminars, workshops, and individual counseling sessions to enhance your job search skills.
  • Let work-based learning and disabled student services coordinators know what types of accommodations you may need to effectively perform in a work setting.
  • Access local support networks and disability services organizations that may be able to aid you in your job search.

An employer:

  • Update your position announcements and notify work-based learning coordinators of new positions.
  • Work in partnership with work-based learning centers to proactively develop strategies to encourage students with disabilities to participate in your work environment.
  • Educate your staff regarding diversity.

A faculty member, staff, teacher, or counselor:

  • Encourage students with disabilities to gain work experiences.
  • Invite staff members from cooperative education, career services, and other campus programs to speak to your classes.
  • Encourage employers to recruit students with disabilities for work opportunities.

Disabled Student Services:

  • Encourage students to register and participate in work-based learning programs on campus.
  • Be proactive in students' academic and career plans. Let them know how accommodations are provided in the workplace.
  • Help campus work-based learning programs recruit and accommodate students with disabilities.


You can learn more about work-based learning opportunities, job search skills, employers, legal issues of employment, and career planning at the following websites:

Prepare now to make yourself attractive to future employers. The resources are out there. You just need to make use of them.


A 13-minute video, It's Your Career, may be freely viewed online at, or purchased in DVD format.

How Can You Get Started?

To get started, use the DO-IT CAREERS acronym:
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 interests, 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 experiences to learn practical, real world skills. Apply what you've learned in school to the workplace. Test which accommodations work best for you.

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.

Grants and gifts fund DO-IT publications, videos, and programs to support the academic and career success of people with disabilities. Contribute today by sending a check to DO-IT, Box 354842, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195-4842.

Your gift is tax deductible as specified in IRS regulations. Pursuant to RCW 19.09, the University of Washington is registered as a charitable organization with the Secretary of State, state of Washington. For more information call the Office of the Secretary of State, 1-800-322-4483.

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:

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This publication and accompanying video were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, # H078C60047-97. However, the contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

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