Work-Based Learning for Students with Disabilities: Partnerships with State Agencies and Local Businesses

Work-Based Learning for Students with Disabilities: Partnerships with State Agencies and Local Businesses

By Tracey Maccia (originally published in the April 2019 issue of AC&E)

John Dewey (1916) said that students learn best when learning activities are explicitly connected to the real world. Meaningful work-based learning experiences are unmistakably connected to the real world and require teachers and administrators to address the critical issue of integrating school curriculum with business and industry expectations. This work-based learning program focuses on: self-advocacy, self-determination, work-place readiness, job maintenance, independent living, financial planning, transportation usage, state agency and business partnerships.

Labor force statistics for January 2015 estimate that 19.6% of adults with disabilities over the age of 16 are employed, compared with 68.2% of those without disabilities (Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 2015). Labor force data also indicate that workers with disabilities had significantly higher levels of job loss and hardship during the recession, and have not benefitted from the economic recovery as much as their non-disabled counterparts (Butterworth, et al, 2010). For people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the disparity in employment participation widens. The numbers tell the story: Students with disabilities enrolled in secondary educational programs need work-based learning experiences. Furthermore, approximately 62% of students with work experience as part of secondary school career and technical education programs maintain competitive jobs, as opposed to 45% without (Rounds, 1997, Holloran & Johnson, 1992).

Work-Based Learning

Studies have shown that students engaged in integrated career and community experiences, especially career education and paid work, are more likely to experience positive employment outcomes (Ferretti & Eisenman, 2010). Work-based learning is embedded in the New Jersey Learning Standard, 9.3 for career pursuits. Dr. Tracey Maccia, Director of Special Education for Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools (MCVTS) developed goals and objectives for the program based on pre employment skills in the area of life skills (such as good hygiene, appropriate clothing and behavior, and transportation skills), affective skills (such as selfconfidence, awareness of own strengths, interests and abilities), and employability skills (recognition of authority, good attendance, job knowledge, ability to give and request assistance, and quality work production). Work-based learning provides secondary students with four benefits that are not easily acquired in a classroom environment:

  1. An authentic context for applying problem-solving skills under normal work-related restraints and stresses.
  2. A familiarity with varied careers and exposure to different leadership styles.
  3. An appreciation for the connection between the worksites and continued learning and personal growth.
  4. Opportunities for networking with future employers, adult mentors, and the New Jersey Division of Vocational and Rehabilitation Services (NJDVRS).

Agency Partnerships

Since 2016, approximately 250 students with disabilities from the district have participated in paid work-based learning opportunities made possible through a partnership with the New Jersey Division of Vocational and Rehabilitation Services authorized by Pre-Employment Transition Services funded under section 113 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. As the Director, I led the initiative by forwarding a letter of interest to NJDVRS for pre-employment transition services in the form of paid work-based learning. Soon after, I initiated a partnership with the New Jersey Travel Independence Program (NJTIP) to provide transportation training to students traveling to their jobs and the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce to deliver transition-based curriculum.

Last but not least, partnerships were developed with the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities (NJCDD) and Workforce Development of Middlesex County to enhance the work-based learning program and create a system built on strong interagency partnerships.

Business Partnerships

The relationships among schools and the communities in which they operate are essential to student learning (Juszczak, Moody, & Vega-Matos, 1998). These partnerships provide many and varied benefits which include increasing school capacity and enhancing educational experiences for students. Students have been placed at various job sites, such as the Raritan Bay YMCA, Hackensack-Meridian Health Center in Perth Amboy, E.A.R.T.H. Center, and the YMCA of
Metuchen, Edison, Woodbridge and South Amboy.

The partnership with NJDVRS led to a Business Outreach Summit to educate businesses on disability awareness to build confidence and experience in the ability to communicate comfortably and appropriately with customers, coworkers or potential hires who have disabilities. Implementing partnerships such as these is instrumental in sustaining student-focused planning and student development practices, such as
work experiences and student involvement in planning (Kohler & Field, 2003).

Self-Determination, Self-Advocacy and Independence

Studies have found that helping students acquire and exercise self-determination skills leads to more positive educational outcomes (Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 1997). Since 2016, the program has evolved to address closing the work gap between disabled and non-disabled post-secondary students. As the Director, I revitalized curriculum offerings to reflect more authentic, relevant career planning options, such as a Workplace Readiness curriculum (Knight & Aucoin, 1999).

Additionally, I partnered with the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities to provide direct instruction in self-determination. Self-determination is a concept reflecting the belief that all individuals have the right to direct their own lives. Students who have self-determination skills are more likely to be successful in making the transition to adulthood, including employment and community independence (Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 1997). In addition, students
are taught transportation skills to become familiar with the transit routes from school to work.

Teaching students how to navigate transportation assists in removing barriers and giving students greater access to jobs, services and social networks is an independent life skill. It empowers students to take greater control of their lives, enabling them to learn new skills and take advantage of opportunities in their communities. Finally, the partnership with the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce provides direct instruction to the students on the challenges of the world of work.

Teacher Training

As the Director, I planned and coordinated a professional development program for special education teachers wishing to gain a better understanding of their role in work-based learning. The focus was on job exploration counseling and workplace readiness to better support the students with disabilities in their classrooms. Each classroom was outfitted with a mobile technology lab to access transition features of New Jersey Career Assistance Network (NJCAN), a free, online, interactive resource designed to support lifelong career exploration, career planning and decision making through easy-to-use, straightforward search and sorting utilities adopted by the New Jersey Department of Education.

Parent Participation

Parent participation and leadership in transition planning play an important role in assuring successful transitions for youth with disabilities (DeStefano, Heck, Hasazi, & Furney, 1999; Furney, Hasazi, & DeStefano, 1997; Hasazi, et al., 1999). Family members also contribute to work readiness and employability in a number of ways, both directly and indirectly, and in manners beyond those typically recognized. Ideally, students should be able to advocate for their own choices during transition planning. However, family advocates continue to play a significant role while students with disabilities are developing their self-advocacy skills. Students themselves report the need for their families to guide and support them as they plan for the future. The value of family involvement is well-understood by this Director. The district hosts a parent orientation for each student cohort, as well as a Transition Fair for parents to become familiar with services pre and post-graduation.


Work-based learning experiences have the strong potential to engage students with disabilities into intellectualizing critically about their future occupations, the realities of the world of work, and the undeniable applicability of education to their own destinies. To be career ready, students must take ownership of their learning including the nonacademic skills of self-determination and self-advocacy. A career ready student understands their strengths and interests and ultimately gains an appreciation of the skills necessary for employment. In the future, we will need a more effective, balanced, and truly inclusive public educational system, one that promotes knowledge of both the world of academics and the world of work. It takes a community to provide high quality work-based learning experiences to students with disabilities.

Dr. Tracey Maccia, Director of Special Education, is on a mission to provide work-based learning experiences to students with disabilities at Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools. Dr. Maccia was successful in the award of a grant from the Department of Labor to provide students with disabilities with paid work-based learning opportunities. The article is a review of the implementation of the project.

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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