Preparing Students with Disabilities for Trade School A complete guide to thriving in trade school and a career with a disability

A trade school, also known as a vocational or technical school, prepares students for specific positions in the skilled job market. Many educational or training programs at trade schools take only 1-2 years to complete. Trade schools offer diplomas and certificates in several fields, including information technology, automotive mechanics, and nursing. Most trade schools operate on a for-profit basis and follow an open admission policy.

Trade schools offer vocational programs for students with disabilities as an alternative to two- and four-year colleges. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) oversees the accreditors of vocational institutions in order to ensure the quality of education at trade schools. ED channels financial assistance only through institutions with valid accreditation.

This guide addresses the specific educational needs of students with disabilities. It also provides information to help students decide whether enrolling in a program offered at an accredited school furthers their career objectives. Continue reading to learn more about transition planning, adaptive technologies, and other relevant topics.

WRITTEN BY: Staff Writer

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Top Five Reasons Students with Disabilities Should Consider Trade School

Students with disabilities often encounter difficulties meeting the admission criteria maintained by traditional colleges and universities. By contrast, trade schools follow an open-admission policy, which means they accept a broader group of applicants.

A trade school’s career-centric programs help students with disabilities to master the necessary skills for a specific job more quickly. Trade schools also provide hands-on experience, which benefits many students with disabilities.

Because trade schools offer shorter programs, they typically cost less than four-year colleges. Additionally, students with disabilities can apply for federal financial assistance as long as they attend an accredited institution.

The list below includes five reasons why students with disabilities should consider enrolling in a trade or vocational school.

  • Greater Independence Students with disabilities gain greater independence during their trade school program. By attending classes and completing requirements, they learn to take charge of their education. Even if they require some type of assistance throughout the program, they develop a sense of achievement as they complete educational milestones.
    After earning a trade school diploma, students can look forward to the next step in their journey — employment. Most trade schools offer programs with an apprenticeship component, which allows students to gain hands-on experience. Companies commonly hire apprentices after they complete their trade school program. A job gives people with disabilities greater autonomy and enables them to make more decisions on their own.
  • Increased Confidence Students with disabilities often struggle with self-esteem issues. By completing a trade school program, they gain a set of skills that allows them to get a job and have regular income. They also gain a sense of pride in their accomplishment, which often gives them the confidence to explore further personal and professional goals.
    A well-crafted vocational program for students with disabilities prepares graduates not only for immediate employment, but also for long-term careers. With increased confidence, people with disabilities feel empowered to take on new challenges and determine their own futures.
    Trade school also prepares people with disabilities to network. They can thrive socially and professionally as they gain greater confidence in their abilities.
  • Earning Stable Income Until only a few years ago, the job market offered few options for people with disabilities who wanted to become more financially independent. However, an increasing number of vocational programs now offer students with disabilities the chance to develop useful, in-demand skills. Students with these skills make desirable employees who can earn a stable income.
    A stable income affords a more independent lifestyle, greater freedom of movement, and a better financial future. Earning a regular salary enables people with disabilities to make more financial decisions on their own. They learn how to make and keep a budget, pay bills, and make other necessary financial decisions.
  • Focus on Social Skills Trade schools offer ample opportunities for students to interact with one another both inside and outside the classroom. Students meet to work on projects, study for exams, or simply to socialize. A trade school program provides a safe social environment for many students with disabilities.
    Students develop useful communication skills when they interact with their peers, teachers, and employers. Students with disabilities may find that the structured socialization of a trade school program provides them with opportunities for interpersonal growth.
  • Provides Structure Trade school programs usually follow more rigid class schedules than the typical college or university. Such regularity benefits students with disabilities, many of whom function better with a predictable routine.
    Most trade schools require students to follow one curriculum for a specific job training program with predetermined courses and limited electives. Such programs offer a predictable learning environment that allows many people with disabilities to thrive.

What Students with Disabilities Should Look for in a Trade School

Look for schools that register their programs with organizations or federal agencies that provide financial assistance to enrollees. Individuals with disabilities often take advantage of scholarships and grants, which do not require repayment.

Consider only accredited trade schools. ED channels federal aid only through schools with valid accreditation. Federal assistance packages comprise an important resource for all students in need of aid, but perhaps more so for students with disabilities.

Students with disabilities should also consider several other factors before they decide on a trade school program. The following section contains four important qualities of a trade school program for students with disabilities.

Resources for Students with Disabilities: Trade schools offering vocational programs for students with disabilities usually maintain the assistive technologies needed for students to succeed. However, resources go beyond technology. Look for trade schools that maintain active ties with local businesses. Local business relationships help students get into an apprenticeship program or land a job after graduation.

A Captivating Program Curriculum: Many trade schools offer programs that address the current needs of a specific industry or correspond directly to the requirements of the local business community. Trade schools regularly evaluate their programs to ensure their relevance, which in turn enhances employment opportunities for their graduates. Many trade schools compete for students by crafting programs that give students a positive learning experience.

Academic Advising: Academic advisors assess a student’s strengths and interests in order to guide them into an appropriate program and monitor a student’s progress. Many students with disabilities continue to require advising after graduation. Advisors can recommend ongoing training to facilitate a student’s professional advancement.

  • Understanding and Communicative Faculty Members: Look for an institution with faculty and staff who demonstrate awareness of a student’s special needs. Some trade schools require faculty members to hold special certification to teach students with disabilities. Faculty members who regularly communicate a student’s progress to all stakeholders play a major role in student success.

Timeline for Students with Disabilities: From High School to Trade School

The transition from high school to trade school proves challenging to many people. For those with disabilities, the transition process requires carefully completing several steps over the course of multiple years. Key events in the timeline — from developing an individualized education plan (IEP) to identifying reasonable accommodations in the workplace — require attention to detail, patience, and advocacy on the part of teachers, parents, and students themselves. See below for what parents and students can expect during the transition from high school to trade school and beyond.

WhenActionDescriptionHelpful Tips
First Year of High SchoolCreate an IEPAn IEP should be in place when a student begins high school or shortly thereafter. The IEP helps determine appropriate accommodations and resources for students.Remember that students with disabilities have the right to learn alongside their peers. Before the IEP meeting, review the laws concerning disability rights and what schools must provide.
Before Age 16Start Transition PlanningAccording to federal law, schools must provide transition planning to students who have an IEP, beginning before the student turns 16. The transition team involves the student, parents, educators, and outside representatives (such as therapists or social workers) creating a plan for life after high school.Keep an ongoing list of students’ strengths and weaknesses, areas in which they need more help, and the kind of work that interests them.
Sophomore or Junior YearAssessment by a Vocational Rehabilitation CounselorThis meeting can help determine which trade school programs might best serve the student. Vocational rehabilitation counselors complete training to assess students’ abilities and limitations and suggest trade schools accordingly.Take this assessment into account when planning the last few years of high school. Students who intend to go to trade school should choose courses that further their goals.
Junior YearConsider Vocational Aptitude TestingThese tests can help determine suitable careers. High school career counselors can recommend and administer tests.
Junior and Senior YearResearch Potential Trade SchoolsExplore options by looking for schools that suit students’ aspirations and abilities.Look into potential schools’ disability resource offices. What services do they offer?
Beginning of Senior YyearApply to Trade Schools that are Right for the StudentChoose a few top schools, including some backup schools. Look into trade schools with programs specifically designed to assist students with disabilities.You are never required to disclose a disability on an application form. However, if a disability has negatively affected test scores or GPA, disclosing it to the admissions committee may prove advantageous.
High School GraduationIEP Services EndAAs IEP services end, students and parents receive final paperwork regarding transition plans. Hold onto this paperwork in case the trade school needs it for documentation.
Throughout Trade SchoolSeek Out Disability Resources at SchoolParents along with students themselves must advocate for access to disability resources in trade school. Staying connected with the school’s disability resource office ensures that students get the accommodations they need.According to the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), only 19% of students in postsecondary schools received accommodations while 87% of those same students received accommodations in high school. Students require strong advocacy as they make the transition to higher education.
Final Year of Trade SchoolSearch for Employment OpportunitiesLook for jobs that fit the student’s career plans and seek out employers that can provide the right working accommodations.
During the Employment SearchIdentify Reasonable Workplace AccommodationsWorkplace accommodations such as providing extra time to complete tasks or installing assistive technologies can help trade school graduates thrive in their new careers. Know what workplace accommodations the graduate requires.According to IES, About 26% of working professionals with disabilities had informed their employer of their disability. Of those professionals, 7% reported receiving accommodations.
A Few Months to One Year into EmploymentEvaluate the Employment SituationAt some point shortly after employment begins, evaluate the situation. Does the student need more accommodation? Is the job enjoyable? Are there any problems that require attention?
A Year or Two after Sustained Employment BeginsTransition Toward Greater IndependenceSome individuals with disabilities quickly become independent while others always need some level of assistance. Look at the situation from year to year to evaluate and aim for appropriate levels of independence.

Who Can Help with Transition Planning?

Transition planning enables students to move from school to postschool activities. During transition planning, take into account students’ educational and work objectives as well as their personal interests and preferences. Postschool activities can include vocational training, continuing education, independent living, or community participation.

Transition planning involves the concerted efforts of several stakeholders, beginning with the student and their family or legal guardian. The family or legal guardian often provides financial, emotional, and psychological support to people with disabilities. They provide crucial input throughout the transition planning process.

Teachers also play an important role in transition planning. Through daily interaction, they know students’ strengths, achievements, and educational goals, as well as which teaching method or classroom activity brings out the best in their students. Their valuable input aids the transition planning process.

Transition planning often requires the assistance of a service coordinator such as a social worker, school counselor, or vocational director. They provide relevant information about educational or training programs, financial aid, and community services that can help students with disabilities achieve their postschool objectives.

Students with disabilities transition more easily from school to postschool life with the assistance of professionals invested in their success. Although initial transition planning often occurs when students are 14-16 years old, the process continues for many years and requires the participation of many stakeholders.

Success Stories: Thriving at Work with a Disability

Many students with disabilities thrive in trade school and beyond. Reading stories of people who found gainful employment through trade school can inspire those considering various postschool paths. These stories prove that students with disabilities can succeed in trade school.

  • Latoya Bristor A young woman with an intellectual disability, Latoya Bristor had difficulty finding employment until she began a one-year culinary training program at Brewster Technical Institute in Tampa, Florida. Latoya did so well that an establishment offered her a one-year internship before graduation. When the internship ended, she landed solid employment with Wright’s Gourmet Deli. She is grateful for the vocational rehabilitation program that enabled her success. “I would recommend this program to everybody,” she says.
  • Jessica Knoepfler Dogs are one of the few things that brought young Jessica Knoepfler out of her shell. A hard-working young woman with short-term memory problems, Jessica knew since her freshman year of high school that she wanted a job working with dogs. After attending a groomer training program and finding a mentor who helped her thrive, Jessica became a success story. She now co-owns Just Paws Pet Salon in Minnesota.
  • Noah Melhorn AAs a young man working through dyslexia and learning disabilities, Noah often found himself falling behind in class. Noah’s mom, Terri Fierstine, says Noah caught up in high school due to perseverance, many meetings with teachers, numerous IEPs, phone calls, e-mails, and summer tutoring. Noah graduated from a wildland firefighting program at Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and today works to keep others safe as a wildland firefighter in Arizona.

Glossary of Key Programs for Students with Disabilities

Parents and guardians of students with disabilities often face many challenges as they help their child make important educational and job-related decisions. They contend with a variety of factors, including program eligibility requirements, benefits, and vocational rehabilitation. See below for some common terms and programs to know.

TermDescription
Vocational or Trade SchoolA vocational school offers training programs that focus on developing a specific set of skills required in a skilled job or trade such as plumbing, culinary arts, or car repair. Most trade school programs include an apprenticeship component that gives students hands-on experience and a more complete understanding of the field.
Transition PlanningA well-executed transition plan takes students with disabilities from a high school or special education environment into a postsecondary setting, such as vocational training or independent living. Transition planning usually involves the family and student working with various trained professionals such as teachers, social workers, or community leaders.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)A civil rights law enacted in 1990, ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all aspects of public life, such as education and jobs. ADA requires all places open to the general population to conform to safety and accessibility standards for people with disabilities.
Vocational Rehabilitation (VR)Funded by the ED, the VR program provides a variety of services for people with disabilities that seriously limit their employability. Program participants access different types of services, such as career counseling and guidance, job placement, and additional training to support job retention. VR services vary among states.
Ticket to Work ProgramThe Ticket to Work program welcomes people with disabilities who wish to reduce or eliminate their dependence on Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income. Participants work with service providers such as the State VR Agency or an Employment Network that provide supportive services, such as job placement and financial counseling.
Reasonable accommodationADA requires workplaces to provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities to ensure that they enjoy the same opportunities as non-disabled individuals during both the hiring process and the workday. Sometimes called “productivity enhancers,” reasonable accommodations involve things like installing a ramp or creating ergonomic workstations and accessible restrooms.
Adaptive technologyAdaptive technology refers to an application or product specifically designed for people with disabilities. Common examples of adaptive technology include modified steering systems for vehicles, technologies for the hearing impaired (hearing aids or teletype phones), and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems. Individuals who cannot speak or have difficulty speaking without assistance use AAC systems.
Individualized Education Program (IEP)Most schools offering special educational programs for people with disabilities begin with an IEP. Teachers, school administrators, or guidance counselors assess students’ capabilities and review their educational background to determine proper placement. An IEP typically includes the type of learning environment best suited for the student, recommended services, academic objectives, and extracurricular activities.
Summary of Performance (SOP)When a student with a disability completes an educational segment (usually high school), the institution compiles all the data and information on the student into a document called an SOP. It summarizes the student’s academic performance and functional capabilities to enable parents, guardians, and invested professionals to help the student plan the next step in their educational journey or entry into the workforce.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973This law prohibits the discrimination against qualified people with disabilities in programs specifically administered by federal agencies. The act covers nonprofits receiving federal financial aid and companies or suppliers under contract with the federal government. It contains an affirmative action provision for contracted companies with 50 or more employees with a federal contract worth $50,000 or higher.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)IDEA guarantees free public education to eligible people with disabilities across the country. The law governs the administration of various services such as early intervention, special education, and vocational training for students with disabilities. IDEA channels discretionary grants through higher education institutions, nonprofits, and educational agencies to fund special education programs, develop assistive technology, and provide other support services for students with disabilities.
Assistive TechnologiesAssistive technologies comprise a broader classification of items and applications that improve and enhance the ability of persons with disabilities to perform certain tasks. Stores carry many assistive technologies. Examples include talking calculators, screen readers, and voice recognition programs.
504 PlanEducators draw up a 504 Plan for students who may not need special education services, but still exhibit a disability identified by the law. The student may require additional time to complete certain tasks or the school may need to provide note-taking aids or audiobooks. Educators craft a 504 Plan to give students with disabilities access to general education material.
Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)FERPA ensures the rights of parents to access, amend, and disclose educational information about their child with disabilities. When the child turns 18 or begins a postsecondary educational or training program at any age, these rights transfer directly to them.
Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)FAPE guarantees students with disabilities access to reasonably calculated services designed to help them succeed in an educational setting. For example, a school must give students with disabilities equal opportunity to participate in a sport without showing preferential treatment.
Office of Civil Rights (OCR)The OCR enforces laws that protect civil rights such as religious freedom, patient safety confidentiality, and health information privacy. OCR maintains programs that educate communities about these rights, works with nonprofit and other federal agencies to ensure compliance, and investigates and resolves reported violations within a reasonable time frame.

Expert Q&A: Trade School with a Disability

Jordan Bateman of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association answered our questions about trade school education for students with disabilities.

Q. What are some of the most common mistakes students with disabilities and their parents make when looking toward trade school?

A. Successful students know two things: their own interests, strengths and limitations, and what their trade of choice requires. Knowing yourself takes personal introspection and conversations with trusted, honest friends and family members. Students should ask themselves questions such as: Can I physically do this job? What will be the hurdles for me? Does this trade truly interest me? Will I be happy working a job in this trade? The second takes research. Searching online for stories and forums about people in that particular trade is helpful. 

Students should start transition planning early (if they haven’t started yet, they should start today!). Are there any extra courses that would help them prepare for trade school? If they struggle with being personally well-organized, they should work on that with a friend or family member who is successful at that. If there are work, life or social skills they should address, try and do that before going into school.

Q. What tips would you give those with disabilities who are considering trade school?

A. Ask questions and check how accessible the school is. Ensure the school provides the necessary physical or technological learning support. Ask if teachers are trained to work with students with varying needs. If physical stamina is an issue, ask if the school has a flexible learning day.

Q. What advice would you give those concerning employment after trade school?

A. Do not get discouraged if the first employer is not the right fit for you. Check out LinkedIn and other tools to see if the employer gets good reviews. Also, consider transportation. Make sure you can get to where the work sites are. Trade work might take you to places without public transit. Have frank conversations with loved ones about your social and life skills. Make sure you are comfortable making a budget, handling banking, and performing other important tasks.

Q. Anything else you would like to add about trade school for those with disabilities?

A. Do not be afraid to ask for accommodations during exams. If you need extra time or someone to read the exam to you, arrange that with the instructor ahead of time.

Additional Resources for Going to Trade School with a Disability

  • College Navigator This comprehensive online guide provides prospective college students with tools to help them find the right college.
  • Council for Learning Disabilities CLD works with members from all over the globe united in their goal to help individuals with disabilities learn throughout their lives.
  • disABLEDperson This nonprofit aims to reduce unemployment among veterans and people with disabilities. The group provides a job search tool and other job search advice.
  • Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund DREDF helps people with disabilities access healthcare, understand their rights to special education, and gain legal advocacy.
  • Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration This administration implements the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which aims to facilitate the hiring of individuals with disabilities through public workforce programs and private industry.
  • DO-IT Operated by the University of Washington, Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology helps individuals with disabilities fulfill their potential.
  • IDEA This government website offers a detailed overview of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, as well as resources to help those trying to navigate the legal system.
  • Job Accommodation Network Individuals who have questions about disability accommodations in the workplace can get answers and assistance at JAN. The group’s ADA Library organizes reasonable accommodations by disability, limitation, and work function.
  • Learning Disabilities Association of America LDA aims to allow those with disabilities to succeed in all aspects of their life. The association also works to reduce the causes of learning disabilities.
  • Nolo – Special Education and IEPs Nolo provides resources to help familiarize people with legal concepts, including special education law.
  • Ticket to Work Program Run by the Social Security Administration, Ticket to Work provides free advice and assistance to those receiving Social Security disability benefits, but who want to find work and achieve financial independence.
  • Understood Understood provides an online resource for parents of children with learning and attention issues to support their children in the classroom, at home, and in their social lives.
  • WorkforceGPS WorkforceGPS provides an online resource for anyone who seeks to help individuals with disabilities obtain employment.
  • Wrightslaw A leader in books on rights for those with special needs, the Wrightslaw website offers a wealth of information relating to special education and the laws that govern it.

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