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

There was a time when higher education seemed out of reach for most students with disabilities. Times have changed for the better; these days, students with disabilities have a wealth of opportunities after high school. Trade schools are at the forefront of these options, giving students the chance to learn the skills they need for success in exciting career fields like hospitality, culinary arts, technology and healthcare. This guide will help parents, guardians and educators assist students with disabilities as they transition from high school to trade school, with insider tips for accessing key resources and establishing equality in the workplace.

Meet the Experts

Jordan Bateman Communications Director


Top 5 Reasons to Consider Trade School for Students with Disabilities

Deciding what to do after high school involves weighing out several important factors, including cost, a student’s interests and abilities and potential career opportunities. Trade school programs offer affordable training that can lead to gainful employment in high-demand careers, making it an attractive option for several reasons:

  • Greater independence

    Students with disabilities often crave independence, and post-secondary education can be a valuable avenue towards self-reliance. Going to trade school helps students focus on the things they can do, which in turn leads to a feeling of autonomy and pride in their hard work.

  • Increased confidence

    As a student enters trade school and begins to learn new skills, their confidence is likely to go up. The more confident a student is, the better they will do in school – it’s a wonderful cycle that can eventually lead the student to seek out more adventures.

  • Earning stable income

    Independence and confidence can both get a serious boost from a paycheck. Earning their own money can help people with disabilities pay bills and purchase the things they want, while also imparting a strong sense of pride.

  • Focus on social skills

    Trade school demands that students interact with each other and with their teachers; this interaction, often rich in hands-on learning, can help those who have had trouble building social skills during their high school years. In addition, many vocational careers revolve around customer service and teamwork, providing continued opportunities to advance social skills as part of the workforce.

  • Provides structure

    Trade school requires planning on a day-to-day basis, as well as planning for future events, such as tests or certain hands-on work. This can help students learn to balance their time on a daily basis while preparing for future events.

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

Moving from high school to trade school is no small feat for anyone. For those with disabilities, the transition is a multi-year process, completed in several careful steps, to help ensure the highest level of success. Key events in the timeline – from developing an IEP to identifying reasonable accommodations in the workplace – require attention to detail, plenty of patience and lots of advocacy on the part of teachers, parents and the students themselves. Here’s what parents and students can expect during the transition from high school to trade school and beyond.

When Step Description Helpful Tips
First year of high school Create an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) An individualized education plan, also known as an IEP, should be in place when a student begins high school or shortly thereafter. It will help determine the appropriate accommodations and resources for students to help them learn alongside their peers in high school. Remember that students with disabilities have the right to learn alongside their peers. Review the laws concerning disability rights and what schools must provide before going into the IEP meeting.
Before age 16 Start transition planning According to federal law, students who have an IEP must be provided with transition planning that starts before the student turns 16. The transition team will involve the student, their parents, educators and outside representatives (such as therapists or social workers) to create a plan for life after high school. Keep an ongoing list of your student’s strengths and weaknesses, areas where more help is needed, and the kind of work they might be interested in after school. These notes will be very valuable when transition planning begins.
Sophomore or junior year Assessment by a Vocational Rehabilitation counselor This very important meeting can help determine which trade school programs might be the best fit for the student. Vocational Rehabilitation counselors are specially trained to assess students’ abilities and limitations and suggest trade schools in the area that could make excellent options. This assessment can be valuable when planning the last few years of high school. A student who intends to go to trade school will want to choose courses that reflect their future goals.
Junior year Consider vocational aptitude testing These tests can help determine which careers might be suitable for the student. High school career counselors can help recommend and administer tests.
Junior and senior year Research potential trade schools Now comes the fun part – looking at all the options and narrowing down the list! Look for schools that suit what the student aspirations and abilities. Look into potential schools’ disability resource offices: what services do they offer?
Beginning of senior year Apply to trade schools that are right for the student Choose a few “top” schools that are most attractive to the student, then look for a few other schools that aren’t perfect but will be great for a backup plan. It might be a good idea to look into trade schools that have programs specifically designed to assist students with disabilities. It’s important to remember that a disability never has to be disclosed on any application form. However, if a disability has negatively affected test scores or GPA, it might be advantageous to disclose the disability to the admissions committee.
High school graduation IEP services end As IEP services end, students and parents will receive final paperwork regarding transition plans. Hold onto this paperwork in case the trade school needs to see it as part of disability documentation.
Throughout trade school Seek out disability resources at school Parents along with the students themselves must be strong advocates for accessing disability resources in trade school. Keeping a close connection with the school’s disability resource office can ensure students are getting the accommodations they need to keep up in school. Only 19% of students in postsecondary schools received accommodations; by contrast, 87% of those same students did receive accommodations in high school. That’s one reason it’s so important for students to have a strong advocate as they make the transition to higher education.
Final year of trade school Search for employment opportunities Look for jobs that fit in with the student’s career plans and seek out employers that can provide the right working accommodations, if necessary.
During the employment search Identify reasonable workplace accommodations Workplace accommodations – such as providing extra time to complete tasks or installing assistive technologies – can help trade school graduates thrive in their new careers. It’s important to come to a new prepared: knowing what workplace accommodations will be needed is the first step to making sure your student gets them. About 26% of working adults with disabilities had informed their employer of their disability; of those individuals, 7% reported receiving accommodations.
A few months to one year into employment Evaluate the employment situation At some point shortly after employment begins, it’s crucial to evaluate the situation. Are more accommodations needed? Is the job something the graduate enjoys? Are there any problems that need to be addressed?
A year or two after sustained employment begins Look for other transitions that might be possible, such as living independently Some individuals with disabilities will spread their wings and fly; others will always need some level of assistance. Look at the situation from year to year to determine just how much independence is possible.

Success Stories: Thriving at Work with a Disability

There’s no doubt that many students with disabilities can thrive in trade school and beyond. Reading stories of those who have found gainful employment through trade school can be inspiration for those who are on the fence about whether they want to pursue trade school or not. These stories prove that it can be done!

  • 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 she was offered a one-year internship before graduation. When the internship was over, she landed solid employment with Wright’s Gourmet Deli. She’s very grateful for the Vocational Rehabilitation Program that got her to where she wanted to be: “I would recommend this program to everybody,” she said.

  • 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 – and though she got one in a grooming salon, she was never allowed to groom the dogs, only to bathe them. After attending a groomer training program and finding a mentor who helped her thrive, Jessica became a success story – she now runs the show at Just Paws salon in Minnesota.

  • Noah Melhorn

    As a young man struggling to read – working through dyslexia and learning disabilities – Noah often found himself falling behind in class. It wasn’t until high school that Noah was able to catch up, thanks to “perseverance, many meetings with teachers, numerous IEPs, phone calls, e-mails, and summer tutoring,” said his mom, Terri Fierstine. 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.

Who Can Help with Transition Planning?

Wading through the legal requirements of schools and the transition planning resources available for those with disabilities can be daunting, to say the least. Fortunately, parents and students don’t have to go at it alone. There are many people available to help make the right decisions when it comes to school and future employment. Here’s who these people are and what they can do to help:

Adult Education Representative

Inform individuals about their educational options from the early years through adulthood.

Help disabled individuals and their caretakers understand how assistive technology can help in the classroom. They can also help them choose the right devices for their situation.

Advocate on behalf of students and their family members to get the most of what educational institutions can provide. These consultants also provide transition services to high school graduates getting ready for the workplace, independent living or additional schooling.

Can provide real world advice and assistance for individuals on which skills to learn in vocational school so they can hit the ground running after graduation.

With knowledge about particular professions and industries, these professionals can provide guidance for incoming vocational students. They can help them choose the right program and decide which vocation careers they should focus on and strive to work in.

Typically found in high schools, these members of the school staff can provide advice for students interested in postsecondary education and connect students with additional resources and contacts.

Assist individuals with disabilities by preparing them for real world challenges and providing additional training to reinforce certain skills. They can provide therapies to help students adjust to the vocational classroom setting.

Provide training and guidance for individuals with physical or mental disabilities find employment. They may consult with other professionals to provide a tailored rehabilitation plan to help students choose the right vocational program and find the best job prospects at graduation.

These social workers engage with parents, students, teachers and other professionals to create strategies and plans that help students make the most of their vocational education.

Glossary of Key Programs for Students with Disabilities

Not sure what all the special terms and acronyms mean? Here’s a primer.

Term Description
Vocational or Trade School A postsecondary school that focuses on providing instruction for practical skills. Graduates can use those skills to immediately start a career, often in high-demand fields like healthcare, customer service, technology, culinary arts, transportation, mechanics and manufacturing.
Transition Planning Transition planning refers to the collaborative, multi-year process involving students with disabilities, their parents, educators and other representatives to prepare these students for life after high school. Transition planning is included as part of an IEP, and should be based on a student’s individual needs, skills and interests to set them on track for a fulfilling postsecondary education or career.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) A federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. It requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations in the workplace for employees with disabilities.
Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) VR is a government program to help people with mental and physical disabilities to obtain or keep a job. To receive services through a VR counselor, individuals must first apply at their local VR office to determine eligibility.
Ticket to Work Program Those receiving Social Security benefits as a result of a disability can participate in this program, which helps them find long-term employment.
Reasonable accommodation An adjustment an employer, school or other covered organization makes to accommodate individuals with disabilities. The accommodation must be reasonable in that it does not place an undue burden on the organization providing the accommodation.
Adaptive technology Hardware- or software-based technology that allows those with disabilities or impairments to use computers.
Individualized Education Program (IEP) A legal document that outlines the customized plan to help a student with recognized disabilities learn as effectively as possible. The IEP will include information concerning the needs of the student, goals and required accommodations. IEPs guide the student’s education and transition planning throughout high school.
Summary of Performance (SOP) Required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, this summarizes the student’s academic achievements and performance. An SOP is completed during the student’s final year of high school, before they reach the age where they no longer receive special education benefits from a K-12 special education program.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 A civil rights law that bars discrimination on the basis of disability and requires reasonable accommodations. Section 504 of this law applies to primary and secondary public schools.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) A lynchpin federal law that dictates the legal requirements of public schools in educating students with special needs. Among other things, it requires public schools to provide an education to eligible students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment possible at no cost to the student.
Assistive Technologies As defined by the IDEA, assistive technologies include any devices or services that improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. This broad term applies to both “high technology” and “low technology” devices, such as wheelchairs, text-to-speech programs, Braille writers and spell checkers.
504 Plan Provided for by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, these plans are for individuals with eligible disabilities. They map out what accommodations will be necessary to provide the best learning environment realistically possible.
Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA ) FERPA protects the privacy of students by restricting who has access to their education records. In most situations, parents will have the right to access and control access to their child’s records until the child turns 18, then those rights will transfer to the student.
Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) Special education along with necessary support for students with disabilities. These education services are provided by the student’s local education agency.
Office of Civil Rights (OCR) Part of the US Department of Education, the OCR enforces rights provided by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Title II of the ADA.

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 supports. Ask the school if their teachers have been trained to work with students with varying needs. If physical stamina is an issue, ask if the school has a flexible learning day – better to take an extra few months than to hurt yourself with too-long days. 

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

A. Don’t be discouraged if the first employer is not the right fit for you. That can happen to any student.

Check out LinkedIn and other tools to see if the employer gets good reviews. 

Transportation can be a huge issue – you need to make sure you can get to where the work sites are. Trades work might take you to places where public transit isn’t always an option.

Have frank conversations with the people who love you about your social and life skills. Make sure you are comfortable making a budget, handling banking, and all of those other, “boring” adult things.

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

A. Don’t 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

    A comprehensive online guide for prospective college students with tools to help them find the right college.

  • Council for Learning Disabilities (CLD)

    A professional organization with members from all over the globe. They are united in their goal to help individuals with disabilities learn throughout their lives.

  • disABLEDperson

    A nonprofit organization with the goal of reducing unemployment among veterans and people with disabilities. They provide a job search tool and other job search advice.

  • Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF)

    A civil rights organization devoted to helping people with disabilities access healthcare, understand their rights to special education and gain legal advocacy.

  • Department of Labor’s Employment and Training 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, the DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) Center works to help individuals with disabilities reach their true 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 (JAN)

    A place where individuals who have questions about disability accommodations in the workplace can get answers and assistance. Their “ADA Library” organizes reasonable accommodations by disability, limitation and work function.

  • Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA)

    The LDA’s primary mission is to allow those with disabilities to succeed in all aspects of their life. The LDA also works to reduce the causes of learning disabilities.

  • Nolo – Special Education and IEPs

    A great resource for those looking to get a basic understanding of legal concepts, including special education law.

  • Ticket to Work Program

    Run by the Social Security Administration, this program provides free advice and assistance to those receiving Social Security disability benefits, but who want to find work and achieve financial independence.

  • Understood

    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

    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 plethora of information relating to special education and the laws that govern it.