What’s the best way to prepare special-needs students for the workforce? Today, more than 1 million students are trapped in an education system that wasn’t built for them. That system wasn’t designed to accommodate their disabilities—the kinds of intellectual, cognitive, communicative, and physical conditions that often conjure images of people reliant on wheelchairs and aides, of individuals consigned to dreary, isolated lives. Many of the public schools they attend rest on the assumption that those stereotypes are inevitable truths.
But these students, even those with the most severe disabilities, have potential far beyond what they are often educated for. Although the law known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, has long required schools to help students design “transition plans” and provide job training for their lives after graduation, a majority of adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities are unemployed or underemployed. According to a 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of disabled adults, that’s largely because of a lack of training and education, which respondents listed as the most common barrier to employment aside from the disabilities themselves. “The big concern that remains [is] what happens when you’re done … and you’re finished with school? Are you sitting at home on the couch?” said Margaret (“Muncie”) Kardos, a Connecticut-based educational consultant who helps students with disabilities plan for the transition. The poor preparation, she said, leaves many special-needs people with few other options.
Their prospects at graduating are grim to begin with: Nationally, only about two-thirds of students ages 14 through 21 with disabilities graduate with a regular diploma, while most of the remaining students simply drop out. And these figures encompass all students with disabilities, including those who are relatively high-functioning. The statistics for those who are severely disabled are much more bleak. Compared to their peers from all disability groups, youth with intellectual disabilities, for example, have the lowest rates of education, work, or work preparation after high school. A 2011 Department of Education study that looked at the outcomes of young adults with disabilities up to six years after high school found fewer than half of the young adults with multiple disabilities had a paid job at the time of the survey, compared to 79 percent of young adults with specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia.
If and when special-needs adults are employed, it’s often in jobs when they’re working exclusively alongside other people with disabilities. In 2014, a Justice Department investigation found that thousands of disabled adults in Rhode Island were fed into “sheltered workshops”—doing jobs like placing tops on bottles and stickers on boxes—for just $2.21 an hour on average. Some of the disabled employees, the report found, were even working for free: A commercial greenhouse, for example, didn’t pay people for picking dead leaves off of plants because the work was deemed “therapeutic.” According to the Washington Post, 30 percent of intellectually disabled adults who were employed in 2014 were working in sheltered workshops where they were segregated from non-disabled adults.
Specialized workforce academies for students with disabilities are growing in popularity as a solution to these realities, in part thanks to federal grants and legislation such as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Special-education advocates often describe these job-training programs—which often place participants in internships with prospective employers—as the long-awaited solution to the perennial challenge of how to support students with disabilities through graduation and into adulthood. But how different are the experiences at segregated workforce academies from those at sheltered workshops, and how effective are they at leading students to mainstream jobs?
Historically, specialized programs faced scrutiny for separating disabled students from their peers, a practice that fueled emotional, often bitter, debates over how to best educate kids with unique and complex learning needs. Through the early 1970s, many students with disabilities were denied access to regular public schools and forced into special schools—a practice known as “institutionalization.” Broader stigmas also developed around vocational academies, which, American RadioWorks’s Emily Hanford has reported, were perceived as “a kind of dumping ground for kids who weren’t succeeding in the traditional academic environment.”
By the 1990s, the pendulum had swung in the other direction: Institutionalization had become a taboo word in special education, and “inclusion”—the integration of special-needs students into mainstream classrooms as much as possible—became the gold standard. “Regular schools with this inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all,” a UNESCO report on special education proclaimed. Even children in special schools, the report contended, shouldn’t “be entirely segregated.”
Specialized and completely segregated programs never disappeared completely, however—and neither did those emotional, bitter debates over inclusion. Vociferous opposition to the idea has challenged the movement since it took hold. “This is about the Special Education Department’s philosophy of inclusion,” Mary Andrews, whose mentally disabled son a Chicago high school for special-needs students, told the Reader in 1994 in response to district plans to close the school down. “They have something to prove, and they want my son to be the guinea pig in their experiment.”
Many school districts now seem to be pivoting away from full-blown inclusion toward more-specialized options like the workforce academies that are, oddly, in some ways reminiscent of the institutionalization era. Not surprisingly, the same concerns are re-emerging, with some critics worrying that such programs are an extreme form of tracking in which students perceived to have limited potential are pigeonholed into non-academic settings and low-paying jobs that nobody else wants.
Compounding the issue is the reality that students of color are disproportionately assigned to special education. Do the programs perpetuate inequality and stifle socioeconomic mobility? Do they prevent students from pursuing college? What if the ones who benefit most aren’t the students but the companies that often get to rely on their labor for free? Then there’s the question of whether these programs are truly effective in improving students’ prospects at getting jobs they want. While the country’s schools are still struggling to shepherd students with disabilities into fulfilling lives, experts tend to agree that they’re getting there—and that, with a little trial and error, the newly emerging workforce-preparation programs may be a model that sticks.
Kelly Custer stands at the front of a classroom at the River Terrace Special Education Center, gesturing as he walks his students through the math of a problem-solving exercise about money. After pacing in front of a gleaming interactive whiteboard, he pivots toward a group of students sitting in front of a sequence of iMacs and school supplies and asks them to help him solve the question. A few raise their hands gingerly; some look around, smiling; some stare off in another direction completely. He gets a similar response from another group of students, who are sitting against a wall covered in words such as “photosynthesis,” “stomata,” “chlorophyll,” and “carbon dioxide.” Custer guides them through the math and then moves on with the lesson.
This is about as academic as things get in this modern Washington, D.C., classroom—at least in the traditional sense of the word. It’s not even a classroom, really. Forget the neatly aligned rows of desks and multiple-choice worksheets and textbooks; forget posters motivating kids to apply to college. The room feels more like a spacious laboratory that blends in with the patio and trees right outside. The north-facing wall is made almost entirely of glass, allowing sunlight to illuminate the room on this chilly day. Potted anthuriums are sitting on each of the several tables where the class’s dozen or so students are clustered. And it smells faintly of dirt—probably because the room is attached to a greenhouse filled with plants and soil and spray bottles and shovels.
Custer’s course aims to equip special-needs high-schoolers with the basic training they need to get jobs in horticulture. The year-long certificate program is comprehensive and part of River Terrace’s larger Workforce Development Center, which opened this past school year in an effort to feed participants into a handful of industries. Aside from Custer’s track, another suite exposes students to the health-care field—mainly jobs maintaining hospital facilities—and the third trains kids in hospitality.