Preparing High School Students with Disabilities for the Workforce: The Importance of Mock Interviews and Work Experience Opportunities
Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
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Email: Amy Janzen
employment, disability, mock interview, work experience, workforce, students
In my Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies senior practicum project, I focused on taking a proactive approach to the issue of underemployment of people with disabilities by working to equip high school students with disabilities with the tools and skills that are necessary to obtain meaningful employment. This article outlines how I primarily used two critical tools to accomplish this goal. First, by engaging in opportunities to participate in mock job interviews, high school students with disabilities developed confidence in the process of obtaining a job. Next, through participation in meaningful work or volunteer experience in high school, the students further developed and practiced interpersonal and practical skills necessary to obtain and maintain employment as students as well as throughout adulthood. Throughout this paper, I use my experiences implementing these tools in a high school setting to demonstrate the importance of integrating workplace and life skills into curriculums for students with disabilities in high schools in order to help them be successful in gaining meaningful employment. Ultimately, this approach could lead to an increase in the overall employment rates of people with disabilities, as it gives young people with disabilities the skills and resources required to obtain employment.
A long-standing topic in the disability field is the crisis of unemployment rates for people with disabilities, and this issue became increasingly apparent to me as I engaged in conversations with several high school students with disabilities who were facing the task of finding a job. In fact, even in countries where people with disabilities have human rights that work to eradicate discrimination based on disability, people with disabilities are still unemployed at twice the rate of those without disabilities (Vornholt et al., 2018). This leads to overall higher levels of poverty for people with disabilities and also contributes to decreased mental health, as unemployment often results in further social isolation and lower perceived well-being (Vornholt et al., 2018). However, it should not be assumed that simply any job will improve quality of life for people with disabilities; it is crucial to note that when people do not succeed in their roles and do not feel competent at work, mental health can be negatively affected (Vornholt et al., 2018). While there is plenty of research that presents facts of unemployment for people with disabilities, there is a lack of literature that suggests tools or mechanisms that address this problem specifically beginning with youth with disabilities in secondary school (Lindsay et al., 2015).
In my practicum in a high school setting, I aimed to assist students with disabilities in gaining meaningful work skills and experience to contribute to their goals of gaining and succeeding in meaningful employment. While the majority of these students participated in regular classroom settings with their peers for many of their classes, their schedules also allowed for time in a specialized classroom where they could receive more personalized support. It was in this specialized classroom that I had the opportunity to work with a group of several students who were in the process of navigating what it might look like to obtain and thrive in meaningful employment. According to Lindsay et al. (2015), there are two main components that are necessary to effectively prepare youth with disabilities for employment: coaching students specifically in job interviews and ensuring these students have opportunities for meaningful work or volunteer experience. These are the main areas that I targeted throughout my practicum to prepare the students with disabilities for the workforce.
Mock Interviews: A Crucial Tool for Students with Disabilities
In my practicum, I recognized that job interviews were something that high school students with disabilities were concerned about regarding obtaining employment. These students were aware that job interviews are an important precursor to a job but lacked the knowledge and skills to perform well and succeed in this setting. There are various factors that may contribute to this lack of confidence that students with disabilities have when it comes to job interviews. For example, Lindsay et al. (2015) explains that, in job interviews, employers are looking for candidates to demonstrate that they have relevant experience and skills that will aid them in their potential role. However, people with disabilities are at a disadvantage because they typically have less opportunities than their peers to engage in the experiences that employers are looking for, and thus, lack the skills and knowledge that their peers who are not disabled have gained (Lindsay et al., 2015). This lack of skills and knowledge becomes apparent in job interviews when people with disabilities do not have adequate examples to appropriately answer interview questions as a result of a lack of experiences to draw from. Ultimately, this combined with other factors such as limited social skills or reduced ability to cope with stressful situations, results in people with disabilities performing poorly in job interviews compared to their peers without disabilities (Lindsay et al., 2015).
Role play has been found to be particularly effective method for teaching practical life skills to youth with disabilities (Kingsnorth et al., 2007). When this teaching method is applied to teaching interview skills in particular, the result is mock interviews. Throughout my practicum I took multiple steps to help the students build confidence in their job interview skills and prepare for mock interviews, and ultimately, real job interviews. First, we focussed on building resumes and cover letters, and while doing so, I also took the time to help each individual student determine what kind of employment they would be seeking. Exploring the students’ interests and finding jobs that matched their strengths and abilities was an important component of building unique and appropriate resumes for each student. We also worked on self-awareness in various areas so that the students could feel confident answering a variety of questions in job interviews. This included finding each student’s preferred communication and conflict management styles, as well as discussing the strengths and weaknesses that accompany these preferred styles as they apply in the workplace. Finally, we completed multiple sets of mock interviews so that each student could practice their interview skills first with someone they were familiar with, and again with a professional recruiter who could provide extremely valuable feedback and tips for success. Throughout this entire process, the students not only grew in their knowledge of the job-searching procedure, but they also developed more self-awareness which contributed to an increased level of confidence and skill in the job interview setting.
Work and Volunteer Opportunities: A Crucial Tool for Students with Disabilities
The second core focus of my practicum experience was establishing opportunities for high school students with disabilities to engage in meaningful work experience while in high school. The goal of this project was to have students make connections and network within the workforce, as well as give the students an opportunity to apply the practical work skills that we were teaching in this specialized classroom setting, such as conflict management, effective communication, and general workplace etiquette. Together, this would contribute to students becoming more confident in their interpersonal and work skills and would also give them more experience that could aid them in finding employment.
While work experience in high school is a critical factor for youth with disabilities to succeed in the workplace as adults, there are barriers to the execution of this (Carter et al., 2009). Schools are often not equipped with the resources, such as staff trained in job development programs or networking with appropriate businesses, to create partnerships with employers to ensure consistent opportunities for students with disabilities (Carter et al., 2009). Another obstacle to high school programs that promote work experience for students with disabilities is the lack of employers who are willing to hire students with disabilities; this is often because they have limited awareness of the skills and abilities of the students who would benefit from these opportunities (Carter et al., 2009). These barriers ultimately prevent schools from establishing partnerships with businesses, and therefore students with disabilities are not given the opportunity to participate in work experience that could be extremely beneficial to achieving their future career goals.
My role in this practicum project was to advocate for the students and overcome these obstacles of a shortage of resources and a lack of willing employers to ultimately create a program that gave high school students with disabilities the opportunity to be gain meaningful, off-campus, work experience. I researched the existing Alberta Education guidelines for a program such as this one, found multiple potentially appropriate worksites, and prepared presentations for employers to help provide education as to what their role would be in this partnership with the school. I approached the businesses with a partnership opportunity that was mutually beneficial and emphasized the importance of work opportunities for students who did not have equal opportunities to participate in work experience programs in high school because of their disability. The presentations were designed to empower the students and provide more awareness and education to employers regarding the capabilities of the students in the program, and more broadly, of people with disabilities.
While the global COVID-19 pandemic proved to be an additional obstacle to forming partnerships at this time, I was able to secure partnerships with businesses that led to students gaining work experience and feeling more prepared to enter the workforce. I also established a portfolio of all the program information so that the school could continue building this program in years to come. This portfolio is comprised of the presentation I created for potential partnering businesses, a list of all the businesses that I contacted and who demonstrated interest in the program, the job descriptions that could be expected of the students at each specific jobsite, and any notable requirements of the job, such as lifting a specific amount of weight or engaging in customer interactions. It was designed to empower students with disabilities by giving them the opportunity to make informed choices about the work they want to participate in based on their capabilities and interests. This program will have a lasting impact on students with disabilities at this school, as they now have the opportunities to gain experience and practice skills, which will also give them confidence when obtaining meaningful work in adulthood.
People with disabilities have significantly higher rates of unemployment than people without disabilities (Vornholt et al., 2018). To proactively address this issue while people with disabilities are in high school, I focused my practicum project on implementing two crucial tools presented by Lindsay et al. (2015): providing youth with disabilities the opportunities to practice mock job interviews and allowing them to gain meaningful work experience while still in high school. The goal of this project was to give the students necessary skills and knowledge pertaining to the workplace so that they could be confident joining the workforce. As stated by Vornholt et al. (2015), meaningful employment contributes to an overall higher level of perceived well-being and quality of life as compared to those who are unemployed. The mock interviews as well as the work experience opportunities have been significantly beneficial for the students to practice and develop essential skills as they work toward their goals of obtaining and succeeding in employment. While further research is needed to understand the long-term effects of programs such as this one, my experiences working with high school students with disabilities have been incredibly rewarding. It further confirmed my stance that practical life and work skills, such as job interview preparation, should consistently be included in the curriculum for high school students with disabilities along with the opportunities for them to practice interpersonal and workplace skills in a work experience program. This program has facilitated growth in the confidence and skillset of the students with disabilities as they work toward achieving their goals of joining the workforce, which leads me to believe that widespread implementation of this program may have a positive impact on the overall rates of unemployment of people with disabilities.
Carter, E. W., Trainor, A. A., Cakiroglu, O., Cole, O., Swedeen, B., Ditchman, N., & Owens, L. (2009). Exploring school-employer partnerships to expand career development and early work experiences for youth with disabilities. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 32(3), 145-159.
Kingsnorth, S., Healy, H., O.T., & Macarthur, C., M.B.Ch.B. (2007). Preparing for adulthood: A systematic review of life skill programs for youth with physical disabilities. Journal of Adolescent Health, 41(4), 323–332. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.06.007
Lindsay, S., McDougall, C., Sanford, R., Menna-Dack, D., Kingsnorth, S., & Adams, T. (2015). Exploring employment readiness through mock job interview and workplace role-play exercises: Comparing youth with physical disabilities to their typically developing peers. Disability and Rehabilitation, 37(18), 1651–1663. https://doi.org/10.3109/09638288.2014.973968
Vornholt, K., Villotti, P., Muschalla, B., Bauer, J., Colella, A., Zijlstra, F., Van Ruitenbeek, G., Uitdewilligen, S., & Corbière, M. (2018). Disability and employment - overview and highlights. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 27(1), 40–55. https://doi.org/10.1080/1359432X.2017.1387536
International Journal of Disability, Community &
Volume 19, Student Perspectives