Thriving in Trade School with a Disability

Support Services, Adaptive Tools & Resources to Succeed on the Vocational Path

As high school graduation draws near, students with disabilities encounter a spectrum of options for their transition into the working world. Some students find vocational programs to be a viable post-secondary option as they lead to meaningful, independent work in a skilled trade. The following guide highlights the benefits of vocational education, potential careers, and laws that protect both students and employees with disabilities. Employers can also find simple steps for promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Expert Contributor

Why Vocational School?

Students with disabilities today have access to more opportunities than ever before. While many decide to pursue a four-year degree, a growing trend toward vocational and trade schools is also proving to be a beneficial choice. The vocational path can be attractive to students for a number of reasons, including taking less time and money and offering a more direct path to employment. Students with learning disabilities typically find coursework to be more conducive to their learning styles, leading to completion rates 23 percent higher than peers at four-year institutions.

Vocational Career Options for People with Disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines disabilities as any physical or mental impairment substantially limiting one or more major life activities. Individuals with disabilities need not be limited thanks to the wide range of assistive technologies and adaptive tools that can help in educational and workplace settings. Browse potential vocational careers and assistive tools for people with different disabilities in the graphic below.

Physical Disabilities

Physical disabilities impair a person’s mobility or dexterity and can range from congenital defects or neuromuscular disease to loss of limb or other injury causing loss of mobility. The 2010 U.S. Census reported 41.5 million adults with disabilities that involve physical impairments.

Adaptive Tools
  • Building Modification

    Ramps, elevators, and other modifications to the school or workplace can make them more accessible to wheelchair users and people with other physical disabilities.

  • Assistive Devices

    Modified computers, telephone headsets, automatic lights, or adjustable-height desks make office or classroom settings more conducive to navigating physical impairments.

  • Modified Schedule

    Part-time, flexible leave or online attendance policies help people with physical disabilities such as multiple sclerosis or diabetes, which prevent them from completing a full day of class or shift of work.

  • Writing Assists

    Assistive technologies like speech-to-text and note-taking software help students with dexterity disabilities succeed in the classroom.

Vocational Career Ideas
  • Medical Transcription, Billing or Coding

    These careers require individuals to apply a specialized knowledge of insurance and medical codes, terminology, and policies to maintain records and perform administrative tasks. The work is typically stationary and may appeal to people with an interest in and familiarity with the healthcare system.

  • Web Designer or Developer

    Both creative and technical in nature, web design and development are growing fields accessible to individuals with low-mobility and can even be done from home. Essential job functions include use of a computer and application of specified knowledge in web languages or software.

  • Graphic Designer

    With jobs in advertising, branding, media, and corporate environments, graphic design offers numerous career opportunities for creative people who can complete tasks at a computer. Coursework and job requirements are often completed online.

  • Paralegal

    Research, writing and computer skills are the necessary requirements for individuals in this field as paralegals write legal briefs and perform administrative tasks in order to support lawyers.

Learning & Cognitive Disabilities

Learning & cognitive disabilities arise from structural differences in the brain affecting a person’s ability to take in and synthesize information, make decisions, and/or communicate information. Vocational school completion rates are high for students with learning disabilities—57 percent compared to 64 percent in the general population.

Adaptive Tools

Accommodations for learning disabilities can vary based on the cognitive functions affected:

  • Spoken language

    Instructors may allow for written tests or training programs. Students and teachers may also benefit from learning American Sign Language as another means to effectively communicate.

  • Written language

    Written information can be delivered in audio format, lectures and meetings recorded, and extra time or alternate methods given to complete written tasks. Speech-to-text software is also available.

  • Arithmetic

    Visual graphing software, talking calculators and calculation charts make simple mathematical tasks more attainable.

  • Reasoning or organization

    Using checklists, reminder apps, or graphic organizers in combination with frequent meetings between students and their instructors helps set clear expectations and provide focus.

Vocational Career Ideas
  • Veterinary Technician

    Veterinary technicians assist in routine tests, care of animals and minor procedures, and requires only an associate's degree in most states. People who are passionate about animals can thrive in this career.

  • Transportation

    For people with learning disabilities related to language or math, jobs in transportation—such as commercial drivers—can be a great fit. They offer a sense of freedom and self-directed style of work that people who have dealt with learning disabilities might enjoy.

  • Cosmetologist

    Social skills and an interest in aesthetics are necessary for a career in hairstyling, skin or nail care. Flexible schedules and little office work are added benefits for people with learning disabilities.

  • Culinary Arts

    Individuals in the culinary arts are required to be creative, focused on producing results in a short time frame, and able to move to the next task quickly. Flexible hours, little to no reading or writing, and a non-conventional environment are also a plus.

Visual Impairments

While numbers vary depending on the definition of vision loss, the 2012 National Health Interview Survey estimated 20.6 million adult Americans reported vision loss ranging from mild impairments to blindness. This wide range leads to a varied set of challenges—and necessary accommodations—for persons as they pursue education and work.

Adaptive Tools
  • Screen Readers

    Available as software or mobile apps screen readers translate text into audio for easy comprehension.

  • Braille Resources

    Schools and workplaces utilize Braille printers or translators to provide resources in a format that individuals with a visual impairment can access.

  • Screen Magnification

    Often included with Screen Reader software, screen magnification programs transform a cursor into a magnification tool, enlarging and adding shading to what’s beneath to make it more easily visible.

  • Optical Character Recognition Systems

    By scanning, interpreting and reading printed text aloud, OCRs translate resources for a person with visual impairment in the classroom and workplace.

Vocational Career Ideas

In addition to traditional vocational and trade schools, World Services for the Blind offers certification courses in several of these careers:

  • Sound Engineer

    Individuals with visual impairments may develop an enhanced ear for music, providing an important skill for a career in music production or sound engineering.

  • Computer Support

    Persons with visual impairments can have success in fields such as desktop and network infrastructure support. Important skills include problem-solving, critical thinking and time management.

  • Call Center Specialist

    Organizations in every industry maintain the demand for qualified customer support. Individuals with visual impairments can be outstanding representatives in the field of their choice, with an emphasis on skills in communication, relationships and devices adapted to their needs.

  • Food Services

    Several states offer training for individuals with visual impairments to work in vending and food services and then employ them in Business Enterprise Program locations around the state. Participants gain knowledge and skills in food service management, quality customer service, menu planning, sanitation, safety, and merchandising.

Hearing Impairments

Hearing impairments range from deafness to mild hearing loss and are measured on a Pure-Tone Average of Thresholds on a decibel hearing loss scale. Duration of hearing loss is also considered in evaluating the appropriate adaptive technology. A 2014 study reports nearly 15 percent of American adults, have some trouble hearing. Vocational schools or workplaces accommodate people with hearing impairments through visual and aural adaptive technologies.

Adaptive Tools
  • Captions

    The addition of words displayed on video content helps increase comprehension and gives context for what is heard but not seen.

  • Visual Systems

    Auditory signals such as buzzing on emergency exits or warning systems can be accompanied by flashing lights or visual signals.

  • Interpreters

    American Sign Language interpreters can be made available to translate training or lectures for students.

  • Assistive Listening Devices

    At a PTA of around 40 dB HL in both ears, some amplification is necessary for normal hearing. Amplification devices such as FM systems, hearing loops or personal amplifiers can be made available to students in a class or training environment.

Vocational Career Ideas
  • Computer Programming

    Problem-solving skills are a key ingredient to success in computer programming, while hearing isn’t necessarily needed. Technical schools offer programs in computer science, web development and software development where people with hearing impairments can succeed.

  • Medical Laboratory Technician

    Lab techs fill a vital role in the medical community. People with a hearing impairment can excel in job functions such as preparing and performing diagnostic tests, reading and interpreting results, and completing patient charts with updated information.

  • Construction

    Detailed, hands-on work in construction can complement the skill set of a person with a hearing impairment. Work in welding, plumbing, carpentry, and electricity is often done by a solitary worker or small team as part of a larger project. Adaptive technology is often needed to communicate even between people with full hearing, leveling the field for those with hearing impairments.

  • Drafting

    Technical renderings of buildings, machinery or circuit boards are necessary in fields like architecture and engineering. Skilled drafters who prepare these do detailed work with specialized computer programs and earn high salaries, and individuals with hearing impairments

Vocational Rehabilitation: Resources for Reaching Goals

Departments of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) provide services to individuals with disabilities in every state. VR counselors conduct interviews to determine if a student is eligible for their services at no charge. Federal guidelines define eligible individuals as “those who have a physical or mental impairment that results in a substantial impediment to employment, who can benefit from vocational rehabilitation services for employment, and who require VR services.”

Once eligibility is determined, a counselor prepares an Individual Plan for Employment identifying VR services the student should receive to reach their goals. Services vary by state but can include medical evaluation and therapy, assistive technology, training, and job placement. The Department of Labor maintains a list of VR office locations with links to state websites on the Job Accommodation Network.

Vocational Rehabilitation Services

The following services are offered through Vocational Rehabilitation offices in various states. To find out which services are provided in your state, check with your local VR office or state website.

  • Mobility Evaluation

    Determines adaptive technologies required to safely operate a vehicle.

  • Work-based Training

    Apprenticeships and on the job skills training can lead to full-time employment in a trade.

  • Interpreters

    Certified interpreters in American Sign Language for people whose primary disability is hearing-related.

  • Physical Restoration

    Equipment, therapies or surgeries improving a person’s ability to work - from eyeglasses to dental work to prosthetic devices.

  • Loan Assistance

    Low-interest loans for assistive technologies such as hearing aids, communication devices or modified vehicles.

  • Transition Services

    Dedicated counselors to help high school students transition to the workforce.

  • Employment Readiness

    Worksite visits accompany training in self-determination, decision-making and employer expectations for students with autism spectrum disorders.

  • Vocational Assessment

    Identifies strengths and weakness and makes a recommendation for next steps after high school, through counseling or an interactive Skill Explorer.

  • Transition School to Work

    In cooperation with high school Individual Education Program (IEP) planning, counselors help students find post-high school opportunities.

Getting Assistance Through Your School

Support systems surrounding a student with disabilities in high school can continue to serve them as as they transition to a vocational or trade school. This new environment also provides a wealth of resources through the school’s office of Disability Support Services, including:

IN THE CLASSROOM Test-Taking Accommodations

Depending on the student, this can include extended time for testing, alternate testing materials, an interpreter, distraction-free testing environments, or the option to take exams orally.

Writing Assistance

If coursework includes written components, many schools offer writing center assistance for students with disabilities affecting language or writing.

Assistance with Registration

Many campuses have specialists on hand to assist with course registration and arranging for accommodations through Disability Support Services.

BOTH Standard Accommodations

Vocational schools are required to provide accommodations for students with disabilities, such as alternate texts, assigned note-takers, accessible parking, and accessible buildings and classrooms.


Peer or professional tutors can be made available for help in specific coursework or skills training.


Counselors are equipped to address personal and interpersonal concerns related to student’s academic and career development. Counseling centers may also offer workshops and training.


If on-campus housing is provided, accessible housing should also be provided for students with disabilities under the ADA.

Public Transportation

School support staff can help students make a plan for the most accessible routes to and from campus, sometimes offering transportation.

What kind of accommodations did your school make to help you succeed in the program?

The school specifically helped students that had learning challenges. I could get help with homework, have tests read to me, and take untimed tests if I needed that.”


After battling dyslexia through high school, Corey Missiaen earned a technical diploma as a Welding Technician from Waukesha County Technical College in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. He now works as a masonry caulker.

Spotlight: Support for Veterans with Disabilities

The United States is home to over 19 million veterans, according to 2014 data. Of these veterans, 16 percent returned with a service-connected disability qualifying them for support services. These disabilities are defined as those that originate or are aggravated while on active duty and present new challenges to veterans as they re-enter civilian life. With ample resources available, veterans can get an education and find employment at the same rates as fellow veterans without disabilities. For many, learning a skilled trade in vocational school is a great step to transferring skills learned in the military to civilian employment. For resources on finding the right trade school, explore our guide on vocational school for veterans.

The list below is just a starting point of services and resources available through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Assistance in Independent Living

Veterans unable to return to work because of their disability can be connected to community agencies, assistive technologies, and training in skills necessary for independent living via their local VR agency.

Career Planning and Counseling

Vocational Rehabilitation counselors help veterans find employment through reemployment at a previous job, job placement assistance, and self-employment coaching.

On-the-Job Training

Apprenticeships and internships are available in many fields to help veterans transition to new careers.

Transition Assistance Program

These workshops and seminars are designed to help service members transition to civilian life and includes an overview of benefits and services available.


Many test-prep and in-home tutoring companies receive grants to extend their services to veterans who qualify for assistance.

Expert Interview with David Greenberg Founder of Parliament Tutors
What services does Parliament offer veterans with disabilities considering vocational or trade school?

In addition to working with college-bound students, we have multiple contracts with Veterans Affairs to help students who qualify for their benefits. We offer tutoring and assistance in pursuing education at a technical institute or in automobile and engineer programs at trade schools. Many have been working in their field for decades, but need that certification or associate’s degree to get a promotion, so they come to us for help. We also offer specific help with the job search to veterans - everything from interviewing to resume writing. They often aren’t sure where they will be best positioned to work after leaving the services, and we help them translate those skills to today’s job market.

Do you see any trends in the number of veterans with disabilities pursuing vocational school over a four-year degree?

We are certainly seeing a far greater interest in computer science and web development among veterans than we have in the past. Many of our clients are older than the average student; I’m seeing veterans with disabilities who are 50+, who came back from Vietnam with no education, and are now going back to school to learn basic skills in Java or C+ or database management. It’s really impressive that they are taking on that challenge, and we are happy to support them in the pursuit.

What advice do you have for a veteran with a disability just beginning to consider his or her opportunities after service?

It’s all about information for veterans and anyone else with disabilities looking to pursue education. Most of these vets just don’t know about benefits available to them, for free. For instance, through the GI Bill Chapter 30 and 31, they are entitled to job and employment training through the VR office, and can receive help with accommodations for their disability at work.

Timeline: Transitioning from High School to the Workforce

For students with disabilities, the journey to full employment begins at a young age and requires the collaboration of the student’s family and school community. The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) guarantees free public education through grade 12, including special education and transition services.

The collaborative process of planning for life after high school is typically called Transition Planning. It begins with the development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to outline the goals, objectives, accommodations, and support necessary for the student to succeed. As high school progresses, Transition Planning also includes identifying services and to help students leaving the special education system, including the possibilities of vocational or four-year college education. The following timeline marks important milestones in a student’s transition:

Start here
Develop Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

Parents meet with school guidance counselors to create a plan for high school and begin initial vocational assessments.

IEP Meetings

Ongoing conversation about student’s academic, social, and occupational progress.

Identify Transition Services

The IEP should be amended with a statement of transition services to help the student prepare for leaving high school.

Evaluation by VR Counselor

Vocational Rehabilitation counselors evaluate students prior to graduation and determine what VR services to include in IEP.

Apply to Vocational/Trade School

Explore fields where student’s interests and abilities overlap and lead to employment in a skilled trade.

IEP Services End

Parents should ask school representatives for the student’s Summary of Performance, including recommendations for post-secondary success.

Attend Vocational/Trade School

Ongoing support can be found through the school’s Disability Support Services or local Vocational Rehabilitation office.

IDEA services end

Secure Job in Skilled Trade

The employed person is now protected by ADA and other employment laws.

What advice would you give a high school student with dyslexia, or any learning disability, as they look ahead to life after high school?

If you keep on pushing, you can do it. One of [my] main challenges was that it took me longer to do the program I was in. I had to redo a math class because the teacher wasn’t a good match for me. Getting information orally and on video is very helpful to me now.

Corey Missiaen

Paying for Vocational Training: Scholarships & Financial Aid

For some, the final barrier to earning a post-secondary education is financial. Vocational and trade schools are typically less expensive than four-year universities, yet the cost can still pose a challenge. Students with disabilities should not be discouraged by the cost of school, as there are numerous funding resources available including scholarships, grants and other forms of financial aid.

Scholarships for students with disabilities are as varied as the students in search of funding. They range from small amounts that are state-specific to large national scholarships for specific impairments. Federal student loans can also be used to pay for vocational schooling, and many of the same funding opportunities students use for four-year colleges are also available.

Browse the following resources to help in the scholarship search and get guidance for finding and securing financial aid.

Accredited Schools Online – Students with Hearing Impairments

Browse our list of financial aid and scholarships available to students with hearing impairments.

Accredited Schools Online – Students with Visual Impairments

Our guide for students with visual impairments includes a section on funding opportunities.

Affordable College Online – Scholarships for Students with Disabilities

Our complete list of scholarships organized by disability along with additional financial resources.


The government’s information clearinghouse for people with disabilities. Maintains a comprehensive list of scholarships organized by disability type.

Federal Student Aid

Students loans are available from the U.S. government by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

HEATH Resource Center

Families may consider starting an Individual Development Accounts to save for a student’s vocational school needs. Find more information through the National Youth Transitions Center George Washington University’s HEATH Resource Center.

img maintains an extensive list of scholarships specifically for students with disabilities.


Find a list of specific scholarships for students with learning disabilities and attention issues at, an organization created to help parents of students with learning disabilities.

img maintains a list of scholarships that can be applied to vocational and trade schools across the country.

Workplace Diversity: Disability & Inclusion

Numerous reasons exist for companies to focus on hiring people with disabilities, who currently make up 5.5 percent of the American workforce. An inclusive workplace is beneficial for both company culture and the bottom line. When people of all genders, races, religions, and levels of ability come together, they contribute to a wide knowledge-base. This also leads to creativity, innovation, a broad range of skills, and an emphasis on social issues that can make an organization more stable. Companies may also be eligible for tax credits and incentives for hiring persons with disabilities.

For Employers: Building Equality in the Workplace

Tips for Inclusion in the Workplace

To truly benefit from a diverse workforce, companies must go beyond hiring people with disabilities to ensuring all employees are equally valued and included in the operations of the business. This pursuit of inclusion means people with and without disabilities interact on an equal basis. A truly inclusive environment helps increase job satisfaction, commitment and engagement in all employees, and according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, can also be good for business.


Employees should be encouraged to interact in meetings, trainings, and social settings so that interactions with people with disabilities are a common part of the working environment. Below are a few ways employers might encourage social inclusion:

  • Include language on diversity and inclusion in company’s core values

  • Ensure employee gathering areas, such as break rooms, are accessible to all

  • Hold regular trainings on inclusion of all minority groups

  • Consider collaboration between people with and without disabilities when creating projects

  • Maintain a “zero tolerance” policy on bullying or harassment

Group Learning & Training

Vocational trades are a natural place for on-the-job training. As companies recruit and hire people with disabilities, it’s important to ensure training and learning environments are inclusive of all. The location of the training should be accessible, materials should be available in alternate formats, and concepts of universal design should be practiced by the trainer. When implemented successfully, the company will benefit from all employees experiencing training together. Colleagues share a common goal and knowledge-base and learn from the disparate experiences of peers.

Disability Awareness Training

Additional training is sometimes necessary to overcome negative attitudes about people with disabilities. Many adults have never interacted with or worked alongside people with disabilities, and it’s important to correct any misconceptions. To encourage equal understanding among employees with and without disabilities, Disability Awareness Training sessions may include simulations of life with a disability for those who have not experienced it, panel discussions among employees and outside speakers, and a time of reflection to process the differences and similarities among employees’ experiences.

For companies looking to encourage awareness, The Department of Labor’s “What Can YOU Do?” Awareness campaign is a great place to start.

For Workers with Disabilities: Knowing Your Rights

Equality in the workplace is protected by several laws and regulated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. These laws are intended to give all Americans the same rights of employment, including workers with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 made it illegal to discriminate against a qualified individual because of a disability.

It’s important for people with disabilities to know that the restrictions on discrimination begin with the hiring process, extend throughout their employment in a position, and are applicable to promotion, pay and benefits. Most importantly, employees have a right under this law to request any reasonable accommodations they need to complete the essential functions of their job.

Who is Protected
Under the ADA?

The ADA protects all “qualified individuals
with disabilities” from discrimination. This
definition covers all physical or mental
impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities. These laws apply to workplaces with more than 15 employees including private employers,
state, local, and federal governments,
employment agencies, and labor unions.
Employees may need to make their
employer aware of a disability if it is
not obvious to them, and proof
may be requested.

What is Reasonable

The ADA requires employers to provide
“reasonable accommodations,” including job restructuring, a modified work schedule, assistive technologies, building accessibility, or reassignment of an employee to a vacant position. Employees can request these accommodations from their employers
at any time, and the employer is required to
make accommodations (at no cost to the
employee) unless they can show that
the change would put “undue
hardship” on the business.

What Employment
Practices are Included?

ADA protections begin as early as the
hiring process and include recruitment, hiring,
firing, training, job assignments, pay, benefits,
promotions, benefits, leave, and all other employment related activities. Employees are also protected
from retaliation when asserting their rights
under the ADA.

What Can I Do If I’m Being Discriminated Against?

If discrimination occurs, employees are encouraged to report the incident to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 180 days of the alleged discrimination. This can be done online or at an EEOC field office in your area.

Where Can I Look for More Information?

Ongoing Support for Students & Workers with Disabilities

Understanding the Law

The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund offers a big picture comparison of the three important laws related to disability rights. offers resources for students with learning disabilities and their parents, including a guide to understanding the ADA and other disability laws.

Preparing for Transition

The Center for Parent Information and Resources offers an easy-to-follow guide to prepare for the transition from high school to postsecondary education.

JobTIPS from helps students considering the types of careers they might succeed in via guided exercises, graphic organizers, role-playing scenario cards, and prescreening tests.

Choosing a Vocation

My Next Move is an interactive tool for job seekers to learn more about their career options including tasks, skills, and salary information for more than 900 careers.

Occupational Outlook Handbook describes the education and training needed, earnings and expected job prospects in a wide range of occupations.

The Department of Education's College Navigator includes a powerful search for career colleges and technical schools, all accredited by agencies recognized by the Department of Education.

Finding a Job

ABILITYjobs offers job listings specifically for people with disabilities, as well as resources on accommodations and recent research on disability issues.

DisABLEDperson is home to over 200,000 active jobs from companies interested in recruiting qualified applicants with disabilities.

GettingHired seeks to bridge the gap between people with disabilities and the jobs where they will succeed, including resources for veterans with disabilities.

Ongoing Education

The National Youth Transitions Center publishes an extensive list specific assistive technologies and accommodations that should be available in vocational schools and the workplace.

The HEATH Resource Center serves as an information exchange of educational resources, support services and opportunities.

The PACER Center operates on the premise that parents can help parents navigate the unique challenges of raising children with disabilities.