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Wokability: When special education is more than academics

Updated on January 1, 2017
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He wrote for IHPVA magazines and raced these vehicles with his father (who builds them).


On a busy Friday afternoon the young school-aged employees are busily helping customers at a party supply store in Hawthorne. All of them are from a local southern California school district. And, all are able-bodied. Still, there are at least three students who would have probably not been hired without some help.

These students have learning, behavioral, or developmental disorders. In many cases, they can do the same kind of work as their non-disabled peers can do. However, the interviewing and application process may have hampered their chances of obtain employment.

So how did they get their jobs? It was done through the help of a work program coordinated by the local school district with the help of the California Department of Rehabilitation. It is better known as Workability.

Its goal is to offer vocational training, job etiquette, and work experience to students.

What is Workability?

Workability is a transitional program operating in California’s public school system. It is meant to help students with special needs find employment during their secondary school years.

According to the California Department of Education website, Workability (or its full name, Workability I) is described as a program in which “Students Learn to Earn.”

It was the result of a 1981 study by the California Department of Education which revealed that students with disabilities were not being adequately prepared for the labor market. Later that same year, a pilot project was created to “test the concept of work experience for youth with disabilities.” (CDE, 2012).

Since then, the program can be found on virtually every public high school campus throughout the United States. The program has proven to be so popular that other states have adopted similar transition programs.

Currently, Workability exists as cooperation between several agencies. The public school district will work with the local department of rehabilitation to coordinate it. Several businesses – especially those eager to hire students with special needs – will take part in the program, as well.

Its Intent

Contrary to popular belief among educators, the program is not designed to place students on a particular career path (there is another program for that). Its goal is to offer vocational training, job etiquette, and work experience to students.

Usually, these students will be assigned to clerical or service-oriented jobs. They will work contracted hours per month, and will be based on their grade level. For instance, a freshman will be relegated to 50 hours per month. As he advances through the grades, his hour and pay (in some cases) will rise. By their senior year – if they choose to stay with the program – they may work close to part-time hours (again, this is based on the school district, state laws, and/or contract with local business).

Workability may not place a person in a career-type job, but it helps to steer them toward one through job training. This happens when the program coordinator places a student in business that matches his or her post-secondary career goals. Often, these goals are mentioned and recorded onto the students’ transition page of the Individual Education Plan (IEP).

One example of this is when a student states he/she wants to be a mechanic or mechanical engineer. The coordinator may be able to find a clerical or janitorial job at a firm or auto-shop where he or she can observe – or job shadow -- a mechanic or engineer in action.

Workability Around the Country

While this article focuses on California's system, workability and other work programs do exist in other states. One such example is VESID in New York. Also, many of these programs are encouraged by the national law Individual with Disability Education Act (IDEA or its current incarnation IDEIA).

Usually, each state has a link to their special education and work programs through its state education website. These can be valuable tools in understanding the programs and knowing how to ensure students with disabilities can take part in this program. Also, most, if not all school districts serving high school students will have information on it.


Eligibility for the program may vary from one district to another; however, there are some common features. Most notably, the students must be eligible for special education services.

In many cases, students:

  1. Must have taken an inventory assessment. These assessments gauge a student’s job interest.
  2. Are in high school (in recent years, there has been a community college version put in place).
  3. Have a minimum grade point average of 2.0 or passing most of their classes (not all districts do this, and doesn’t usually apply to students with intellectual or developmental disorders).
  4. Have it listed as part of their transition goals in their IEP.

As mentioned, the pay scale is based on a contracted monthly basis. The checks are usually issued through the school district every month. A word of caution: this type of contract with businesses may vary throughout the state’s numerous school districts.

... Workability I has been a pioneer and has been named one of the top-ten programs of its kind in the United States

Other Types of Work Programs

Workability I is one of many transition programs in the state. This includes Transition Partnership Program (TPP), which is usually intended for juniors and senior who don’t plan to go to college or will not graduate (earn certificate or completion, instead) and planning to enter the job market after their final high school year.

Also, there is a Workability II, which is for college students with special needs – particularly community college students -- in California, which offers similar services to this particular population.

Still, Workability I has been a pioneer and has been named one of the top-ten programs of its kind in the United States. Most importantly, the program is popular with students with disabilities who want to earn some money.

This can make or break a chance a student with special needs has for employment. Workability teaches students to understand and complete a job application. And that's just one job the coordinators of the program  perform.
This can make or break a chance a student with special needs has for employment. Workability teaches students to understand and complete a job application. And that's just one job the coordinators of the program perform. | Source

© 2014 Dean Traylor


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    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      California is to be commended for implementing Workability and TTP Just how much better these students lives will be we may not even realize. In turn, society overall benefits. Thanks for reporting it to us.


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