According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as many as 7.1 million students between the ages of three and 21 have some type of disability. A growing body of research indicates that students with disabilities or chronic health conditions are more likely to struggle in the education system. While disabilities do not necessarily cause these difficulties themselves, dealing with any kind of chronic health condition can change the educational experience for students.
Fortunately, there are now more educational options available to students with disabilities than ever before, and you don’t have to go down the traditional path of higher education to find professional success or financial independence. Instead of pursuing a college degree, you may want to consider entering the skilled trades. While you need some advanced training to work in the trades, you don’t need to get a degree, allowing you to enter the workforce and earn a living more quickly. Further, the skilled trades encompasses a huge variety of professions, ranging from general contractors and electricians to hairdressers and bakers, providing you with plenty of opportunities to find a career that interests you.
However, making the transition from high school to a vocational program — and then into the workforce — can still be challenging for students with disabilities. Before you make any commitments, it’s crucial to learn more about how you can find an educational experience that works for your needs, as well as what you can do to thrive as you move out of the classroom and into the professional world.
Exploring Career Options for People with Disabilities
No matter what professional avenues you’re interested in exploring or what type of disability you have, there are many different trades careers that are open to you. With more adaptive tools and assistive equipment and technology available now than ever before, you can focus more energy on exploring different trades until you find one that is right for you, your goals, and your needs.
While it is important to find a career that is intriguing or interesting for you, it’s equally important to discover opportunities and potential accommodations that can set you up for long-term professional success.
Hearing disabilities are a condition or injury that impairs your ability to hear, including full or partial deafness. Potential career ideas that are well-suited to people who are deaf or hard of hearing include:
- Computer Programmer: As a computer programmer, you use coding languages to build computer-based programs, software, operating systems, and applications. Because the vast majority of this work is computer-based, it’s a highly visual role. When you need to talk to coworkers or clients, you can use personal assistive devices (such as hearing aids or personal amplifiers) or simply stick to written communications.
- Construction Worker: This broad term encompasses many skilled trades positions, including carpenters, contractors, electricians, plumbers, and painters. You have to be comfortable with physical labor, as well as highly familiar with the laws, methods, and practices associated with that particular trade.
- Medical Laboratory Technician: As a medical lab tech, you work to diagnose and treat diseases by testing biological samples (such as blood or tissue). Much of this work is independent and takes place in a lab, though you’ll likely need to communicate with your coworkers or supervisor. Again, assistive listening devices and text-based communications will be helpful in this role.
Intellectual and Cognitive Impairments
Intellectual and cognitive impairments or disabilities cover a broad range of conditions that can impact your mental development and cognitive processes. This includes conditions such as autism and traumatic brain injury, mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder, and learning disabilities like dyslexia or attention deficit disorder (ADD). Here are a few skilled trades that are well-suited to individuals with intellectual or cognitive disabilities:
- Cosmetologist: As a cosmetologist, you can specialize in hair, skin, and nail care. This could involve working as a hairdresser, nail tech, spa specialist, makeup artist, or other beauty professional. You will likely need to stand for long periods of time and be comfortable working closely with other people.
- Transportation Professional: This term can refer to several different careers, including truck or bus driving, as well as logistics-related positions, like air traffic controllers or cargo agents. Depending on the role you’re most interested in, you may enjoy the opportunity to do more hands-on work, to work as part of a team, or to use your problem-solving skills.
- Veterinary Technician: Vet techs assist veterinarians to provide healthcare to animals. This is a great career choice if you enjoy being around animals. You’ll likely need to be comfortable talking with customers, as well as using any technology, medicine, or other equipment needed to care for the animals. In this role, you may find it helpful to use assistive equipment and technology, such as checklist or organization apps, to stay on top of your work.
If you have a disability that limits your ability to move your body, impacts your motor skills, or otherwise complicates performing physical activities, you may want to consider the following careers:
- Graphic Designer: If you’re artistic or creative, you may enjoy working graphic design. As a graphic designer, you use visual means to communicate a company’s brand or message to the public. Because graphic design is often done on a computer or tablet, you may be able to work from home or on a modified schedule. There are many technological upgrades and accommodations you can use to make your job easier, like note-taking software or screen enlargement applications.
- Medical Transcription Professional: As a medical transcriptionist, you can assist healthcare professionals by recording patient notes. This can involve transcribing audio files or simply typing up written notes for a healthcare provider. In this role, you can use writing assistance technology, like speech-to-text software, as an accommodation. In addition, you will likely work at a medical office, hospital, or another healthcare facility, which are required to be accessible by individuals with disabilities.
- Web Developer: If you’re interested in technology, you may enjoy working as a web developer. In this profession, you use different coding languages to build the structure and layout of websites. Like graphic design, much of this work is done on computers and tablets. You don’t need to move around a lot, and you may even be able to work from home part or all of the time.
Visual impairment is any loss of vision that can’t be corrected or improved through usual means, such as glasses or corrective surgery. This includes partial or full blindness, the physical loss of one or both eyes, color blindness, and degenerative conditions like retinitis pigmentosa, optic nerve atrophy, and glaucoma. Good trade careers for individuals with visual impairments include:
- Network Engineer: Network engineers or architects design, build, and maintain communications networks. These networks may simply be small connections between different computers or entire networks based in the cloud. Screen readers and screen magnification tools may be useful, depending on the strength of your vision.
- Paralegal Professional: A paralegal’s primary responsibility is to assist lawyers, often by drawing up legal documents, sending out correspondence, managing cases, and doing research or checking facts. With the help of assistive tools, like Braille translators and optical character recognition systems, this is an exciting career option.
- Sound Engineer: Sound engineers produce audio recordings by mixing, editing, and otherwise manipulating sound. They can work to produce music, but may also control the sound of live performances, theater productions, or other events and venues that require projected sound. While you may need to use assistive tools to do the finer details of this job, all you need is excellent hearing and a good ear for music to be successful as a sound engineer.
Of course, these are not the only trades or careers open to you. Depending on your professional ambitions and access to accommodations, you can successfully pursue virtually any trade profession.
Selecting a Vocational Career With a Disability
With so many different options available, it can be hard to know which skilled trade is the best choice for you. Before anything else, it’s important to select a trade that interests you and that you’re capable of doing, either with or without accommodations. There’s no point in entering a trade that bores you or that is too strenuous on your mind or body. Instead, strive to set yourself up for long-term career success.
When it comes to selecting a trade, do your research. Look up what a day is like in each of the professions you’re interested in, as well as what other professional advancement opportunities may be available to you in the future. You can also get in touch with your school’s career counselor, a teacher or mentor, or someone you know who works in the trades. If you don’t personally know any tradespeople, reach out to a local union to get your questions answered or for more insight. If you can learn more about what working in the trades is like, you’ll be better equipped to make a confident decision about your future career.
Licensure and Certification for the Skilled Trades
When considering different career paths, you should also consider what you need to do to actually work in that profession. While you don’t need a degree to work in the trade, many still ask job seekers to get hands-on experience or some kind of education before beginning work.
These licensing and certification rules vary greatly between states and between different professions. If, for example, you want to become a general contractor, you’ll have to look at the licensure requirements for your state. However, these standards likely differ from those that prospective plumbers and aspiring electricians must meet in the same state. They may also differ from those you must meet to get licensed in another state, and have additional mandates regarding license renewal or recertification.
Simply put, most states regulate the skilled trades in some way, and you should familiarize yourself with those regulations for your chosen profession before making any commitments. You may not be able to — or may not want to — meet those additional requirements for a trade, especially if you’re considering multiple professions or equally interested in two career paths. A career in a highly regulated trade can still be worthwhile and rewarding, but you should make sure you take these other factors into account when deciding which trade is right for you.
Going to Trade School With a Disability
Once you’ve decided which trade you’d like to pursue and what steps you have to take to get there, you have to get the necessary education and experience to prepare you for that role. Most likely, this means you’ll have to attend trade school or enroll in a vocational program to learn about both the theory and practical applications of your chosen profession.
Postsecondary education of any kind can pose further educational and personal challenges for students with disabilities. You could encounter academic difficulties as you adjust to this new learning environment, struggle with managing your health, or even experience discrimination or harassment because of your disability. While you should not expect to face these issues, you should prepare yourself for them, in case they do arise.
Difficulties aside, trade school is a worthy endeavor that can help you meet your professional goals. With the right knowledge and resources at your disposal, it is entirely possible to overcome any potential problems and enjoy this educational experience:
What Students With Disabilities Should Look for in a Trade School
When considering different trade schools or vocational programs, there are a few things you need to look out for:
- Accreditation: Above all else, verify that your trade school (and your chosen program) is fully and properly accredited by a legitimate accrediting body. You may not be eligible for financial aid or allowed to sit your state’s licensing exam if you attend an unaccredited program.
- Inclusive Policies: Make sure your school has an inclusivity, diversity, or equity policy for students with disabilities. If your school has outlined a policy, it shows that they’ve thought about the extra challenges their students with disabilities might face, as well as how they can support them. If your school does not have an inclusivity policy, this indicates that they may not have the knowledge or tools necessary to help students with disabilities succeed in their programs.
- Engaging Curriculum: You should also research the program’s curriculum to learn about what you can expect in the classroom. Is it a generic or outdated program, or has it been updated to reflect current industry needs and technological developments? You should be excited by this material and ready to have a positive experience at school.
- Communicative Faculty: You’ll also want to find excellent teachers in your program. They should be knowledgeable about the material, but also aware and understanding of your unique needs.
- Academic Advisors: In addition to good teachers, you should look for other staff members who can offer academic advice and assistance with professional development. These other staff members can play an important role in your educational experience and help guide and support you through any additional challenges you face.
- Additional Resources: Finally, make sure your school has additional resources to effectively support students with disabilities. This includes existing accessibility infrastructure (such as building modifications), assistive equipment and technology (or the ability to procure it), and the ability to make other accommodations you may need.
A trade school that has all of these features will set you up for the best possible academic experience. Ultimately, it may not prevent the challenges you could encounter, but it can make overcoming them that much easier.
Financial Aid for Students With Disabilities in the Skilled Trades
Trade school tends to be more affordable than college, but it can still be costly. Luckily, there are several ways you can get help paying for your education. First, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and see what aid you qualify for. You may be eligible for federal grants, subsidized loans, or work-study programs that can cover most or all of your educational expenses.
Next, consider looking and applying for different scholarships. You can find scholarships offered by your school (either your high school or your future trade school), as well as those from people, businesses, or other organizations in your community. You can also search for scholarships online. There are countless databases and search tools — such as Scholarship Finder, Scholarships.com, and Cappex — you can use to find scholarships.
You can also search for scholarships that intend to support students with a specific type of disability. For example, some awards may be open to students who have visual impairments, but not students with other disabilities. Depending on your disability and other unique characteristics (such as your race or gender identity), you may be able to find even more scholarship and financial aid opportunities.
Legal Protections for Students With Disabilities
There are several federal laws in place that are designed to protect students with disabilities in educational settings:
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Under Title II of the ADA, it is illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in education. It also guarantees that you have access to the accommodations you need at school, such as more time to take tests, assistive listening devices, and ramps for wheelchair accessibility. All tenets of the ADA apply to extracurricular activities affiliated with school, such as sports teams or on-campus clubs.
- The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): IDEA tailors public education so it is appropriate for the needs of each student who has disabilities. It also works to prepare students for long-term academic and professional development. Under IDEA, you have access to a customized education plan, the least restrictive classroom setting, and safeguards to protect your rights in the classroom.
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: The Rehabilitation Act prohibits disability-based discrimination and ensures equal access to opportunities in organizations that receive any kind of federal funding. Because many postsecondary institutions receive federal financial aid, this counts as federal funding and protects the rights of students who have disabilities.
While you may not encounter any legal issues or instances of discrimination during your vocational program, it’s crucial to know about what protections and services you’re entitled to. This will help you make the most of your education and ensure you have everything you need for a positive and rewarding experience.
Job Hunting in the Trades With a Disability
In general, job hunting in skilled trades is similar to looking for any other kind of position, even when you have a disability. You can prepare yourself through apprenticeships and internships to gain practical experience, which can lead to full-time employment. You can get in touch with local trade unions to find open positions, or also use general job-seeking websites — like Indeed, Monster, or Glassdoor — to discover other available opportunities.
Despite these similarities, there are a few laws and programs that can change the process of finding a job if you have a disability. Here are some helpful resources you should be aware of before diving into your job hunt:
Vocational Rehabilitation Services
Vocational rehabilitation (VR) is a federally-run and -funded set of services and programs designed to help people with disabilities enter the workforce and find meaningful, lasting careers. If you qualify for or receive Social Security benefits for people with disabilities, you’re likely also eligible for VR benefits. However, anyone who has a disability is free to apply for VR services.
Depending on your disability and employment needs, VR services may not be necessary for your job hunt. However, they may help you build a customized employment plan, detailing what training or education you need to secure that position. This can be incredibly valuable when trying to find an apprenticeship or full-time employment in the skilled trades.
Other services commonly offered by VR agencies include:
- Assistive Equipment & Technology: You may get access to different pieces of assistive equipment and technology, such as hearing aids, to improve your ability to work. In some cases, you may also be eligible for healthcare, such as physical therapy or even surgery.
- Hands-On Training: VR agencies can connect you with apprenticeships and other practical, hands-on training opportunities. These experiences can prepare you for, if not lead directly to, employment in your chosen trade.
- Financial Assistance: You may qualify for financial assistance, such as in the form of a low-interest or subsidized loan, to pay for any assistive technology you need to do your job.
- Transition Services: VR counselors can help you plan your transition from school into the workforce. In some cases, they may even help you find or set up training, education, or employment opportunities once you finish school.
There are different VR agencies and programs in every state, each of which offers slightly different services. Get in touch with the VR agency in your state to learn more about what they offer that you may be eligible for.
Legal Protections for Workers With Disabilities
No matter where you are in your job hunt, it’s crucial to know what laws are in place to protect job seekers and employees with disabilities. While you shouldn’t expect to face disability-based harassment or discrimination from potential employers or coworkers, you do have to be prepared for it. There are federal laws in place designed to protect your from employment discrimination, including:
- The ADA: The ADA also protects against disability-based discrimination in the workplace. Under the ADA, it is illegal to discriminate against, harass, or treat someone unfavorably when it affects the terms of your employment. This includes hiring and firing, but also compensation, benefits, and promotions. The ADA also guarantees your right to reasonable accommodations in the workplace.
- The Civil Service Reform Act: This law promotes fair hiring and employment practices in federal agencies and organizations. This includes prohibiting discrimination against employees and job candidates with disabilities.
- The Rehabilitation Act of 1973: The Rehabilitation Act provides federal funding for disability-related programs, including VR services and other training programs. It also protects employees from disability-based discrimination from certain employers — specifically, federal agencies, private programs contracting federal agencies, and any programs that receive federal funding.
- The Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act: This law prohibits certain employers with federal contractors or subcontracts from discriminating against certain military veterans on the basis of disability. Though this law was originally intended to support veterans of the Vietnam War, it now applies to active duty veterans who served during any war.
- The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA): WIOA helps job seekers enter the workforce, or access the training, education, or support services they need to do so. This law is intended to serve different groups who may have trouble overcoming barriers to employment, including individuals with disabilities. It also prohibits disability-based discrimination for those looking to access WIOA services or programs.
Make note of any type or instances of discrimination you encounter during your job search or as you enter the workforce. That way, you can file a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Additional Resources for Students & Workers With Disabilities
For additional support and information, look into the following resources and organizations focused on helping students, employees, and job seekers with disabilities:
- ADA National Network: The Americans with Disabilities Act National Network serves individuals with disabilities to ensure their rights are protected in the workplace.
- American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD): AAPD is an organization filled with professionals who are working to build more inclusive spaces and positive experiences for students with disabilities in higher education.
- Apprenticeship.gov: This federal website helps job seekers find registered apprenticeships in the trades that interest them.
- Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD): AHEAD is a professional membership organization that fights for equity for students with disabilities in higher education.
- BroadFutures: In addition to other services, BroadFutures offers a paid internship program for young adults with learning disabilities.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook: The BLS maintains a handbook with detailed information — such as the median salary and expected growth over the next 10 years — about different careers.
- CareerOneStop: Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, CareerOneStop offers job seekers different tools and pieces of advice they can use to develop professionally.
- Incight: Incight is a nonprofit organization focused on helping people with disabilities unlock their full potential in education and employment, and achieve independence.
- Job Accommodation Network (JAN): JAN provides free and confidential advice about workplace accommodations for job seekers and employees with disabilities.
- Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP): OSEP is housed under the U.S. Department of Education. They work to improve educational outcomes for children and young adults with disabilities.
- RespectAbility: This nonprofit organization fights the existing stigmas against people with disabilities and works to help people with disabilities (and their family members) fully participate in their communities.
- Ticket to Work Program: Offered to any individual between the ages of 18 and 64 who receive Social Security disability benefits, this program supports career development and helps people with disabilities enjoy financial independence.