Trade School Guide for Students with Disabilities

When thinking about their future careers, students with disabilities may be concerned they won't find a good fit for their needs. The strong message in high schools (or even earlier forms of education!) is to push for bachelor's degrees, but college isn’t for everyone — regardless of ability.

And that's OK! There's no one-size-fits-all way to get to a great future. For example, a trade school or vocational school can provide a focused, career-driven education full of opportunities.

Read on to learn more about attending trade school as a disabled student, with information on applications, financial aid, career guidance, and more.

Benefits of Trade School for Students With Disabilities

Trade schools can provide the perfect learning environment for students with disabilities, especially those who feel limited in traditional academic environments. Programs tend focus on a discipline the student is passionate about rather than covering a wide variety of topics. They also allow for more structured, hands-on learning with smaller class sizes and shorter timelines.

How to Find the Right Program and School

The school you attend can have a massive effect on your future career. But, making sure you choose the right one can be tricky. Living with a disability can make it feel harder still. Only you know what your perfect school and program would look like. But, keep the following points in mind when browsing to make the choice a little easier.

Is the Subject Right for You?

Studying something you're passionate about is the best way to give yourself a great head start. Think about where your strengths and weaknesses lie and what excites and inspires you.

Consider whether the job you wish to pursue has any physical or mental hurdle you might need to overcome, and if so, how you will do that.

You can also speak with professionals already in the industry to learn more about the day-to-day reality of life on the job. Online forums, social media groups, and alumni or trade associations are also great places to meet people with experience in the trade who will be happy to share their experiences with you.

Is the Program Up to Date?

When browsing through different courses, look through each school's catalog to see what its curriculum covers. Some may be more hands-on in their approach, whereas others focus on classroom learning.

It's also crucial that the school stays up-to-date on the latest industry trends, techniques, and licensing laws.

Ask when the curriculum was last updated and inquire about any links the school has to the local business community — this could be vital later down the line when you're looking to set up internships or other work experience.

Is the School Accredited?

Another vital consideration is whether your chosen school is accredited or approved by the relevant organizations or government entities. To become accredited, schools must pass a series of independent checks to prove their curriculum, facilities, and faculty all pass the minimum required standards.

Not only is accreditation a mark of quality, but it also affects other parts of the school experience. For example, without accreditation, schools cannot offer federal financial aid. You can check your school's status at the U.S. Department of Education's Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.

In some trade programs, US. Department of Education-backed accreditation is not standard because it is a costly process. For example, many beauty schools are not accredited but do have approval from the state to instruct students for licensure after graduation. Ask directly at multiple schools in your field of interest to better understand how to differentiate quality schools from the rest.

Does the School Provide Resources for Students with Disabilities?

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires all educational institutions to provide adequate accommodations for students with disabilities. However, unlike in elementary, middle, and high school, at the postsecondary level, these accommodations aren't provided automatically — students may need to seek them out.

Don't be nervous to ask schools about their provisions for students with disabilities and their policies around disability. If they don't have regulations, you may find they are less equipped to serve your educational needs, and you'd be better off elsewhere.

See our Resources and Support for Students with Disabilities section below for more information about what your school can provide.

Does the Faculty Provide Adequate Support?

Having a faculty who understands and cares for students and provides them with additional support is another sign of a great school.

This can be demonstrated in many ways, from ensuring students with disabilities have regular access to academic guidance and career advice to ensuring the faculty knows how to support and guide such students appropriately.

Some schools hire staff specifically trained and certified to work with disabled students — again, don't be afraid to ask your prospective school more about this when making your choice.

Transitioning to Postsecondary Education

As Benjamin Franklin once said, "failing to plan is planning to fail." Taking the step from high school to postsecondary education is exciting, but it can be daunting, too.

The earlier you start preparing, the smoother the process should be. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) recommends students with disabilities begin planning their transition to postsecondary education in middle school.

But, if you haven't considered your move until now, don't worry too much — there's still time!

Many high schools have resources and teams to help students with disabilities transition to postsecondary, so be sure to ask your teachers, support workers, and other caregivers for help. In addition, there are many things you can do yourself to make the move easier. For example:

  • Think about your strengths and understand your learning style. Is there anything you'd like to improve or work on before you advance to the next level of education?
  • Brush up on social and personal skills, such as confidence, time management, and communication.
  • Know how and when to discuss your needs and how to ask for accommodations. Learn to speak and act on your behalf, ask for help when needed, and make informed decisions.
  • Read up on your rights as a student with disabilities
  • Keep your personal, medical, and educational records up to date.
  • Hold on to examples of work you're proud of.
  • Participate in extracurricular activities and courses that might help your application to trade school.

Specific comprehensive transition and postsecondary (CTP) programs and funding are also available for students with intellectual disabilities, allowing them to take part in traditional college courses and student life.

Paying for Trade or Vocational School

Trade schools typically offer shorter programs than traditional four-year colleges, which means they usually cost less to attend, too. Additionally, several financial assistance options are available to students with disabilities in the form of federal aid grants, student loans, scholarships, and more.

The first step toward receiving federal financial support is completing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Completing and submitting the FAFSA gives you access to federal support, and many states, colleges, and private providers also use the information to determine your eligibility for other aid.

Student Loans

You might be offered a student loan when applying for federal financial aid. This money is borrowed and must be paid back, usually with interest.

There are a variety of different federal student loans available, including:

  • Direct Subsidized Loans based on financial need
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans not based on financial need)
  • Direct PLUS Loans help pay for education expenses not covered by other financial aid
  • Direct Consolidation Loans (which allow you to combine all your student loans into one)

For more information on what's available, visit the federal government’s Student Aid website. You may also want to look into private student loans provided by banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions to compare.

Grants

While loans are expected to be repaid by the recipient, grants are typically given without needing repayment. There may be some situations where a grant does need to be repaid — for example, if a student is granted financial aid based on completing an obligation, and they fail to do so — but generally speaking, it won't be.

A variety of grants are available for students with disabilities, including federal Pell Grants (open to all students), Landmark College grants (specializing in students with dyslexia, ADHD, and ASD), and the federal TRIO Student Support Services program (for low-income students, students with disabilities, and first-generation students). The criteria needed to qualify for each grant will vary, so research your options before applying.

Scholarships for Students with Disabilities

While grants and scholarships qualify as "gift aid" (meaning they don't need to be repaid), they aren't the same. Grants are typically awarded based on financial need, whereas scholarships are merit-based and given to students based on their academic achievements, special skills, extracurricular activities, and more.

Various scholarships are available, with many focusing on specific disabilities, geographical areas, or academic specialties. Here are just a few available right now — be sure to ask your academic advisers about scholarships that might be relevant to your situation.

  • The Wells Fargo Scholarship Program for People with Disabilities: This award gives full-time students up to $2,500 and part-time students up to $1,250 and is available to those with an identified disability enrolled in postsecondary education.
  • The American Council of the Blind (ACB) Scholarship: Each year, the ACB gives awards of between $2,000-$7,500 to postsecondary students who are legally blind, have a 3.0 GPA, and are involved in their school or local community efforts.
  • The AbbVie CF Scholarship: This award recognizes 40 exceptional students with Cystic Fibrosis and gives each of them $3,000 for their postsecondary education. In addition, two students are selected to receive a Thriving Student Scholarship, winning an additional $22,000 each.
  • The AlphaOne Powering Education Scholarship: This scholarship provides $2,000 awards to three postsecondary students each year. To be eligible, students must have a documented disability, be a current student within the state of Maine, have a B average or equivalent GPA, and be accepted to a postsecondary institution.
  • The Organization for Autism Research (OAR) Scholarships: Each year, OAR offers several $3,000 awards for students with autism. They also provide information on many other scholarships available to autistic students.

Work-Study programs

Federal Work-Study programs allow students to take on part-time jobs and earn money while they study. In addition, they encourage community service and employment related to the student's course of study.

Accommodations and Support for Students with Disabilities

As mentioned above, the ADA requires all schools to provide accommodations for students with disabilities to ensure they aren't discriminated against or left feeling unsupported.

The exact accommodations you require are specific to your own educational, physical, and mental needs, but here are just a few examples of the resources your school could provide.

An Accessible Campus

One of the best ways a school can provide for its students is by making the campus comfortable and accessible.

  • Does it have ramps, handrails, and elevators available for those who need them?
  • Are accessible restrooms available?
  • Does the school have a quiet, calming space for students when they feel overwhelmed?

Access to Adaptive Tools, Equipment, and Software

In addition to the campus being physically accessible, having access to adaptive tools and technology in the classroom can also make school more pleasant for students with disabilities. Schools can provide mobile apps, alternative keyboards, audiobooks and Braille books, graphic organizers, speech-recognition programs, and other software and devices.

Test and Exam Support

Exams are always stressful, but students with disabilities can feel the extra strain. Schools can ease this pressure by giving students extra time for tests and exams and access to helpful tools, such as screen-reading technology.

Student Housing

If you're planning to live on campus, look at the dorms.

  • Are they accessible and comfortable?
  • Is there adequate parking?
  • Is it quiet enough to allow you to work comfortably, or even, perhaps, too quiet?
  • Will you feel overwhelmed or isolated?

If you're going to be living off-campus, consider how far you'll have to travel each day to get to school and what parking (or public transit) is like in the area.

General Support

In addition to the above, there are other ways schools can make the learning environment feel safer and more comfortable for students with disabilities. This can include giving them priority registration, a reduced course load, and providing access to note takers and sign-language interpreters.

Building Your Trade School "Success Team"

Having a great support network around you can make all the difference when taking the leap from high school to postsecondary, so surround yourself with people who understand you and your disability. This assistance can come from many different places, including:

Family and Friends

Your family and friends know you best and play a key role in helping you achieve academic success. From financial guidance and workload organization to staying on top of household chores and even reminding you to take your medication on time, having your loved ones around you is one of the best ways to stay on track while studying.

Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (DVRS) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

The Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (DVRS) helps people with disabilities achieve their goals for employment and independence and can connect you with relevant local services and resources to help you get the most out of your education. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments may also be available to ease the financial burden.

Mental Health Services

Starting a new school can feel overwhelming, so make yourself aware of your school's mental health and medical services before you begin. Whether you need advice about changing medication or want someone to talk to when you're feeling stressed, having trained professionals on hand can make all the difference.

Tech Support

There's nothing more frustrating than running into technical difficulties in the middle of an assignment. Familiarize yourself with your school's IT department at the start of your program to know who to call if you run into any problems.

If your school doesn't have a specific team set up to help with tech problems, ask around your friends and family to see if you have any IT experts to help instead.

What Rights Do Students with Disabilities Have?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) all work to ensure disabled people maintain the same rights and have access to the same educational standards as all other students.

Some of the rights these regulations focus on are:

  • To have equal access to postsecondary education
  • To not be discriminated against in any way
  • To participate in and enjoy the benefits of their chosen school
  • To have an accessible education
  • To have appropriate accommodation
  • To bring a service animal to school with them
  • To have information about your disability kept private

Required Documents and Disclosures

When you were in elementary, middle, and high school, you didn't need to voluntarily disclose any information about your disabilities, as provisions may have been made by your parents, caregivers, and teachers to ensure you had the best education possible.

If you attended public school, you may have had a yearly Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 Plan developed and implemented to ensure the school addressed your needs.

However, these plans end at vocational school, and accommodations aren't given automatically — you need to apply for them. As part of this, you need to give your school documentation and disclosures about yourself.

Schools want to support you and provide you with the best experience possible, so you must tell the truth when discussing your disabilities. But, equally, you maintain the right to privacy, so don't feel pressured to disclose anything you aren't comfortable with.

Each school has its own requirements, but most ask for recent, professional documentation from a doctor or another licensed professional, as well as information about any relevant medical assessments you've completed.

It may also be helpful to explain how your disability impacts your academic career and describe what types of accommodations you've found beneficial in the past and any you'd like them to provide in the future.

Career Planning for Students with Disabilities

Of course, the end goal of all this hard work is to graduate from school with excellent qualifications and launch a long and successful career. It's a good idea to start considering the next steps in your professional journey long before you graduate — in fact, there's never been a better time to start than now.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that in 2021, 19.1% of people with disabilities were employed, compared to 63.7% of people without disabilities.

Students with disabilities often face challenges during their job searches, but workplaces are increasingly making changes for the safety and comfort of their disabled employees.

Job Searching and Resume Tips

Many people find employment through job sites like Indeed, Monster, and LinkedIn.

There are also several disability-specific job search sites, such as Chronically Capable, Inclusively, Ability Jobs, Disabled Person, and RecruitDisability.

When looking for an employer, find a good fit for you. Be mindful of the environments that suit you best. For example, if you find being on your feet all day painful, avoid roles that involve a lot of standing or walking.

Try to find out whether company premises are accessible and if any stipulations or dress codes might make you uncomfortable. Check company review websites like Indeed and Glassdoor to see if any current or former disabled employees have spoken about their own experiences.

There are other avenues to finding employment that don't involve going online. Many trade schools provide career guidance and placement opportunities for their students, and the DVRS can assist. Speak to your educators and mentors to gather their advice, too.

When applying for a job, you must provide a resume, cover letter, proof of academic or vocational qualifications, and references. Format these in a cohesive way to present a complete package to employers. You don't need to disclose your disabilities at this stage, though you can.

Dealing With Stigmas or Discrimination in School and the Workplace

As much as we'd like to think that there's no stigma around disability in today's world, that isn't always the case. You may run into ignorance or prejudice, and even those around you who would have your back may not recognize microaggressions or other issues.

This can lead to people with disabilities concealing their needs or discomfort or even not disclosing their disabilities in the first place for fear of negative backlash.

It's vital to self-advocate and stand up for your rights with confidence. Know your worth, both as a person and as an employee. Most of all, believe in yourself and your abilities and don't be afraid to speak out if you feel you aren't being treated fairly. No one knows you better than yourself.

The ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act work to ensure people with disabilities aren't discriminated against in the workplace. Complaints can be filed against those who contravene these laws by visiting the ADA website.