A child’s response to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” can elicit a variety of responses, anything from a fire truck (my all-time favorite response from a 3-year-old) to professional athlete, police officer and astronaut. As children grow older, career aspirations change based on current topics of interest. But how do we translate childhood career goals into realistic occupations? More importantly, how do we prepare teens and young adults with disabilities for any attainable job or career?

Here are tips to help get individuals with special needs ready for the workforce:

Foster Independence. It may be easier and faster to do things for people with disabilities, but the workforce doesn’t work that way. Employers hire individuals with some level of self-sufficiency, not individuals who have everything done for them. At a young age, teach children to fold their own clothes, pack lunches, schedule appointments, etc., so that doing things for themselves is second nature.

Hold Them Accountable. When someone says they will do something, they need to do it. Teach kids, teens and young adults to follow through with their commitments and admit when they make mistakes. Remind them that everyone makes mistakes and life is a trial and error process.

Encourage Self-Advocacy. Everyone—including individuals with special needs—should learn to ask for help. Employers don’t always have time to check in with employees to see how things are going, so they won’t know someone needs help unless the person asks for it. How can you encourage self-advocacy? Don’t jump in to help your loved one, even when you know it is needed. Sit back and wait until he asks.

Teach Time Management and Organization. Help your child or teen figure out when to wake up, how long it takes to get ready and how to plan travel time. Teach him to consistently arrive about 15 minutes early. People have their own preferences when it comes to how to schedule and manage time. Some prefer paper planners as opposed to phone/tablet calendars, and others prefer to write tasks and appointments on sheets of paper. Tracking sheets, to-do lists and charts can help keep track of assignments, tasks and applications submitted.

Practice Communication Skills. Texting is a convenient and popular way to relay information, but rarely do employers text individuals about interviews. Phone skills are falling by the wayside because people prefer to text or email; this means trouble when a potential employer calls. Practice answering the phone appropriately, having a conversation, and leaving a detailed voicemail message (name, reason for the call and call-back number). Written communication is crucial, too. Employers will not respond if people write or type like they are texting. Spell out words, use proper grammar and punctuation, and form sentences that are clear and concise.

Schedule Informational Interviews. An informational interview is an opportunity to seek information from a potential employer. They are used to meet face-to-face to ask questions about the company, skills necessary for the position, education/training requirements and to get a sense of what the job is like. Think of it as a reverse interview.

Gain Experience. Teens and young adults should begin building a resume early. Volunteer positions provide opportunities to test work environments and build skills. They also provide a learning environment to practice being punctual and responsible, to follow directions, manage time, interact with others and work independently.


For help teaching or reinforcing valuable work skills, seek out vocational skills courses for adults with disabilities. San Diego Continuing Education (SDCE) and Southwestern College offer free, non-credit vocational classes. For more information and to register, visit the websites below.

“I like the Occupational Opportunities class because I learned what I am good at and how to look for jobs I like,” says Josh, an SDCE student and La Mesa resident. “There are other students just like me in the class, so I am comfortable asking questions when I need help. Learning what to do to prepare for a job has made me more confident and feel like I can be successful at what I want to do.”

San Diego Continuing Education

Southwestern College


Krystle Taylor is an instructor and counselor for the Southwestern College WorkAbility III program, which is dedicated to providing vocational services to students with disabilities.