Sheryl Burgstahler

Cooperative Education and Students with Disabilities

by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph. D., University of Washington
in Journal of Studies in Technical Careers15 (2), 1995


Individuals with disabilities face a variety of barriers to education, employment, and other life experiences. Cooperative education programs can play an important part in facilitating successful transitions from school to employment. Some of the issues that must be faced by programs that wish to increase the participation of students with disabilities include recruiting participants with disabilities, helping them develop job-related skills, assuring that accommodations are provided on job sites, and providing key staff with appropriate training and resources.


Individuals with disabilities face a variety of barriers to education, employment, and other life experiences. Gradual changes in society’s attitudes, advancements in medical fields, and passage of civil rights legislation have served to reduce some of these barriers, particularly in the area of education. Further efforts are required before individuals with disabilities will obtain equal access to employment in our society. Cooperative education programs can play an important part in this effort because of their critical role in helping students transition from school to employment.


Until the middle of the twentieth century, efforts to train individuals with disabilities rarely involved higher education (Goldenson, 1978). Few people with disabilities survived until adulthood, attitudes of society tended to segregate them from the mainstream, and few schools were truly accessible (Condon, 1951; Fleischer, 1953). Students with disabilities did not become a major factor in higher education until after World War II when improved medical care and college funds provided by the GI Bill resulted in a large number of disabled veterans on campuses (Aaronson & Heldberg, 1950; Strom, 1950). The disabled veterans raised the general awareness of disability issues and increased the demand for special services. The campus unrest of the 60’s heightened the awareness of human rights and increasing numbers of disabled individuals began to consider access to higher education a civil right (Longmore, 1988). Even so, services for students with disabilities were not widespread and varied greatly from campus to campus (Iovacchini & Marion, 1983; Kolstoe, 1978; Rusalem, 1962).

As part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504 mandates non-discrimination on the basis of physical or mental handicap in programs receiving or benefiting from federal financial aid. The first federal civil rights law protecting the rights of individuals with handicaps, this act provides that “no otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall, solely by reason of handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” (U.S. Department of Education, 1988) An individual with handicap(s) is defined in Section 504 as anyone with a physical or mental impairment that substantially impairs or restricts one or more major life activities, such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. Federal regulations require that institutions make “modifications” in their programs to accommodate students with disabilities, and provide “auxiliary aids.” Institutions are required to offer programs in the most integrated setting appropriate, taking precautions not to isolate or concentrate handicapped persons in settings away from non-handicapped participants (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 1988).

The landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) forbids discrimination against people with disabilities in access to public services, public accommodations, telecommunications, and employment (Duffy, 1992). For colleges and universities, it has reinforced the requirements set forth in Section 504 and created a new level of awareness of the rights of disabled students. Although many colleges and universities have made some efforts to comply with federal regulations, much progress must be made before our programs are truly accessible to students with disabilities (Bursuck, Cowen & Rose, 1988). A National Science Foundation task force (Changing America, 1989) stated that negative attitudes are the single most significant barrier faced by individuals with disabilities in education and in careers in science and engineering. Research has shown that positive attitudes tend to be exhibited by those who have information about disabilities and previous contact with disabled people (Aksamit, Leuenberger & Morris, 1987; Fonosch & Schwab, 1981).

Reliable data on the participation of individuals with disabilities in higher education is difficult to come by, partly because of the wide variety of definitions of “disability” and the inaccuracies that result from self-reporting techniques. A 1989 study estimated that of the first-time entering freshmen approximately 10.5% report some kind of disability. Of these, approximately 39% report visual impairments, 20% report hearing disabilities; 4% report speech impairments, 12% report learning disabilities, 17% report orthopedic impairments, and 24% report other health-related disabilities (Greene & Zimbler, 1989). Another source estimated 31.4% with visual impairments, 15.7% with health-related conditions, 15.3% with learning disabilities, 13.8% with orthopedic impairments, 11.6% with hearing difficulties, 3.8% with speech impairments, and 18.5% with other disabilities (“Facts You Can Use,” 1991). Few institutions routinely keep track of whether graduates with disabilities gain employment, however there is evidence that some people with disabilities have been successful in a variety of jobs and can compete with their non-disabled peers in the world of work (Condon, 1957; DeLoach, 1992; Houser & Chase, 1993; Liften, Malcom, & Stern, 1987; Malcom & Matyas, 1991; Sampson, 1984).

Disabled individuals are generally underrepresented in science and engineering professions. Nevertheless, the employment rate for scientists and engineers with physical disabilities is 83%, much better than the estimate of 26% of the overall U.S. population with physical disabilities. These statistics suggest that engineering and science fields provide careers in which disabled individuals can find success. Technical careers are particularly accessible to individuals with disabilities because commercially available adaptive hardware and software make it possible for individuals with disabilities to use computers (Brown, 1992; Burgstahler, 1992; Burgstahler, 1994; Closing the Gap, 1994). For example, optical character readers, voice output, software to enlarge screen images, Braille screen displays, and Braille printers provide computer access to blind and low vision students; alternative keyboards, Morse code input with switches, and adjustable furniture assist those with mobility impairments. The computer, when appropriately adapted for access, allows people with disabilities to independently use computer software; to communicate with peers, faculty, and employers; and to access on-line discussion groups, library catalogs, encyclopedias, dictionaries, newspapers, and other information resources (Coombs, 1991). Disabilities and distances become unimportant as they become equal participants in the “global community.”

Including Disabled Students in Cooperative Education Programs

The transition from college to employment is particularly difficult for students with disabilities because of attitudinal barriers and accommodation issues. Cooperative education programs are in a unique position to provide opportunities for students with disabilities to gain job skills, test their skills in an employment situation, and make important employer contacts. Cooperative education placements can also help change the attitudes of employers about the potential of individuals with disabilities. However, few schools make special efforts to include students with disabilities in their cooperative education opportunities. Project DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) at the University of Washington is an example of a program that is addressing this area. DO-IT recruits high school students with disabilities into science, engineering, mathematics, and technology academic programs and careers. Primarily funded by the National Science Foundation, DO-IT makes extensive use of computers, adaptive technology and the Internet network to help students with disabilities become more independent in their academic and career activities. DO-IT helps them adjust to college academic life, participate in cooperative education experiences, and, eventually, transition to permanent employment. Anecdotal information from DO-IT and other programs support the theory that cooperative education experiences help students with disabilities set and reach career goals.

Some of the issues that must be faced by college and university cooperative education programs that wish to increase the participation of students with disabilities include recruiting participants with disabilities, helping them develop job-related skills, assuring that appropriate accommodations are provided on job sites, and providing key staff with training and resources. Three key groups of people are involved – students with disabilities, cooperative education staff, and employers. Efforts to increase the participation of individuals with disabilities may, particularly initially, require additional funding for staff and accommodation requirements. Sources of internal and external funds should be explored.

Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities need to be aware of the opportunities and benefits of a cooperative education experience and of what accommodations can be provided in a work assignment. Cooperative education staff should work with college counselors and disabled student services staff to locate and recruit students with disabilities into cooperative education experiences. Cooperative education staff should work with career services, disabled student services and other campus units to assure that special assistance in developing interview, application, and on-the-job skills is provided.


Employers should be encouraged to employ students with disabilities in appropriate work assignments. Since job assignments and commitments are relatively short and employers are often unaware of how to accommodate people with disabilities, cooperative education staff, in conjunction with disabled student services, computing, and other appropriate campus units, should assist in providing accommodations on the work site. For example, adaptive computer technologies needed by the student could be loaned to the employer during the cooperative education experience.

Cooperative Education Staff

Administrators, employer liaisons, counselors and other cooperative education staff should be informed of appropriate accommodations for students with a variety of disabilities so that they can relay this information to employers and work with various units to provide the accommodations that students with disabilities require in a job setting. Staff of the disabled student services office, state agencies that work with individuals with disabilities, and other on-and off-campus organizations may be able to help prepare and deliver the training.


Cooperative education programs at colleges and universities are in a unique position to help underrepresented groups make successful transitions into the work force. In the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act, cooperative education administrators should ensure that students with disabilities are welcomed into their programs, have equal access to cooperative education experiences, and obtain reasonable accommodations at work sites. Research should be conducted to determine the impact of various practices on increasing the participation of individuals with disabilities in cooperative education programs and to determine the correlation between successful cooperative education experiences and future job success. Efforts should be made to disseminate information about successful practices to other campuses.


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About the Author

Sheryl Burgstahler is an Assistant Director within Computing & Communications and a Research Assistant Professor in the College of Education at the University of Washington. She currently directs DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology), a project to recruit students with disabilities into science, engineering, and mathematics academic programs and careers which is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation.

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Sheryl Burgstahler
Last updated: Feb 4, 1998