An Opportunity for Special Populations

One of my favorite things I enjoy during the school year is the opportunity to do is to visit the special populations students. When I visit them, I see them preparing the lunches in our kitchen. The instructor stands quietly and watches while the students are at the sink washing off dishes, cutting strawberries, and preparing the salads and parfaits. 


Occasionally, I’ll hear her remind students of best practices by saying, “yes, you should use the spatula,” or, “go ahead and fill it up completely.” 


With minutes to spare, they have completed their tasks, loaded up the serving line and have taken their stations. From server to the cashier, they don’t miss a beat. 


What makes me the proudest is the enthusiasm they show. The sense of teamwork combined with their smiles and dedication attests to the value they bring.


It’s just hard to believe that in just two weeks they will be leaving us with their diplomas in hand.

The poppa moment I feel onstage comes from knowing that their commitment to bettering themselves has put them in a position to succeed for their next opportunity.

Building the framework to success for Special Populations


The success that special needs students encounter is based upon their Individual Education Plan (IEP) that falls under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).


That IEP is orchestrated by a special education teacher who teams with the parent, a teacher, an administrator and student (when age-appropriate) to provide accommodations based upon a student’s case managing special education teachers. 

Upon finalization of the annual meeting, these accommodations are sent to the rest of the teachers to implement.


Within this document are annual goals, objectives and career aspirations. At the high school level (starting at age 14), discussions held propel the student towards their destination. Some want to enlist in the military, some want to own their own business and some want to enter the workforce.

 While some students can make the jump from diploma to career, there are those who struggle and do not reach their goals. The sad reality is too many miss their mark due to a variety of factors.  


The harsh reality for special populations in the workforce


In Escaping the Disability Trap, Alia Wong reports that over one million fail in our schools because the model set up for children does not factor in the accommodations needed to level the playing field.


IDEA requires “transitional plans” be implemented, but a harsh reality reveals sobering statistics. Almost one-third of students dropout of high school, and those with multiple disabilities have the lowest rates of graduating or going to work.


I can’t help but wonder what happened. What was their story? Where was the breakdown? Why did we as a society fail our children? The most bothersome question, above all others, continues to trouble me: “What would I do if this was my child?”


It begs to ask the question — are there businesses doing it right?


Hope On the Horizon

Thankfully, champions out there are making an impact. 

People like Bill Morris established Blue Star Recyclers in Colorado that not helps our environment, but it also helps make special needs students successful. 


Founded in 2009, their mission is simple:


Our mission is recycling electronics and other materials to create local jobs for people with autism and other disabilities. Turn your e-waste into real, local jobs. Your recycling fees help us achieve over 90% self-sustainability and pay our workers real wages.


Blue Star Recyclers have 34 employees with a disability out of the 45 jobs where they have generated over $10.5 Million in revenue which has saved taxpayers $1.5 million. The revenue shown over the past few years attests that the model they have created works and more importantly, the employees are thriving.  


This past year alone, 5 new jobs were created. Four of these positions were for a supervisor or program lead and 25 individuals with disabilities will participate in a transitional program where they can intern and gain valuable work experience. 


Their next goal: to create more locations to expand the business. 


Another business that finds jobs for adults with disabilities is the Boone Center, Inc. Their mission mirrors that of Blue Star Recyclers:


Where all people have the opportunity to achieve their potential

and find purpose in meaningful employment.


In their work, they employ over 300 adults with disabilities, have produced almost 40 Million in 2018 and packaged 234 unique products in the same year. 


If you’re like me, I now ask myself if these companies can do it, then why can’t others? 

That’s when it hit me. 

Schools, workforce development centers, communities, and parents need to know there is hope and more importantly, failure is not an option. 


Best practices to know and implement to build success for disabled adults in the workforce


To close the disability-to-work gap, many factors must be included.


  • Find best practices to use as a possible modelDEI Best Practices is one such place where businesses and schools can contact organizations to learn more about how they succeed.
  • Companies must find jobs in their organization where they can employ adults with disabilities. To do this, human resource personnel should identify the essential functions and skills needed for the job.  In this process, continue to ask if the person in the position, with reasonable accommodations, can complete the tasks given to them. Sometimes, job carvingpermits the opportunity for multiple people to complete a job based on their abilities.  With the students preparing the food I referenced earlier, one student would cut with a knife while another would mix in the ingredients for a parfait.  

  • Businesses and school team early and communicate frequently. 

 It is imperative that schools get a strong baseline of students’ current skills, and the skills they will need in prospective jobs.  This is done through good transition planning that includes aptitude and interest assessments that will frame the conversation. 

  • Coordinate businesses and parents with the local school district. By discovering how many possible positions are available, their locations and other valuable logistics will help to begin a smooth transition but also accelerate the placement and confidence of the students who will be interning.
  • Consider Career Technical Education (CTE) courses.  Once interest is found, have students take courses that provide more insight. This enables students to hone in on the “soft” skills and provides a baseline for the technical skills they could acquire.  CTE courses provide a practical application approach and are traditionally more hands-on, which can benefit individuals with special needs. During CTE courses they are able to participate in career exploration, learn the technical skills needed to be employable, and have the opportunity to develop the essential “soft” skills that generalize across career fields.
  • Parents must be active participants.  Not only in the IEP meetings, but in things like practicing mock interviews or reviewing their resume.  The biggest thing to remember is not to limit the development of their independence
  • Contact disability organizations for assistance.Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion     (EARN) provides a trove of useful information.  Down at the bottom of this site is a wealth of ways to create partnerships to further exploration and improvement.
  • Consider the social well-being of the special needs student. ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine has an article on
Learning to Learn: Tips for Teens and Their Teachers.” 

It identifies seven learning-to-learn tips that anyone should recognize and implement to ensure that teens know.


Companies and Human Resource personnel are always trying to retain good employees, and by looking at special population prospects, they will see that some of their best employees will come from this untapped resource.  


Don’t just take a chance, make a difference.

Trust me, you won’t be disappointed. 

If you want to see more blogs, click here.

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