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Keys to a Successful Transition: Ensuring Youth with Visual Impairments are ready for Career and College
Youth with visual impairments face a tough job market. Recent instability in the economy has disproportionately affected young people, making it hard for them to secure jobs. This challenge is magnified for youth with visual impairments, who must overcome additional barriers to enter the workforce.
State Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) programs provide transition services to youth to help them transition smoothly from high school to either college or employment. Families, schools, and VR professionals work together to aid each young person in discovering their career interests and helping them master the skills they need to achieve success.
Researchers from the National Research and Training Center (NRTC) on Blindness and Low Vision have completed years of research about transition-age youth and the factors that contribute to their success in employment. Across eight published studies, researchers used a variety of techniques to answer the question: What does it take to prepare youth with visual impairments to successfully obtain employment?
The summaries below highlight three key themes from our research: early work experience, academic achievement, and social/internal skills. Following these overviews, a series of research takeaways illustrate practical ideas for translating research findings into practice.
Encouraging youth with visual impairments to gain work experience while they are still in high school can potentially have a big impact on their employment outcomes later down the road. Numerous NRTC studies found that, if a young person gains work experience early in life, they are more likely to successfully obtain employment when they are older (McDonnall & Crudden, 2009; McDonnall, 2010b; McDonnall, 2011; Giesen & Cavenaugh, 2012).
Facilitating quality work experiences for youth with visual impairments is challenging. One study found that most youth jobs last less than six months and do not require high levels of skill (McDonnall, 2010a). In another study, school-sponsored work experiences had no effect on future career success (McDonnall & O’Mally, 2012). Such findings indicate that not all jobs carry equal benefits, and it’s important to consider the quality of a work experience. A few factors to consider:
- Finding jobs independently: The ability to secure a job as a teenager, without help from adults, demonstrates initiative and problem-solving skills, and is associated with employment later in life (McDonnall & O’Mally, 2012).
- Holding multiple jobs: One study found that the odds of finding employment as adults increased with each additional job held while a young adult (McDonnall, 2011).
- Holding jobs for longer periods of time: Having multiple jobs is good, but this positive effect could be diminished if students hold multiple short-term positions, rather than a few, longer-term experiences (McDonnall & O’Mally, 2012).
Why is early work experience so important? A number of factors may be at play, since early work experience:
- Allows students to explore career interests and discover what they like to do
- Acclimates students to workplace norms and helps them develop soft skills, such as professional attire and workplace etiquette
- Gives students a chance to develop a network of professional contacts
- Provides an opportunity for students to develop important professional skills
- Work experience on a resume signals to prospective employers that a student can successfully participate in a workplace, making them less of an employment “risk”
While gaining work experience is important for youth with visual impairments, academic achievement is also essential. Multiple studies found that higher levels of academic achievement increase the odds of finding a job later in life (McDonnall & Crudden, 2009; McDonnall, 2010b; McDonnall, 2011).
Academic achievement can take place at a variety of levels. Two studies looked at aptitude in verbal and math skills during the high school years and found that, the better students performed in these areas, the more likely they were to find a job as adults (McDonnall & Crudden, 2009; McDonnall, 2010). Academic achievement during the college years is also important. One study found that completion of a postsecondary degree was the strongest predictor of full time employment later in life (McDonnall, 2011).
The good news is that youths with visual impairments tend to complete high school and attend college at rates similar to those of their non-visually impaired peers. However, these findings around academic achievement indicate that mere school attendance is not enough. Attention must also be paid to content knowledge, ensuring that youth with visual impairments are mastering academic skills, accumulating knowledge, and successfully acquiring academic credentials and diplomas.
A final component of preparing youth with visual impairments to successfully find a job are social and internal skills. Social skills encompass a wide variety of behaviors, from an understanding of interpersonal boundaries to the ability to recognize others’ emotions. One study found that having good peer social skills increases the odds of gaining part-time employment significantly (McDonnall, 2011). Another study that asked a focus group of VR professionals to discuss success factors for transition-age youth pinpointed social skills as an essential need (Crudden, 2012). In particular, these professionals pointed out the need to start developing youths’ social skills as early as possible, beginning in the elementary grades.
Two internal skills in particular were identified by the research as important for predicting employment among youths with visual impairments: self-determination and locus of control (McDonnall & Crudden, 2009). The two concepts are related: young people with a strong locus of control have mastered one aspect of self-determination. These skills help youths understand that they have control over what happens to them and to feel powerful. This confidence may prompt young people to take a more active role in their career development, priming them for employment success later in life.
- Encourage young people to consider work experience an essential part of their high school years. Jobs can take place after school, on weekends, during the summer, or during holiday breaks. They may take the form of paid jobs, internships, or job training programs. Youth may need help obtaining those first work experiences, but they should be provided instruction in how to look for jobs independently, and then, once they have some experience, encouraged to pursue opportunities on their own initiative.
- Not all jobs are created equal. Before a student looks for a job, they should consider factors such as type of work, how the job will be obtained, and how long the job will last.
- Don’t neglect other essential aspects of personal development in favor of work experience. A balance must be found. Neglecting academics or skill development in favor of working may end up negatively impacting a young person in the long run. But, completely neglecting work experience in favor of academics, which youth are sometimes encouraged to do, is not desirable either.
- In order to encourage young people to develop a strong locus of control and sense of self-determination, provide them with opportunities for decision-making and support them in their choices. One important way of achieving this could be to encourage more active involvement from young people in their Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings.
- For both academic and social skills, the earlier development begins, the better. Transition services are required to be initiated by age 16, but in some cases it may be appropriate to begin services at a younger age. The earlier gaps in academic and social skills are identified, the more quickly they can be improved through intervention and training.
Crudden, A. (2012). Transition to employment for students with visual impairments: Components for success. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 106(7), 389-399.
Giesen, J.M., & Cavenaugh, B.S. (2012). Transition-age youths with visual impairments in vocational rehabilitation: A new look at competitive outcomes and services. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 106(8), 475-487.
McDonnall, M.C. (2010a). The employment and postsecondary educational status of transition-age youths with visual impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 104(5), 146-152.
McDonnall, M.C. (2010b). Factors predicting post-high school employment for young adults with visual impairments. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 54(1), 36-45.
McDonnall, M.C. (2011). Predictors of employment for youths with visual impairments: Findings from the Second National Longitudinal Transition Study. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 105(8), 453-466.
McDonnall, M.C., & Crudden, A. (2009). Factors affecting the successful employment of transition-age youths with visual impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 103(6), 329-341.
McDonnall, M.C., & O’Mally, J. (2012). Characteristics of early work experiences and their association with future employment. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 106(3), 133-144.
The Effect of Career Mentoring on Employment Outcomes for College Students Who Are Legally Blind
Research Takeaway: College students who are blind or visually impaired (BVI) showed increases in assertive job hunting behavior when they worked with a career mentor. Establishing a relationship with a mentor who is blind and working in the same career field was beneficial to students.
College students who are BVI often face unique challenges when trying to find employment. Some of these challenges are due to lack of work experience and limited information about how to navigate the job search in their field of interest as a person who is BVI. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, 44.6% of visually impaired adults between the ages of 25 and 34 were actually employed during 2015.
Career mentors help students by sharing work experiences and discussing specific concerns related to their career field. We wanted to know if working with career mentors who are blind and in the career area of interest to the student makes a difference in employment outcomes for college students who are BVI. This study focused on pairing legally blind college students who were within one year of graduating with mentors who are also legally blind and employed or recently retired, and comparing their outcomes to students who were not paired with a mentor. Mentors served as role models by addressing concerns specific to visual impairment, including:
- Job search and interview preparation and process
- Transportation to and from work
- Negative employer attitudes
- Social, communication, and job skills
- Requesting accommodations
- Self-advocacy and assertiveness
- Career mentors can help college students who are BVI prepare for the job search process and employment. Students particularly appreciated working with a mentor who is blind because mentors were able to address topics related to blindness, including disclosure, social skills, career exploration, accommodation planning, networking, and using assistive technology in work settings. Results also suggest that students with mentors may have been more focused and efficient in their job search.
- Students who worked with a mentor noted significant growth in their level of assertiveness in job hunting. Students reported feeling most assertive in asking friends for job leads, asking for more information about jobs, and discussing work experience. For students who did not work with a mentor, there was no improvement in their assertiveness scores.
- Students in the mentoring program showed some improvement with both confidence in the job search and career adaptability, although they did not increase more than the students without mentors. All students were better able to respond and make adjustments necessary to be more successful.
- Most participants indicated that the location of the mentor, local or distance, was not as important as other factors (e.g., being blind and being in the same career field) to benefits received from the overall mentoring process.
- Encourage student consumers to seek career mentoring throughout the college experience. Career mentoring for college students who are BVI is a continual process and should begin as early as possible. This study involved a year of participation prior to graduation. A longer mentoring timeline could allow for further career exploration and skill development.
- Students of all ages can benefit from a career mentor relationship. Although our study limited the age for student participants, a strong interest to work with a mentor was expressed by many older students. Older students who are BVI noted challenges for returning to school and pursuing new careers similar to other students; in addition, older students listed changes in technology and transferring existing job skills as distinct challenges. Remember to consider older students for participation in mentoring relationships and programs too. They may be particularly valuable for students who lost their vision as adults.
- Involve area business professionals. Professionals who are BVI that we contacted expressed interest in mentoring students and offering guidance throughout the employment process. This interest continues, as most of the student and mentor participants plan to stay in contact with each other after the year-long study. Suggest career mentoring for your consumers who are students, and help them identify an appropriate mentor, or a mentoring program if one is available.
- Consider a distance mentor. If a local mentor in a student’s career field is not available, consider finding a mentor in another location. AFB’s CareerConnect can help with that.
We recruited 51 college students and 26 mentors from across the United States. These participants took part in a year-long study that included several evaluations and reports for sharing information and feedback about their experience working with or without a mentor.
The NRTC provides employment and mentoring resources to help guide the mentoring and job hunting process:
O'Mally, J. & Antonelli, K. (2016). The effect of career mentoring on employment outcomes for students who are legally blind. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 110(5), 295-307.
O'Mally, J., & Steverson, A. (2017). Reflections on developing an employment mentoring program for college students who are blind. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 111(3), 271-276.
For more information about the mentoring project, see the project overview page: An Employment Mentoring Project for College Students who are Blind
Transition Activity Calendar
This Transition Activity Calendar designed by The National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision (NRTC) at Mississippi State University lists tasks which students who are blind or visually impaired need to complete as early as middle school in order to be ready to attend college. From taking the right high school courses, to learning to use the most appropriate assistive technology, to career exploration and finding the colleges best suited to the selected course of study, to what the student is looking for in campus life, the demands of good preparation start early and continue through 12th grade and the summer before the first Fall semester of college.
Here we list college preparation, school to work, and independent living programs run by Vocational Rehabilitation, private agencies, special education programs, and/or colleges and universities. These program offerings change often, but we will update as needed.