A student in San Bernardino City (Calif.) Unified School District’s Growing Hope program at San Andreas High School

Apr 04 2022

Students with Disabilities Develop Technology Skills to Expand Career Options

Creative teachers look beyond assistive tech to help students with disabilities hone in-demand vocational skills.

At San Andreas High School in San Bernardino, Calif., students use advanced sensors and software to manage and monitor a state-of-the-art hydroponic growing facility and greenhouse. They document their processes using smartphones, tablets and video editing software. They package, market and track their products using QR codes and use web development tools to sell the greens to local restaurants.

When observers come into the facility, it’s the students who teach them how everything works.

The students in San Bernardino City Unified School District’s Growing Hope program have moderate to severe disabilities that require special accommodations. Barbara Pastuschek, who leads the school’s business and technology career pathway program that the program falls under, says they are learning career skills that they’ll take with them when they move beyond the classroom.

WATCH NOW: See the greenhouse as Pastuschek shares more on students' vocational training.

“I want our students to have opportunities for future jobs that allow them the opportunity to make a livable wage,” Pastuschek says. She notes that career training for students with disabilities is sometimes limited to so-called “low-skill” jobs, but that technology helps students to develop in-demand specializations.

Students in the Growing Hope program develop a variety of skills while managing the greenhouse technology, including an agricultural robot that is integral to the program.

“These skills are transferable,” Pastuschek says. “When students are learning to maintain high-end, expensive equipment, that’s transferable to other industries like technology, nutrition, healthcare and hospitality. It’s not just limited to being a farmer or working with hydroponic systems.”

Having these options is important because though a September 2011 report from the National Center for Special Education Research found that after high school — 85 percent of young adults with disabilities go on to employment, postsecondary education and/or job training — their options may be limited.

The disability advocacy group The Arc, says many adults with intellectual or physical disabilities “have been placed in ‘prevocational’ programs and ‘disability-only’ workshops where they are paid below minimum wage and have little expectation of moving into jobs where they work alongside people without disabilities.”

This is why it’s important for such students to participate in programs like those in San Bernardino, which allow them to stretch and grow. Pastuschek says these students make up under 5 percent of the student population that participates in the school’s business and technology career pathway program. This means that when it comes to sharing information about the program with the rest of the student population, her students with disabilities are leaders for the greenhouse program. This is what helps them grow and learn outside their comfort zones.

Dr. Howana Lundy, director of the district’s special education department, says it’s “amazing” to see the students’ command of the high-tech growing environment.

“Our students don’t always have an opportunity to be in leadership roles,” Lundy says. “When they develop these specialized skills, it allows them to be leaders and really helps with their confidence.”

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Schools Embrace Technology to Promote Inclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic generated countless headlines about negative impacts on students with disabilities. And while these impacts are real, one bright spot in this period is that many schools have embraced other technology to better serve their students with disabilities, says Luis F. Pérez, technical assistance specialist with the nonprofit education research and development organization CAST.

Pérez points to the increased use of learning management systems, educational apps and real-time collaboration tools. “People today are able to live in different places and work remotely,” he notes. “And if we use technology in creative ways in education, we’re preparing students for the world of work.”

That kind of preparation can be seen at Curtis Middle School, another San Bernardino City school that gives students with disabilities the opportunity to develop expertise with high-tech equipment. At Curtis, Machining Pathways instructor Chris Petriccione gives students access to two specialized science, technology, engineering, arts and math classrooms for elective classes — one for engineering and manufacturing and the other for medical and health education.

Both classrooms are built out with advanced tech, including 3D printers in the engineering classroom and lab stations in the health classroom. While the school has specific classes for children with mild to moderate disabilities, they get to take electives alongside their general education peers.

7.4 million

The total number of students ages 3 to 21 in the U.S. who received special education services during the 2019–2020 school year, up from 6.5 million during the 2009–2010 school year

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, “Students with Disabilities,” May 2021

“We want to give our students as much of an opportunity as possible to feel included in everything we do at the school,” says Principal LaTanya Greer.

In the labs, students with disabilities use tools such as Solidworks computer-aided design software and machinery such as 3D printers, drills and saws to create objects that solve problems big and small.

For students that struggle to grasp concepts from a textbook or a lecture, Greer says, technology offers a way to give them hands-on, project-based learning experiences.

“They’re able to shine in these classrooms and then use what they learn in other settings,” she says. “We want to expose them to as many opportunities as possible. We don’t want them to think that just because they have a disability, it’s going to limit them.”

KEEP READING: Technology leads the way to equitable education for K–12 students.

Technology Helps Students with Disabilities Build Confidence

While assistive technology really does help students become more independent, teachers say what really seems to get their students with disabilities going are tech tools that stoke their curiosity.

One year, just before winter break, Darren Crist, a teacher at Rainbow Ridge Elementary School in Val Verde Unified School District in California, told his students with disabilities he had convinced the principal to get a 3D printer for their classroom.

“They came back from break already knowing how to use programs and what the machine can do and what it can’t do,” Crist recalls. “They went on YouTube over the break, and they really came back with a foundation of their own. I was staying up every night until 2 or 3 a.m., trying to catch up with these kids who were so excited about this technology that no one else in the school had.”

Crist continues to incorporate technology into his classroom using 3D printers, robotics sets and the Merlyn Mind Symphony Classroom artificial intelligence platform. Getting kids — especially kids with disabilities — excited about tech not only prepares them for future careers, it gives them a shot of confidence that can often translate into their other academic efforts, he says.

“It really got them to take responsibility for their own learning, and it allowed me to use that as leverage when they were having a tough time in reading or math,” he says. “If they said, ‘I can’t do this,’ I could say, ‘What are you talking about? You learned how to code a 3D printer overnight!’”

In what he calls one of the most rewarding experiences of his teaching career, Crist brought a handful of students to a district STEAM fair, where they explained the technology to attendees. One student, who previously had only spoken a word or two at a time, started explaining how to use CAD software.

Darren Crist
His mom was in tears, because she had never heard him speak that much before. It really helped him to become more vocal and become an advocate for himself.”

Darren Crist Teacher, Val Verde Unified School District

“His mom was in tears, because she had never heard him speak that much before,” Crist recalls. “It really helped him to become more vocal and become an advocate for himself. It was awesome to see.”

Crist recommends that schools find out what sorts of emerging tech tools their students with disabilities are excited about, put the equipment in front of them and watch them rise to the challenge. “Trust the kids,” he says. “They’ll be able to handle it. And you’re going to see them grow by leaps and bounds.”

Photography by Matthew Furman

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