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Coordinating Internships for Students with Disabilities

Coordinating Internships for Students with Disabilities

Developed by: Nancy Dugan, Margo Izzo, Ginny Knowlton, and Alexa Murray


An internship is a “fixed-term work experience with clear learning objectives” that takes place outside of the traditional classroom (Stanton, 1992, p. 31). Simply put, internships are a type of experiential learning. Students work with employers in a supervised learning situation for planned learning activities and real-world experience (University of Washington DO-IT Program, 1999). Internships can be paid or unpaid, part time or full-time, and they can range in duration from a few weeks to a few years depending on the type and purpose of the position.  In general, internships last three to six months, and sometimes schools will give students academic credit for their work-based learning ( Stanton , 1992). At some institutions, participation in internships is a mandated requirement for obtaining a degree. When internships are a requirement in a course of study, students can be assigned to a specific internship placement; however, it is common for many programs to have students obtain a placement themselves as an exercise in job hunting.

Though individuals with and without disabilities can benefit greatly from the internship process, the power of internships for those with disabilities takes on additional significance because of social inequalities in education and income that result in drastically poorer employment outcomes for people with disabilities (Izzo & Lamb, 2002). Internships can serve as fundamental skill-building tools by which students with disabilities can obtain the critical career development and decision-making competencies needed to compete in an increasingly competitive job market (Izzo & Lamb, 2002; Track & Harney, 1998). Listed below are general benefits and guidelines for arranging internships.

Possible Benefits of Internships

For All Students: ( Stanton , 1992)

  • Real-world experience valued by employers
  • Career exploration – clarification of career interests
  • Opportunity to make job contacts
  • Development of new skills
  • Improved self-esteem and ability to make decisions, set goals
  • Improved classroom performance – academic theory is linked with practice
  • Extra spending money, usually in the form of a monthly stipend
  • Practice in job seeking, finding a placement that matches one’s interests and credentials
  • Opportunity to be offered a job upon graduation from school
  • Opportunity to sharpen skills learned in prior academic and technical training

For Employers: ( Stanton , 1992)

  • Inexpensive source of labor – cost of interns and investment of resources minimal
  • Opportunity to “try-out” a potential employee to see if the person is suited for the job
  • Eagerness to learn of many interns can make them good and productive employees willing to work hard and contribute to the organization

Important Considerations in Arranging Internships for People with Disabilities

For Educators & Internship Coordinators:

  • Encourage students with disabilities to actively pursue internships and encourage employers to recruit students with disabilities for work opportunities (University of Washington DO-IT Program, 1999; University of Kentucky Engaging Differences Project, 2000).
  • Meet with the student and if applicable, his/her disability services counselor to assess specific learning and accommodation needs so the internship experience can be planned accordingly.
  • Work collaboratively with the student and employer/on-site supervisor to arrange for accommodations. Ideally, the student should disclose his/her accommodation needs to the employer, but sometimes follow-up or further clarification from the educator or internship coordinator is necessary to ensure that appropriate accommodations are made and that the work needs of both student and employer are being met. Since it may be necessary to discuss with the employer the purpose of the accommodations and their appropriateness for the completion of job tasks, don’t be afraid to consult with both the student and his/her disability services counselor for any information that will facilitate the accommodations process.
  • When you arrange internship sites for the institution or develop contracts with these sites, provide information on role expectations to all parties involved. Clarify to whom accommodation requests will be made and how they will be implemented.
  • Know the rights of students and employers under the law so you can be an effective liaison between the student intern and the placement site. Consult with the Disability Services Program, Human Resources or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Coordinator’s Office to discuss how accommodations are provided in the workplace and the employment implications of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

For Students with Disabilities:

  • Register with your Disability Support Services office on campus and speak with a disability services counselor about possible campus resources or options for work-based learning. Though it is not the responsibility of Disability Support Services to find you an internship, they can often be a good place to start for information, referral, and to view posted positions and opportunities for work (University of Washington DO-IT Program, 1999).
  • Let Disability Services and internship coordinators know what accommodations you might need to effectively perform in a work setting early on before you are placed in an internship so that ample time can be made to make arrangements (University of Washington DO-IT Program, 1999; University of Kentucky Engaging Differences Project, 2000). If you are unsure what accommodations you might need, work with Disability Services to identify which accommodations would best suit your particular disability.
  • Consider transportation needs. It is your responsibility, not the responsibility of Disability Services or the employer, to get you to your internship site. When selecting an internship, evaluate whether or not transportation will be a problem, find out what arrangements can be made, and discuss your needs with your internship coordinator so that he/she is aware of the situation and can help you find the most appropriate job match.
  • Be your own advocate; once you start an internship, keep the internship coordinator and on-site supervisor informed of your progress and if you have any learning or functioning needs that are not being met. If an accommodation isn’t working and/or if you need a different accommodation, be sure to keep all parties informed during the process rather than waiting until after the internship is over to voice your concerns.
  • Know what your rights and responsibilities are under your institution’s college’s policies and the Disabilities Act (ADA).  If you do not self-identify and present current documentation of your disability, you might not be eligible to receive accommodations. Consult with the Disability Services Program.

For Employers:

  • Work with the various work-based learning programs, career centers, and disability service providers on college campuses and within the community at large to promote internship opportunities to students with disabilities (University of Washington DO-IT Program, 1999; University of Kentucky Engaging Differences Project, 2000).
  • Be flexible and collaborative. Work with the internship coordinator, the student and Disability Services to ensure that the student with a disability is appropriately accommodated on the job.
  • Know your rights and responsibilities under the law to provide appropriate accommodations for individuals with disabilities. If you have questions or concerns, seek consultation on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Train your staff on diversity and disability awareness so that on-site supervisors and co-workers are informed and supportive (University of Washington DO-IT Program, 1999; University of Kentucky Engaging Differences Project, 2000).



Material adapted from the following sources:

Hodgson, P. (1999). Making internships well worth the work.  Techniques, 74(6), 38-39

Izzo, M.V & Lamb, M. (2002). Self-determination and career development: Skills for successful transition to postsecondary education and employment. A white paper for the Post-School Outcomes Network of the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET) at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Available on-line at: http://www.ncset.hawaii.edu/Publications/

Stanton , M. (1992, Summer). Internships: Learning by doing.  Occupational Outlook Quarterly, 36(2), 30-34.

Trach, J. S. & Harney, J. Y.  (1998).  Impact of cooperative education on career development for community college students with and without disabilities. Journal of Vocational Education Research, 23(2), 147-158.

University of Kentucky Engaging Differences Project. (2000). Instructional accommodation: Internships/experiential learning. Publication developed with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education (#P333A990045). Retrieved August 21, 2003 from http://www.uky.edu/TLC/grants/uk_ed/internship.html

University of Washington Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) Program.  (1999).  It’s your career: Work-based learning opportunities for students with disabilities. Publication developed with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (#H078C60047).  Retrieved August 21, 2003 from: http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Careers/worklearn.html   Project information available at: http://www.washington.edu/doit/

Additional Resources

Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers (DBTACs). These ten regional centers act as a “one-stop” comprehensive resource on ADA issues in employment, public services, public accommodations, and communications. Available at: http://www.adata.org/dbtac.html 

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Home Page, U.S. Department of Justice. Available at: http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/adahom1.htm

Anselmi, J. &  Staff of Yale Daily News.  (1999).  Yale Daily News Guide to Internships. New York: Simon & Schuster

Khubchandani, A.  (2003). Disabilities Issues Office, American Psychological Association. The ADA and internships: Your responsibilities as internship and postdoctoral agency directors. Publication available at http://mirror.apa.org/pi/cdip/internshipdirectors.html

Bolles, R.N. (2002). What Color is Your Parachute? Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press

Oldman, M. & Hamadeh, S. (2002). The Best 106 Internships. New York: The Princeton Review Publishing

Oldman, M. & Hamadeh, S. (2001). The Internship Bible. New York: The Princeton Review Publishing.

Peterson’s Internships 2004. 24th Edition.