Workplace Readiness in Special Education

By Ryan Mandado

When you ask business professionals what they look for in their workers, most responses relate to effective communication. Those without disabilities have the advantage of being able to communicate using their words, body language, and facial expressions and that advantage helps them navigate industries to find work. Students with disabilities may require extra skill-building to help them communicate with their non-disabled peers. While discussions about post-graduation plans are common with general education students, those conversations happen less frequently with our special education students. We need more adults asking our students with special needs what they will be doing post-high school, so that we can better prepare them for their future.

Mrs. Tani Saito at Campbell High School teaches the Special Education Transition Classroom. Her classroom focuses on building functional work skills for students who will soon be exiting high school. One of the special projects her classroom takes charge of is a campus-wide coffee cart. Her students are responsible for ensuring all parts of their coffee cart is ready. The students make the coffee, prepare the materials needed to travel across the large campus, and independently navigate the carts to reach all buildings.

When walking across campus, students make stops at classrooms and work on communication skills. They work on asking their non-disabled peers what kind of drink they want, whether it’s coffee or tea, collecting money from their peers, and asking the other students if they want change. The collection of funds adds another layer of functional living skills because students are tasked to learn how to collect money, give change, and count dollars and coins.

Ultimately, managing the cart is teaching students how to socialize with their peers, work on the pragmatics of speech with their non-disabled peers, and improve their understanding of simple and basic monetary exchanges.

Another great project that helps students build workplace readiness skills is the Fruit 4 You Store operated in Mrs. Deeanna Henry’s classroom. Students in her classroom purchase fruits, vegetables, and salad bowls from the local grocery store and sell them to hungry teachers during lunch.

“Student are building customer service skills, learning how to follow instructions, determining if the fruit is good to be sent out, directions to deliver the fruit, monetary exchanges, and inventory skills to see if there is enough fruit. This provides them an opportunity to develop job skills for future occupations. The interactions they have with other people is essential for when they enter the workforce” says Mrs. Henry.

The Fruit 4 You store has a campus wide email that sends a notification to faculty members about useful facts and reasons of why to eat healthy. Teachers will call into the classroom to make a purchase. The students are in charge of taking down the order, calculating how much it will cost, and delivering it to the teacher’s classroom.

Having a simple conversation with guided questions and practice can help students with special needs practice their communication skills. When you approach a student for conversation, make sure to extend your hand and ask them to give you a firm handshake. When answering questions, make sure they are using complete sentences detailing why they are interested in that career field. Lastly, ensure you are giving positive praise and being authentic.

The next time you see a student with a disability, ask them, “what do you want to do after high school?” You will be contributing to their success.


Ryan Mandado is the Special Education Department Head at James Campbell High School, the largest public high school in the State of Hawaii. He helps to elevate and support 30 SpEducators in his department who service approximately 300 students with special needs. He is commitment to ensuring all students in Special Education has access to a equitable, inclusive, and excellent education. He is a proud product of Hawaii public schools and has a Master of Science in Education from Johns Hopkins University. Find him on Twitter @RyanCanoneoM.