Over & Under: Overcoming Systemic Barriers to Employment for Underserved Youth with Disabilities in Rural Areas

Topical Commentary

By DeBrittany Mitchell & Julisa Cully

While overall employment rates in the USA have improved, employment for people with disabilities in rural areas has decreased (1). In rural communities, there are higher numbers of individuals with disabilities who also face barriers to skill attainment for a wide range of high-growth industry sectors such as information technology and healthcare.

The employment rate is even lower for youth with disabilities at 20.4% in comparison to adults with disabilities at 33.6% in the USA (2). There are many American state examples that show apprenticeships as a promising model to address industry skills gaps and career pathways for youth not pursuing secondary education. However, there is little or no evidence of the inclusion of youth with disabilities in those programs, especially in rural communities. This presents an unmet need to increase the number of youth apprenticeship programs in rural areas, where there are higher rates of people with disabilities who face lower rates of employment.

Strengthening apprenticeship-focused partnerships between Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) and the public workforce systems, businesses, and higher education institutions can increase the number of youth with disabilities (3) who will enter or return to the workforce. The participation of youth with disabilities in apprenticeship programs will ultimately lead to the acquisition of skills for them to meet the demand of rapidly expanding career fields.

Image Source: Andrea Piacquadio (Pexels)

Public employment systems in the USA, specifically VR agencies, serve high rates of working-age youth with disabilities age 16-24. These youth face compounding barriers to accessing and benefitting from apprenticeship and work-based learning programs in rural communities.

A Think Tank led by the authors and colleagues (policy experts) at the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) brought together VR staff across the country who help individuals with disabilities obtain and maintain successful employment. The VR system in the USA serves well over 1 million people with disabilities annually (4) with a third of those cases being youth ages 16 to 24 (5). Their insights revealed the following systemic barriers to apprenticeship access for youth with disabilities in rural areas:

  • Limited partners/employers committed to apprentice development in rural areas;
  • Lack of opportunities to address skills gaps within the local, rural workforce;
  • Difficulty creating and maintaining a pipeline of qualified and interested program candidates;
  • Lack of support services for youth in rural areas such as access to technology, transportation, etc.;
  • Lack of understanding and knowledge of “apprenticeships” by VR, youth with disabilities, and their families.

The aforementioned systemic barriers to apprenticeship development require a higher level of collaboration amongst VR agencies and multiple workforce system partners to make a collective impact. Collective impact initiatives require an infrastructure led by dedicated staff that ensures ongoing communication, a collaborative working structure, shared goals and outcome measurements (6) among all participants.

To provide this collective impact infrastructure for cross-agency collaboration and implementation success, we adopted and adapted the Learning Collaborative Model (LCM) (7), which had proven success as a model used in Canadian healthcare. The LCM is a peer-to-peer approach for implementation of innovative practices and strategies in which operational, procedural, and bureaucratic factors play a significant role on the success of implementation.

The Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) used the model to provide the infrastructure (i.e. regular meetings, linkages to VR agencies that have implementation experience, agency assessment and implementation plans, online repository of tools, and data collection instruments) for interactions and dialogue between researchers/evaluators, content experts, business representatives, policymakers, and the practitioners.

The key tenets of the LCM are the facilitation and guidance by subject matter experts and the peer-to-peer exchange. The LCM furthermore provides a forum for practice adopters to engage in problem-based learning and cross-agency knowledge transfer. This model has successfully been used as a knowledge translation strategy with over forty US state VR agencies across a number of national research and implementation projects. It is a primary component of the Rural Youth Apprenticeship Development Project (RYAD) led by the ICI and funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research in USA.

The model is focused on the development of apprenticeships programs for youth with disabilities served by VR agencies in underserved rural communities. The participating VR agencies include those that have successfully created youth apprenticeship programs in rural communities in their states and agencies that are in the process of developing new apprenticeship programs in their states. The RYAD subject matter experts facilitate the learning collaborative activities and help to coordinate across systems. They also work closely with the project advisory groups to make sure other stakeholders have a voice in the process. The advisory groups consist of experts on relevant rural community issues, apprenticeships, and youth apprentices.

EVR_logo - DeBrittany Mitchell

Image source: Marketing and Communications Team, Institute for Community Inclusion (www.explorevr.org)

The participating VR agencies are geographically and structurally diverse, each bringing a unique perspective and experience to developing apprenticeship programs in rural communities. Other members of the RYAD learning collaborative cohort include partners in the development of the apprenticeship programs such as workforce system entities, policymakers, and businesses.

The LCM facilitates innovation adoption through ongoing communication between all stakeholders, consultation from the subject matter experts, self-assessments, and evaluation. Meetings are typically conducted quarterly with a set agenda: (a) updates and celebration of implementation milestones met; (b) brainstorming on implementation challenges; and (c) discussions led by the subject matter experts on emerging themes and related tools, policies, and research. In addition to the learning collaborative meetings, the participants receive ongoing individualized support on operations and evaluation from the subject matter experts. The researchers and evaluators support the VR agencies in conducting evaluations of the apprenticeship programs and evaluating the effectiveness of the LCM.

“The aforementioned systemic barriers to apprenticeship development require a higher level of collaboration amongst VR agencies and multiple workforce system partners to make a collective impact.”

The LCM is a promising knowledge translation (KT) approach for implementation and evaluation studies (8). KT entails interactive participation from researchers and stakeholders. All participants are invested and fully engaged in the life of the project, from development through implementation. They also actively participate and inform the evaluation and documentation process, while providing input on the refinement or modification of the practices and strategies. The evaluation includes input from the apprenticeship program participants.

The LCM keeps the focus on the implementation implications at the ground level and from the practitioner’s perspective, which helps the implementing agencies lay a solid foundation for apprenticeship program development while strategically planning for sustainability. This enables them to assess the effectiveness of the programs and make adjustments that will lead to successful completion for the youth with disabilities participating in the programs.

As noted earlier, the LCM has been used by several national research projects focused on the work of VR agencies. The following video highlights what participants reported as the benefits of the LCM, including tailoring research to the practitioners’ needs and building lasting relationships. Watch video excerpts to listen to past learning collaborative members share their perspective.

Many of the participants also report that ongoing communication with their peers from their learning collaborative cohort is part of the sustainability plan for their initiatives. Since participating agencies join the learning collaborative cohort at different phases of implementation, they can speak to different issues on the implementation continuum from the initial planning phase through local community and state-wide rollout. In many cases, the practices are explored from an empirical lens as well as with the conversations exploring outcomes and research fidelity and what is needed for the practices to become evidence-based wide rollout.

Finally, while we have built a knowledge base complete with tools and resources focused on apprenticeships, the LCM helps to build a cross-system and interdisciplinary approach to further explore the intersectionality between disability, race, age, and geographic contexts. The learning collaborative cohort will also influence the development of a wide range of tools and products that can be adapted locally and provide a forum for immediate knowledge transfer to share rural-specific solutions and strategies between states. Rural adaptations of apprenticeship models are necessary to identify unique barriers and propose impactful solutions to overcome those barriers as we work towards a more equitable workforce landscape for youth with disabilities and for all.


Featured illustration by Sherry Ann for rehabINK.

To refer to this article, it can be cited as:

DeBrittany M, Julisa C. Over & Under: Overcoming Systemic Barriers to Employment for Underserved Youth with Disabilities in Rural Areas. rehabINK. 2021:10. Available from: https://rehabinkmag.com


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  2. US Department of Labour. Disability Employment Statistics [Internet]. Washington, USA: Office of Disability Employment Policy; 2020 November [cited 2020 Nov 10]. Available from: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/odep/research/statistics
  3. Mitchell D, McNeil N, Cully J, Miller J, Hale P, Blackburn N, et al. Step-by-Step Apprenticeship Implementation Guide: Key steps for vocational rehabilitation agencies to consider when developing paid work experience programs [Internet]. Boston, USA: Institute for Community Inclusion, University of Massachusetts Boston; 2018 [cited 2020 Nov 10]. Available from: https://www.explorevr.org/sites/explorevr.org/files/files/apprenticeship%20guide_V2_F.pdf
  4. Honeycutt T, Bardos M, McLeod S. Bridging the gap: A comparative assessment of vocational rehabilitation agency practices with transition-age youth. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation. 2015 1;43(3):229-47.
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  7. Kotecha J, Brown JB, Han H, Harris SB, Green M, Russell G, et al. Influence of a quality improvement learning collaborative program on team functioning in primary healthcare. Families, Systems, and Health. 2015, 33(3): 222-230.
  8. Mitchell D. Center on Knowledge Translation for Disability and Rehabilitation Research [Internet]. Washington, USA: American Institutes for Research; 2014 [cited 2020 Nov 10]. Available from: https://ktdrr.org/products/ktcasebook/RTAC.html