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National Center on Secondary Education and Transition

In Their Own Words: Employer Perspectives on Youth with Disabilities in the Workplace

Boosting the High Tech Workforce:
Kennedy Space Center, NASA

by Cassandra Black

The John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) center of excellence for launch and payload processing systems. KSC is in charge of space launch operations and spaceport and range technologies. Part of this responsibility includes the checkout, launch, and landing of the space shuttle and its payloads. KSC is located at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport in Florida.

High Tech Exposure for Students with Disabilities

We have been providing internships since 1985, but became involved in the High School High Tech (HSHT) Program in 1995 to provide internships for high school students with disabilities. The goals of the HSHT program are to motivate students’ interests in high-tech careers and to assist students with disabilities to become independent, productive members of the workforce of the 21st century.

KSC’s HSHT program works in partnership with the Space Coast Center for Independent Living (the local program administrator) and Able Trust (the statewide program administrator in Florida). SCCIL is a community-based student, parent, and employer program designed to encourage students with physical, sensory, or learning disabilities to pursue their interests in science, engineering, and technology. Applicants apply directly to SCCIL, which recruits students from local schools as early as seventh grade. Students are eligible to participate in a six-week internship at KSC when they reach age 16. SCCIL collaborates with NASA to screen applications, help with placement, and assist with transportation, accommodations, etc. SCCIL conducts a variety of skill-building workshops for students, including interviewing skills and computer training. Students also write a final report as a culminating activity of their internship.

As program manager of HSHT, I work with managers and supervisors to provide internships at KSC and to determine the schedule of summer activities such as tours and presentations. I also participate in many of the SCCIL activities for students. I try to have a presence at these activities so that I can get to know the students and their families, become familiar with the students’ skills and interests, and provide information about the KSC HSHT program as well as its skills and technology needs.

The annual cycle for the KSC HSHT program is:

  • Fall-Spring: Establish KSC requirements, market the project in the community and receive and evaluate applications;
  • Spring: Interviews, workshops, and activities; and
  • Summer: Six-week internships at KSC, which include matches with KSC mentors.

Strategies for a Good Work Experience

The job match is very important. I work with the SCCIL program manager to identify students’ interests and skills, and then I match students with KSC personnel based on the students’ interests, the circumstances of the particular work sites to which they might be assigned, and the qualities of potential KSC mentors. Students are introduced to their KSC mentors on their first day on the job and are given clear expectations for their internship. For their part, the mentors have been very pleased with their student workers as a result of the careful matching.

By attending student activities at the SCCIL, I have visibility with the students and their parents and become familiar with the students’ interests, skills, and needs. At times we are able to meet the students’ parents at the SCCIL activities. This is the first work experience for many of the students, and the parents have questions and concerns that I try to address. This process is a full-circle community partnership. I try to have an open-door policy for easy access and communication with students, mentors, agency support staff, and parents to share any concerns they might have at any time.

Our Lessons Learned

In the past, KSC interns have been primarily college students. The employer mentors were initially concerned about whether high school students and students with disabilities would be able to do the work. I needed to meet with prospective mentors to provide some disability awareness training. I told the mentors that the students might have disabilities, but that they all had individual abilities and interests.

We have found that the students have been very creative in finding solutions to tasks. Identifying student support needs as soon as possible is necessary to make the work experience positive from the start. At times the students want so badly to demonstrate that they can do the job independently that they are reluctant to ask for additional help or support. I now speak with the SCCIL program administrator to identify accommodations and with KSC staff to clarify what is needed before the student comes to NASA.

NASA also has a center-wide Disability Awareness Action Working Group. By representing my program in this group, I become familiar with the center-wide perspective on effective measures to work with people with disabilities.

For an outside agency to successfully support a student work experience, it is important for the agency to do its homework. To create an effective job match, the agency needs to be familiar with both job requirements and the students’ skills, support needs, and interests in specific career fields. The agency should understand the availability and types of jobs in a company and anticipate future company trends. In this way, the agency can be well informed and most supportive in helping both the company and the student to have a positive work experience.

The support services that SSCIL provides include:

  • Recruiting, prescreening, and referring students from local high schools;
  • Helping with the job match process, which is a team effort between the KSC HSHT and SCCIL programs;
  • Providing job support through site visits as needed; and
  • Providing NASA with center-wide interpreter services for interns and employees who are deaf.

A Success for Everyone

One student with limited mobility and speech blossomed in the program. Her parents noted that prior to her internship, she was often very quiet and did not participate in activities because her speech was so difficult to understand. In addition, her family had been very concerned and protective about her visiting different places.

She interned in the astronaut crew quarters, which has a strict security protocol, so we had to address the staff’s concerns. We worked out the security issues, and with the help of SSCIL, we were able to address those concerns. Once those issues and her accommodation needs were addressed, she had a successful internship in database management, creating databases and spreadsheets.

The staff was very pleased with her work ethic, and her family was amazed and pleased with her increased independence, self-care skills, and heightened self-esteem. Despite her parents’ concerns, she later participated in a statewide Youth Leadership Forum for Individuals with Disabilities that required her to be away from home. Before her internship, she or her family would not even have considered this type of activity. She became a “star” of the program and served as a peer leader the next year. She is now finishing her second year of community college and will soon be enrolling in a four-year university. She is also planning to be married. This young woman had a positive work experience at KSC, and it also enabled her to excel in other situations. Now she will pursue the higher education necessary for a career in a high-tech field.

A total of 56 students from the program have interned at KSC. Some 95% have enrolled in postsecondary education. It is clear that they have benefited from the experience. NASA’s KSC also benefits from this type of partnership by having quality interns who can do the job, by receiving the support we need to make it work, and by giving our future workforce a boost.

Cassandra Black is the Program Manager for NASA’s High School High Tech Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Table of Contents

Cover Page


Publish or Perish: Macworld Magazine by Shelly Ginenthal

Reaching Out to Youth: Microsoft Corporation by Mylene Padolina

Boosting the High Tech Workforce: Kennedy Space Center, NASA by Cassandra Black

Finding Premium Volunteers: Port Discovery by Leah Burke

Investigating Human Resource Options: American Institute for Cancer Research by John McIlveen

Manufacturing & Production Technician Youth Apprentices: Generac Portable Products Corporation by Bob Hurd

Infrastructure for Success: Kemtah Group, Inc. by Keith Harris

Quality Products, Quality Employees: Medtronic Physio-Control by LaDrene Coyne

Searching for a Reliable Workforce: Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center by J. Erin Riehle

Keeping Stock of Personnel Needs: Safeway by Grace Louie

Brokering Achievement: Old Colony Insurance Service, Inc. by S. Brooks May, Jr.

Summary & Conclusion

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Citation: Luecking, R., Ed. (2004). Essential tools: In their own words: Employer perspectives on youth with disabilities in the workplace. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration, National Center on Secondary Education and Transition.

Permission is granted to duplicate this publication in its entirety or portions thereof. Upon request, this publication will be made available in alternative formats. For additional copies of this publication, or to request an alternate format, please contact: Institute on Community Integration Publications Office, 109 Pattee Hall, 150 Pillsbury Drive SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455, (612) 624-4512, icipub@umn.edu.

This document was published by the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET). NCSET is supported through a cooperative agreement #H326J000005 with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education Programs, and no official endorsement should be inferred. The University of Minnesota, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition are equal opportunity employers and educators.