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National Center on Secondary Education and Transition

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

Finding Premium Volunteers:
Port Discovery

by Leah Burke

Every good museum depends on a cadre of committed and well-trained volunteers. As a nonprofit publicly supported operation that employs a committed but modest staff, Port Discovery is no different. While we call it a “kid-powered” museum because of the museum’s many interactive experiences for children, it might also be called a “volunteer-powered” museum. To maintain the interactive nature of our exhibits and programs, we need a host of volunteers to provide young visitors and program participants with all the assistance they need to get the most out of our museum. Port Discovery is in the heart of the Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, amid a constant stream of visitors.

Port Discovery has several volunteer programs that pertain to youth and young adults that are housed in several different departments including Exhibits and Programs, Education, Sales and Marketing, Development, Facilities, Retail, and Visitor Services. These include:

  • A regular volunteer program for which volunteers commit to a regular weekly or bi-weekly four-hour shift. Regular volunteers can be assigned to any aspect of the museum operation and must be more than 18 years old.
  • A service-learning program that offers local students the opportunity to earn service-learning credits while exploring a variety of museum positions. Through these assignments, students age 14 and older are engaged in the learning process through hands-on work with museum staff.
  • Internships that offer college students a variety of ways to earn college credits while they gain hands-on experience in program design, program development, and project administration.

All student volunteers participate in a well-defined and rigorous screening, orientation, supervision, and evaluation process. Students who have disabilities participate in the same process as other young people. They may require some accommodations or carefully structured experiences, but the expectations for participation and performance are no different than those for any volunteer.

Bringing in School Partners

Volunteers are expected, at a minimum, to work four-hour shifts. They can work as many days as they want, but a minimum of two days a week is desired. Schedules are flexible, but given the demands on students’ time, it is important for us to set this expectation so we can count on them. Not all students can commit to this level of participation. Therefore, recruiting for volunteers is constant as we can never have too many. We have recruited throughout the Baltimore school system for our volunteer program. These schools have had both regular and special education programs. Currently, we have 53 high school volunteers, 20 of whom have disabilities.

We have worked closely with the Baltimore Transition Connection (BTC), which prepares students, many of whom require considerable assistance and support because of various disabilities, for the transition from school into the workplace. BTC’s staff has been especially responsive to our needs and has been a critical link between what we do and what the students are doing in their educational curricula. With the students, BTC often attends the entire orientation, which can last a whole day, in addition to coaching the students in their volunteer tasks. There are some students who need fairly intensive assistance with such things as feeding and medications, but we are open to whatever supports are needed to facilitate the participation of the volunteers as long as there is someone to help us make them available.

Meeting the Challenges

Initially, some staff members expressed discomfort when meeting with students from BTC. We address these concerns and students’ needs in internal staff meetings and in briefings by BTC representatives. Employees are encouraged to assist students when necessary and to act as mentors to incorporate students with disabilities in museum activities and to reinforce museum policies. The museum staff has been uniformly accepting of these students. Since we work with a variety volunteers, it was fairly easy for employees to get comfortable working with BTC students.

Many young volunteers are inexperienced in proper workplace behavior. Often they are not familiar with such basic expectations as attendance, punctuality, responding to supervision or co-workers, or showing interest in the work. Often interpersonal behavior, such as looking at someone when speaking, has to be taught through role-playing.

In essence, the challenges with BTC students are no different than those presented by other young volunteers. We want them to meet time commitments, follow conduct requirements, adhere to dress codes, and respond to supervision. We count on BTC staff to follow through with the students when problems arise.

Overall, our philosophy is to treat volunteers with disabilities with the same set of expectations as other volunteers. However, sometimes it is easy to forget that they have some limitations in skill and experience. The result is that we may occasionally assign them to an area that requires skills they do not yet possess. When that happens, we will move them to another area or position to find the right match. Again, we count on BTC representatives to help us work through some of these assignment issues.

Evidence of Success

As with many of our nondisabled volunteers, students represented by BTC often come to us lacking interpersonal confidence. It is satisfying to see formerly introverted volunteers interacting effectively and appropriately with staff and children using the museum. For example, I observed one volunteer helping several young visitors use an interactive computer monitor. It was evident that the children were enjoying the experience and that the volunteer was feeling very competent in her role as a museum representative. This personal growth will serve the students well as they complete school and enter the workforce. In the meantime, it helps our museum serve the public as it is chartered to do. And of course, this arrangement helps strengthen our commitment to be truly kid-powered.

While we are careful to implement individual accommodations, like extra coaching from BTC staff, we have been insistent that BTC students meet the same expectations as other student volunteers. Some students who do a good job fulfilling their volunteer experiences will have the opportunity to move into paid positions at Port Discovery. In essence, the volunteer program helps students in their employment pursuits and helps us identify future employees.

We are pleased to have a significant percentage of our student volunteers coming from special education programs. We are looking forward to a long partnership with the schools and especially programs like BTC. As long as we get help in making the necessary accommodations and identifying meaningful assignments that work for both students and the museum, we will continue to make these youth a part of our volunteer program. The help of BTC and other school systems representatives makes it work.

Leah Burke is the Volunteer Coordinator at Port Discovery. Among her primary responsibilities are managing youth who are fulfilling service-learning or intern credits while committing to a rigorous volunteer experience at the museum.

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.