National Center on Secondary Education and Transition
In Their Own Words: Employer Perspectives on Youth with Disabilities in
Finding Premium Volunteers:
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
- 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
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
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
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.
598K, 40 pages
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.
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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.