Special Education

These Grants Could Help Students With Disabilities Access Jobs, Training

By Alyson Klein — April 15, 2024 3 min read
Collage of a woman in a wheelchair on a road leading to a large dollar sign. In the woman's hair is a ghosted photo of hands on a laptop.
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The U.S. Department of Education is investing $236 million into a perennial challenge in education: Helping young people with disabilities move from K-12 schools to post-secondary programs and the workforce.

School districts, state education and health agencies, higher education institutions, Indian tribes, and nonprofits will have a chance to compete for a slice of the funding, which aims to support innovative proposals to tackle this tricky and challenging transition.

The Education Department expects to allocate around 23 to 29 grants of $8 million to $10 million apiece, for up to five years.

While the program isn’t brand new, this is the largest pot of money that has been made available so far—the most recent round of grants allocated just under $200 million.

AI is going to improve the skill set of a worker. That gives me hope that we can diversify our workforce to include as many people as possible.

It’s also the first time that the grants can be directed to nonprofits and higher education institutions, a change made possible through congressional action.

And it’s the first time that the grants have centered in part on two particular technology-related goals: enabling people with disabilities to succeed in jobs or professions that involve the use of technology; or using or creating technologies to support people with disabilities in the workplace.

Proposals can focus on either of those technology-related priorities or they can address one or more of three other areas: helping people with disabilities who have been incarcerated or otherwise involved with the justice system transition to careers and higher education; assisting people with disabilities developed after birth in career development and post-secondary schooling; and helping “disconnected” people with disabilities—such as people from low-income families, those experiencing homelessness, or kids who were in foster care—as they enter the workforce or continue their education.

Applicants’ proposals can aim to help people with a wide range of disabilities. They include physical disabilities (such as mobility impairments or chronic health conditions), sensory difficulties (such as blindness or deafness), intellectual disabilities (such as developmental delays or cognitive challenges), and mental health conditions (such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder).

Those disabilities collectively impact a significant chunk of the population. In fact, more than a quarter—26 percent—of adults live with a disability, according to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2018.

And 7.1 million students ages 5 through 21 received services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the main federal law for students in special education, during the 2022-23 school year.

‘New possibilities for individuals with disabilities’

The competition was designed to “truly promote innovation in the space of rehabilitation services,” said Danté Q. Allen, the commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration in the department’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

“There are a number of new technologies out there, like artificial intelligence, that may be opening new possibilities for individuals with disabilities to take part in jobs that were previously not seen as fitting for that individual with that particular disability,” Allen said. “I would personally love to see how those technologies can be applied in a way that would redefine what we see as opportunities for individuals with disabilities.”

Eleazar “Trey” Vasquez III, a professor at the University of Central Florida and director of its Toni Jenkins Exceptional Education Institute, sees possibilities, too. He noted that data from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that when AI is used properly, it can boost worker productivity significantly.

“AI is going to improve the skill set of a worker,” he said. “That gives me hope that we can diversify our workforce to include as many people as possible.”

Applications for the grants were made available on April 9, and the department would like applicants to notify the agency of their intent to apply by April 23. Applications are due on July 8.

The department will be hosting an informational, pre-application meeting to field applicants’ questions on May 1 at 1:30 p.m. ET.

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