ODEP at 20: Driving Change Through Youth Policy

A young girl uses sign language to communicate virtually on a laptop

All youth, both with and without disabilities, should grow up expecting to work and succeed, and the messages can’t start early enough.

We know this because it reflects our own experience. A clear vision of work, communicated at an early age by influential adults in our lives, helped us set expectations for ourselves and pave our own career paths. As policy advisors in the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, we work to cultivate such expectations and ensure youth with disabilities have access to the services and supports they need to meet them.

Youth policy has been a focus of ODEP’s work since its establishment 20 years ago. In fact, much of ODEP’s first year had a youth focus, including grants to introduce students with disabilities to technology-related careers and the creation of the former National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth.

Twenty years on, the need for such work remains critical. In 2020, the unemployment rate for youth with disabilities ages 16-19 and 20-24 was 26.7% and 21.1%, respectively. For comparison, the rate for youth without disabilities ages 16-19 and 20-24 was 17.7% and 13.5%, respectively, and the disparity is even larger for youth with disabilites from historically marginalized communities. Through our youth work, ODEP works to shrink this gap.

The foundation for this work has been and remains the “Guideposts for Success.” First published in 2005, this policy framework reflects an extensive review of research and best practices in youth development, education and workforce development. Developed in collaboration with the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth, it identified five essential interventions that help all youth, including youth with disabilities, effectively transition to postsecondary education or employment.

In 2019, we updated the guideposts to reflect shifts in the workforce landscape, and we continue to monitor trends in both education and employment to ensure its framework remains relevant for youth with disabilities and the parents, educators and workforce professionals who support them. Today, we do this in collaboration with the ODEP-funded Center for Advancing Policy on Employment for Youth (CAPE-Youth).

Over the years, the guideposts have informed a range of ODEP-produced resources and initiatives for educators, youth service providers and youth with disabilities, from our comprehensive “Skills to Pay the Bills” curriculum to guides and toolkits on individualized learning plans, disability disclosure and inclusive service learning, to name just a few. Through the Workforce Recruitment Program, we help college students and recent graduates with disabilities gain work experience through internships with federal agencies, with many going on to long-term federal careers. In recent years, our extensive work on apprenticeship has helped youth with disabilities gain access to career paths in high-growth industries such as information technology and health care. Currently, we’re looking at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on employment for youth with disabilities.

ODEP’s youth work is an investment in our nation’s future. For 20 years, we’ve helped ensure youth with disabilities can build skills and gain experience. As relatively new members of the ODEP team, we’re proud to both represent the importance of this work and carry it forward — so that others can pursue their own career paths.

Verlencia Somuah and Lydia Parenteau are policy advisors in the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.