Skip to content Skip to main navigation
Return to homepage

12. The role of vocational education and training in employment and other outcomes for people with intellectual disability

Skip to sub navigation

The right to post-secondary education

Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN, 2006), and has agreed to implement these rights in Australia. The UNCRPD, Article 24, affirms the right of people with disability to ‘access general tertiary education, vocational training, adult education and lifelong learning without discrimination and on an equal basis with others’. Various Australian government policy and legislation echoes this right including the Australian Disability Standards for Education (Australian Government, 2005) that affirm ‘that students with disability are able to access and participate in education on the same basis as other students’ (p. iii). 

What are the post-secondary education options?

There are two main post-school education options in Australia: tertiary or University level education, and vocational education and training (VET) often known as TAFE. However, it is important to note that while these are called ‘post-secondary’, there are opportunities to commence some of these options whilst still undertaking secondary education in mainstream or special schools.  

Vocational Education and Training

Australia’s Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector is based on a partnership between governments, industry and other stakeholders. ‘The VET system provides training for entry level jobs through to highly technical occupations, but also provides training for non‑employment related reasons’ (Productivity Commission, 2020, p.5.1).  VET provides practical skills and knowledge for a wide range of careers including trades, office work, hospitality, technology, health and community services and logistics. VET qualifications are provided by registered training organisations (RTOs) which include government institutions called Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutions, as well as private institutions (Commonwealth of Australia, Austrade, 2016: 26), including many Australian Disability Enterprises (ADEs).

VET is open to a wide range of applicants including those entering the workforce for the first time, re-entering the workforce, upgrading work skills for an existing job, or retraining for new work. Students can choose to undertake a single subject/unit of competency, module, skill set or VET qualification from Certificate level I to Graduate Diploma level (Productivity Commission, 2020). These include:  

  • Full apprenticeships and traineeships or partial/selected units of competence to upgrade skills; 
  • Certificates I and II for literacy, numeracy, life skills, communication, foundation occupation & trade skills;  
  • Certificates III and IV for industry specific training for particular occupations; 
  • Diplomas and Advanced Diplomas for advanced industry skills and pathways to higher education.

In addition, VET is available in secondary schools through the ‘VET in schools’ program (Productivity Commission, 2020b).

The problem – the low rates of post-secondary education for people with intellectual disability

Young adults with intellectual disability often share the same aspirations as other students without disabilities about attending post-secondary education and gaining skills needed to obtain employment (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010 in Wehman et al. 2018). However, the expectation for students with intellectual disability to attend university/college[1] and other forms of post-secondary education has not been adequately appreciated by families and many relevant professionals (Butler et al. 2016).

This lack of knowledge of the advantages of post-secondary education for people with intellectual disability contributes to low numbers of enrolments. Despite its impact on later opportunities, people with intellectual disability are far less likely than their age peers without disability to move into post-secondary education – both internationally and in Australia (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2008; Davies & Beamish, 2009; Stanwick, Forrest, & Skujins, 2017). While there is no recent data, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that based on 2003 data, the proportion of 20-24 years olds with intellectual disability who participated in post school education was approximately 9%, while for those over 25 years it was less than 5% (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2008).

For youth with intellectual disability, there is a large disparity in education and employment outcomes. A significant body of evidence from the United States shows that among all disability groups, youth (aged 16-26) with intellectual disability have lower rates of preparation for work after high school and lower rates of postsecondary education participation (Miller, Sax & Tucker, 2019). Further, when students do attend post-secondary education, retention of students to degree completion remains a widespread issue (Wehman et al. 2018).

Outcomes of Vocational Education and Training (VET)

Studies both in Australia and internationally have been able to identify a number of benefits of VET for people with disability, including those with intellectual disability.

  • VET is a way of improving employment prospects for people with a disability (Cocks et al., 2013; Cavanagh et al., 2019; Southward & Kyzar, 2017). In Australia, 73.7% of students with disability who graduated from VET programs in 2018 were employed or continued to further study. 45.5% of graduates from VET in 2018 who had a disability improved their employment status as a result of their VET studies. This includes getting a job when they previously did not have one, or getting a job benefit such as being promoted to a higher skill level job (Productivity Commission, 2020a). An Australian study found that completing a VET qualification increases the chances of employment and improves the chances of continuous job tenure two to three years after completion, and that completing a VET qualification may indicate to employers that their disability does not affect their ability, motivation and commitment to perform employment and general tasks (Cavanagh et al., 2019).
  • Positive economic outcomes are achieved through participating in apprenticeships and traineeships for people with a disability evident in rates of income comparable to similarly aged Australians without disability (Cocks et al., 2013).
  • Productivity improvement may be achieved following a VET program to enable people with a disability to meet their job tasks (Polidano and Mavromaras, 2011).
  • Developing new skills including teamwork skills and the developing of skills in handling different situations, while fostering a professionalism and work ethic (Southward and Kyzar, 2017).
  • The retraining of learned skills and abilities for people with intellectual disability can be done though a VET Program (Cavanagh et al., 2019).
  • The confidence of people with intellectual disability can be increased by undertaking VET and employment (Cavanagh et al., 2019).
  • Vocational training has improved the quality of life of people with intellectual disability and enhanced a life more compatible with their wishes and needs (Gomes-Machado et al., 2016).
  • Social benefits for people with disability in participating in apprenticeships and traineeships were identified by Cocks and Thoresen (2013) in their longitudinal study into social and economic outcomes for apprenticeship and traineeship graduates with disabilities: As summarized by Wakeford and Waugh (2014), ‘Social outcomes included formal memberships of community groups and clubs as well as informal relationships with friends and acquaintances in the workplace’ (p.25). Gomes-Machado et al., (2016) evidenced ‘an expansion of sociability through interpersonal relations with colleagues’ (p.38).

Ingredients of success: VET for people with intellectual disability

While programs vary, studies have been able to identify some of the components of VET that lead to positive outcomes for people with disability – including intellectual disability.

  • VET or VETis (VET in schools) which include some form of work-based training such as apprenticeships and traineeships are strong vocational pathways with good employment outcomes for young people with disability (Cocks et al., 2013). Wakeford and Waugh note that this may be ‘because of the employment or on-the-job relationship embedded in the apprenticeship and traineeship models. … Likewise, training that involves practical experience in the workplace is more likely to lead to employment for young people with a disability’ (Wakeford and Waugh, 2014: 23).
  • Observation and feedback of/to people with intellectual disability to develop their skills has been identified in studies as the key to vocational training (Gomes-Machado et al., 2016: 33). Observers play a crucial role in providing insights and feedback for primary participants about the actions undertaken (Rantatalo et al., 2019).
  • An Australian study outlined the value of social support in assisting people with disability to successfully complete vocational education (Polidano and Mavromaras, 2011)
  • The development of self-determination skills that enhance the ability to make decisions regarding the questions that affect one’s life and to act on the basis of these choices, should be a key focus of the vocational training process. Training must reinforce the activities that develop autonomy and minimize gradually the need for assistance and support in the work environment (Gomes-Machado et al., 2016).


Australian Government (2005). Australian Disability Standards for Education, Department of Education and Training. Available at:

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2008). Disability in Australia: intellectual disability. Bulletin no. 67. Cat. no. AUS 110. AIHW, Canberra.

Butler, L. N., Sheppard-Jones, K., Whaley, B., Harrison, B. & Osness, M. (2016). Does Participation in Higher Education Make a Difference in Life Outcomes for Students with Intellectual Disability? Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 44, 3: 295 – 298.

Cavanagh, J., Meachamb, H., Pariona Cabrera, P. and Bartram, T. (2019). Vocational learning for workers with intellectual disability: interventions at two case study sites, Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 71, 3: 350-367.

Cocks, E., Thoresen, S. H. & Lim Lee, E. A. (2013). Employment and related economic outcomes for Australian apprenticeship and traineeship graduates with disabilities: Baseline findings from a national three-year longitude study, Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 39: 205-217.

Commonwealth of Australia, Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade). (2016). Australian Education technology: Education of the Future Now, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Crosbie, J., Murfitt, K., Hayward, S. M. & Wilson, E. (2019). NDIS Participant Employment Taskforce Literature Review: Employment and Economic Participation of People with Disability, National Disability Insurance Agency, Geelong.

Gomes-Machado, M. L., Heloisa Santos, F. Teresa Schoen & Chiari, B. (2016). Effects of Vocational Training on a Group of People with Intellectual Disabilities, Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities, 13, 1: 33-40.

Miller, S. C., Sax, C. L. & Tucker, M. S., (2019). Examining Associations between Postsecondary Education, Earnings, and Provision of College and University Training Related to Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Served by Vocational Rehabilitation, Journal of Rehabilitation, 85, 1: 22-34.

Polidano, C. & Mavromaras, K. (2011). Participation in and Completion of Vocational Education and Training for People with a Disability, The Australian Economic Review, 44, 2: 137–152.

Productivity Commission (2020a). Report on government services 2020. Part B. Section 5: Vocational Education and Training,

Productivity Commission (2020b). Report on government services 2020. Part B. Section 4: School Education,

Rantatalo, O, Sjöberg, D. & Karp S. (2019). Supporting roles in live simulations: how observers and confederates can facilitate learning, Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 71, 3: 482-499.

Southward, J. & Kyzar, K. (2017). Predictors of Competitive Employment for Students with Intellectual and/or Developmental Disabilities, Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 52, 1: 26-37

UN (United Nation)s, Division for Social Policy and Development Disability (2006) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

Wakeford, M. & Waugh, F. (2014). Transition to employment of Australian young people with disability and the ‘Ticket to Work’ initiative, National Ticket to Work Network,

Wehman, P., Taylor, J., Brooke, V., Avellone, L., Whittenburg, H., Ham, W., Brooke, A. M. & Car, S. (2018). Toward Competitive Employment for Persons with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: What Progress Have We Made and Where Do We Need to Go, Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 43, 3: 131 –144

The authors would like to acknowledge the usefulness of Crosbie, J.: Murfitt, K.; Hayward, S. & Wilson, E. (2019), NDIS Participant Employment Taskforce. Literature review: Employment and economic participation of people with disability, Burwood, Deakin University, as a review of similar literature that provided initial guidance.

[1] Some of the studies referenced throughout are based on research in the US and tend to use the term ‘college’. While there are distinctions in relation to course structures, ‘college’ and ‘university’ are frequently interchangeable and simply refer to education at the tertiary level.

A project by Inclusion Australia

Subscribe to the Inclusion Australia newsletter to stay up to date