330 The Career Development Quarterly December 2013 • Volume 61

© 2013 by the National Career Development Association. All rights reserved.

Received 07/21/12Revised 10/14/12

Accepted 10/17/12DOI: 10.1002/j.2161-0045.2013.00059.x

ArticlesBuilding Career PATHS (Postschool Achievement Through Higher Skills) for Young Women With Disabilities

Lauren Lindstrom, Bonnie Doren, Cindy Post, and Allison Lombardi

The PATHS (Postschool Achievement Through Higher Skills) curriculum is designed to address the career development needs of young women with disabilities and other barriers. Participants (N = 110) in a pilot test of the curriculum showed increases in vocational self-efficacy, social efficacy, and awareness of disability/gender issues related to career planning, whereas those in the comparison group did not make similar gains. Qualitative findings from focus groups (N = 68) revealed that PATHS participants improved in self-confidence, self-awareness, ability to identify strengths, knowledge of multiple career options, and the capacity to set goals and plan for future careers.

Keywords: career development, gender identity, disability, school-to-work transition

Career development for young women with disabilities is a complex and multifaceted process that is affected by individual, family, school, and community experiences (Hogansen, Powers, Geenen, Gil-Kashiwabara, & Powers, 2008; Lindstrom & Benz, 2002) For young women with disabilities who are preparing to transition from high school to adult roles, career options may be constrained by disability barriers and gender stereotypes, thereby creating a double jeopardy situation (Asch, Rousso, & Jefferies, 2001; Ferri & Conner, 2010 ) that restricts career develop-ment and limits postschool employment and educational opportunities.

A number of longitudinal studies (Fabian, 2007; Hasnain & Balcazar, 2009; Rabren, Dunn, & Chambers, 2002) have documented gender dif-ferences in career outcomes for young adults with disabilities. After leaving high school, young women with disabilities are less likely to be employed than are their male peers, regardless of disability type. In a study of 4,571 urban youth with disabilities, Fabian (2007) found that young women were

Lauren Lindstrom, Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services, and Bonnie Doren and Allison Lombardi, College of Education, University of Oregon; Cindy Post, Lane Education Services District, Eugene, Oregon. Bonnie Doren is now at Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. Allison Lombardi is now at Department of Educational Psychol-ogy, University of Connecticut. This study was funded by a development grant from the National Center for Special Education Research, Institute of Educational Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Lauren Lindstrom, Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services, College of Education, University of Oregon, 5260 University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403-5260 (e-mail:

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The Career Development Quarterly December 2013 • Volume 61 331

25% less likely to secure jobs than were young men during the 1st year after leaving high school. Compared to their male peers, young women with disabilities were also more likely to be employed part time and earn lower wages, and less likely to work in high-skill/high-wage jobs or obtain benefits (Doren, Gau, & Lindstrom, 2011; Rabren, Hall, & Brown, 2003; Wagner, Newman, Cameto, & Levine, 2005).

Career development for young women with disabilities is influenced by a number of individual and structural barriers. Individual attributes, such as low self-esteem, limited self-efficacy, and a lack of self-advocacy skills can restrict the ability of these individuals to fully explore a wide range of career options (Lindstrom, Harwick, Poppen, & Doren, 2012). Families also play a key role in career development of young adults with disabilities. Pow-ers, Hogansesn, Geenen, Powers, and Gil-Kashiwabara (2008) found that parents may have low aspirations or be overly concerned for their daugh-ters’ safety, thus limiting their community experiences and potential career options. In addition, young women in high school who have disabilities often experience restricted opportunities for career exploration and may not play an active role in the transition planning process (Ferri & Connor, 2010; Trainor, 2007). They are also less likely than are their male peers to enroll in vocational courses or participate in community work experiences (Hogansen et al., 2008; Wagner et al., 2005). Finally, when young women with disabilities enter the workforce, they may encounter sexual harassment, disability discrimination, lack of female role models and mentors, and other barriers to career advancement (Noonan et al., 2004; Smith, 2007) This restricted set of opportunities and experiences translates to a narrow range of career interests and aspirations (Gottfredson, 2005), ultimately resulting in poor long-term educational and employment outcomes.

Curriculum for Postschool Achievement Through Higher Skills (PATHS)

The PATHS curriculum is a school-based intervention that is designed to address the poor postschool transition outcomes and lack of career develop-ment opportunities for young women identified for special education services, including those with learning, developmental, and physical disabilities. PATHS is intended to address gender inequities in vocational outcomes through a comprehensive career development curriculum that targets internal and external barriers and introduces a wide range of career options.

Development Process of PATHSPATHS was designed and tested through an iterative development process. First, our research team analyzed existing state and national data sets to identify gender differences in high school services, transition planning, and postschool outcomes for young men and women with disabilities. Next, we conducted focus groups and individual interviews with (a) young women with disabilities who were enrolled in college and high school, (b) special education teachers, (c) school administrators, and (d) employers. The focus groups and interviews provided in-depth information about the barriers experienced by young women and the supports needed to prepare them to succeed in postsecondary education and the workforce (Lindstrom et al., 2012). These data helped to inform the content and overall design of the PATHS curriculum. We then used a design experiment process to develop

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332 The Career Development Quarterly December 2013 • Volume 61

the curriculum in conjunction with special education teachers and school counselors in four high schools. After revising all of the PATHS lessons and activities, we conducted a pilot study with 110 participants in six high schools. Through this iterative process, we created a unique curriculum that is designed to improve educational and career outcomes for young women with disabilities and other barriers.

Curriculum ComponentsPATHS is a gender-specific curriculum that is designed to be delivered in group settings to ninth- to 12th-grade female students with identified dis-abilities and other barriers. PATHS is divided into four modules covering key concepts that previous research suggests can influence career development for young women with disabilities in transition from school to postschool environments. The modules are self-awareness, disability issues, gender identity, and career and college planning. Each lesson includes overall learn-ing objectives, vocabulary, materials needed, structured core activities (e.g., discussions, activities, group projects), and additional resources for teachers. The 77 daily lessons are interactive and designed to be taught in sequence during 50-minute class periods over an 18-week semester.

Module 1—self-awareness. This module is used to introduce students to the curriculum and to present concepts for building self-efficacy and self-confidence. It includes team building and self-awareness activities as well as lessons that are focused on practicing critical skills for postschool success, such as communication, decision making, goal setting, time management, and anger management. At the conclusion of the module, young women work through a sequence of lessons that are designed to help them identify and understand personal strengths and abilities. Each student has an op-portunity to discover her own pattern of using reliable strengths over time; these strengths are then used to create a plan for a new company or product.

Module 2—disability issues. Lessons in this module are designed to increase general disability knowledge and awareness as well as promote respectful treatment and communication about people with disabilities. Although the majority of students who participated in the PATHS pilot study had learn-ing disabilities, the lessons offer a broad overview of a variety of disabilities and allow all students to explore disability issues and social barriers. For example, one lesson introduces “famous people with disabilities,” provid-ing a number of role models from politicians to popular singers who have identified disabilities. The module also includes discussions and activities related to disability knowledge, information on legal rights and responsi-bilities in education and employment settings, and a set of lessons that are focused on communication and disability disclosure. Through these activi-ties, young women learn to advocate for themselves and identify disability accommodations they need in work and education settings.

Module 3—gender identity. The purpose of this module is to introduce topics related to being a woman in the workforce, including gender roles and expectations, occupational segregation, and the gender wage gap. The lessons provide an overview of the changing roles of women, models of women in leadership roles, and information about responding to sexual harassment in education and employment settings. Young women participate in activities related to exploring the impact of gender on career choice, learn about nontraditional occupations, and discuss healthy and unhealthy rela-tionships. Adult women working in a variety of occupations serve as guest

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speakers for several lessons, providing female role models and expanding career options that participants can consider.

Module 4—career and college. The final module is focused on planning and preparation for employment and/or postsecondary education. In this module, young women are able to integrate the skills and knowledge learned in the first three modules about self-awareness, disability, and gender identity. They begin to explore career options and plan for the future, now having a more complete view of themselves (Gottfredson, 2005). Several lessons in this module use a free, online web-based career exploration tool called Drive of Your Life ( Other career and college preparation activities include interest inventories, résumé building, interview practice, reviewing skills for job success, visits to college campuses, and post-high school planning.

Implementing the PATHS InterventionThe PATHS curriculum was pilot tested in six high schools during one academic year. Schools were recruited through a county-wide network of high school transition programs serving youth with disabilities. Participating schools were located in suburban and rural communities; between 29% and 68% of all enrolled students qualified for free and reduced lunch. (See high school demographic information in Table 1.) After our initial discussions with school administrators and counselors, a special education teacher, school counselor, or other qualified paraprofessional (e.g., transition specialist) was designated from each participating high school to teach the curriculum. All PATHS instructors attended an initial 1.5-day workshop prior to teaching the curriculum, followed by three 2-hour training sessions throughout the 18-week implementation period. School staff recruited young women with disabilities in Grades 9–12 who needed support for transition and career planning. Twenty-five young women without identified disabilities and who school staff considered to be at risk (see Participants section for a description of this variable) were also referred for the PATHS class. After they provided informed consent, instructors implemented the daily lessons using the activi-ties and materials outlined in the curriculum. Young women attended the PATHS class daily and received high school credit upon completion. Our research team made weekly visits to all six high schools to observe PATHS classes, collect fidelity data, obtain ongoing feedback from teachers, and assist in solving any implementation problems.


Demographics for High Schools Participating in PATHS (Postschool Achievement Through Higher Skills) Intervention

High School


Enrollment Race/Ethnicity

A/PIAI/A Black Hisp. White

Free/Reduced Lunch

n %




1,013 339 457 532 160 399

Note. Total Enroll = total student enrollment; AI/A = American Indian/Alaskan; A/PI = Asian/Pacific Islander; Hisp. = Hispanic.


Total Enroll

32 14 25 11 2 21

45 5 16 5 0 8

51 4 3 11 3 3

126 41 25 48 8 19

793 275 388 457 146 348

365 203 219 276 110 115

36 60 48 52 68 29

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334 The Career Development Quarterly December 2013 • Volume 61

Outcomes The pilot study used a pre–post control group design to test the promise of the curriculum to increase critical knowledge and skills linked to important transition and career outcomes (Lombardi & Doren, 2012). Young women were selected to either participate in the curriculum (intervention group) or to receive the typical transition services that were available in their high schools (comparison group). Students were not randomly assigned; instead, they were referred to the PATHS program through nominations by a school counselor or teacher and were then assigned to the intervention or comparison group on the basis of scheduling needs and restrictions. Students in the comparison group received typical career and transition services within their high schools, including (a) career exploration, using online resources; (b) job shadowing or job site visits; (c) vocational assessments; and (d) individualized transition planning as a component of the typical individualized education program (IEP) process for students with identified disabilities.

ParticipantsYoung women participating in the pilot study were enrolled in high school and ranged in age from 14 to 21 years. On average, there were 10 participants in each PATHS class.

The sample included young women with disabilities who had been identified for special education (n = 85, 77%) and those designated at risk in their high schools (n = 25, 23%). In terms of race/ethnicity, participants self-identified as White (64%), Hispanic (15%), multiple races/ethnicities (13%), African American (3%), Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (2%), American Indian/Alaskan Native (1%), and Asian (1%). Primary disabilities for the young women identified for special education services included specific learning disability (74%), autism spectrum disorder (8%), multiple disabilities (7%), intellectual disability (5%), other health impairment (2%), visual impair-ment (2%), hearing impairment (1%), and orthopedic impairment (1%). A student was considered at risk if she faced one or more significant barriers, including academic (e.g., frequent absenteeism, suspension, or dropout history), family/living (e.g., homelessness, difficult family circumstances, foster care), employment (no prior work or volunteer experience), high-risk behaviors (e.g., previous/current substance abuse, prior arrests/jail time), and health (mental health or chronic health issues).

Pre–Post Survey We completed a pre–post survey with all young women in the interven-tion and comparison groups. Using a compilation of validated measures, we designed the survey to assess skills that were relevant to the four PATHS curriculum modules. Following is a brief description of the measures included in the PATHS survey.

Self-awareness, advocacy, and support. We used two subscales from the Arc’s Self-Determination Scale (Wehmeyer & Kelchner, 1995) to measure constructs related to self-awareness. The Autonomy subscale measures the frequency that adolescents with disabilities perform independent tasks related to adult life. The Self-Realization subscale measures self-awareness and self-acceptance (e.g., “I know how to make up for my limitations”). Subscales from the Student Engagement Inventory (Appleton, Christenson, Kim, & Reschly, 2006) were used to measure perceptions of peer support

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The Career Development Quarterly December 2013 • Volume 61 335

and aspirations (e.g., “I am hopeful about my future”). The Teacher Sup-port Scale (Metheny, McWhirter, & O’Neil, 2008) was administered to the intervention group to measure the perceptions of support from the PATHS teacher (e.g., “helps me understand my strengths”).

Gender identity and disability issues. We developed and tested a curriculum-based measure with items that were mapped to the curriculum content regarding disability and gender issues. This measure was designed to assess students’ level of confidence regarding knowledge related to disability aware-ness (e.g., “identify different types of disabilities”) and gender awareness (e.g., “describe differences between traditional and nontraditional careers”).

Career and college preparation. We administered the Vocational Skills Self-Efficacy Scale (VSSE; McWhirter, Rasheed, & Crothers, 2000) to measure students’ confidence in completing tasks related to job preparation skills, time management, and goal setting. Cronbach’s alpha for the VSSE is .97 for a sample of high school sophomores. The Career Outcome Expectancy Scale (COE; McWhirter et al., 2000) was also used to measure participants’ level of agreement with career expectations, satisfaction, and feelings about the future (e.g., “I will be successful in my chosen career”). Cronbach’s alpha for the COE is .83 for a sample of high school sophomores. Finally, we used the Self-Advocacy subscale from the College Students With Disabilities Campus Climate survey (Lombardi, Gerdes, & Murray, 2011) to measure individual actions related to disability advocacy in educational environments. Cronbach’s alpha for this measure is .87. The Social Efficacy subscale from the College Self-Efficacy Inventory (Solberg, O’Brien, Villareal, Kennel, & Davis, 1993) was used to measure level of confidence in performing various tasks associ-ated with student success. Because these subscales were intended for college students, we made two minor adjustments: For all items, we replaced (a) the word professor with teacher and (b) the word university with school.

Overall, young women who participated in the PATHS curriculum showed significant gains in vocational skills self-efficacy, social efficacy, awareness of disability and gender issues, and bonding with the PATHS teacher. Young women in the comparison group did not make gains in these areas and showed significant decreases in career outcome expectations. Using effect size, constructs that showed a small effect for students in the intervention group after completing the PATHS class were social efficacy (d = .22), teacher bonding (d = .29) and vocational skills self-efficacy (d = .38). We also found a medium effect for gender and disability awareness (d = .60) for students in the PATHS intervention group. Complete pre–post survey results for the intervention and comparison groups are presented in Table 2.

Focus Groups At the conclusion of the pilot test, members of our research team conducted seven focus groups with all available young women who completed the PATHS curriculum at the six high schools (n = 68, 93% of intervention group participants). We also conducted a focus group with all participating PATHS instructors, using a structured interview protocol. Focus groups were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim. We analyzed the focus group transcripts, following the multiple-stage process recommended by Miles and Huberman (1994). First, we coded the data by assigning concrete labels to individual units of text. Next, we completed a cross-case analysis to docu-ment major themes that emerged across all seven participant focus groups.

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Focus group interviews allowed us to gain a more in-depth understanding of the career development process that was facilitated by completing the sequence of PATHS lessons and activities. Overall, the qualitative findings were consistent with the quantitative results, demonstrating increases in self-confidence, self-awareness, and knowledge of an expanded range of career opportunities. We found that young women with disabilities and those who were identified as at risk had very similar experiences. One participant with a learning disability said, “I gained confidence. I am not so afraid now to be who I am and say what I need to say. I also feel a lot stronger with my choice of a nontraditional job.” When discussing the impact of the curriculum, one PATHS teacher noticed, “We have had amazing changes from start to finish and even still. You wouldn’t believe the way they’ve blossomed along with their confidence level.” Table 3 presents the (a) key themes expressed by young women across all focus groups when they were asked to describe their overall learning experiences and (b) changes in their career goals as a result of completing the PATHS curriculum.

Summary and RecommendationsOverall, we found that participation in a gender-specific career planning curricu-lum was an effective tool for advancing career development for young women with disabilities and other barriers in high school settings. Results from the pre–post survey documented participants’ gains in vocational self-efficacy and social efficacy, as well as increased awareness of disability and gender issues related to career planning. In contrast, young women in the comparison group did not make gains in these areas and decreased in career outcome expectancy. Focus group interviews with PATHS teachers and participants provided further evidence of the impact of the curriculum. Through these qualitative interviews, we found that young women who completed the PATHS curriculum increased their critical knowl-edge about career planning. Participants felt much more confident about future career options and were able to more clearly articulate their individual strengths and skills.


Pretest and Posttest Survey Results

Survey Construct

Vocational skills self-efficacy Treatment group (n = 64) Control group (n = 31)

Social efficacy Treatment group (n = 66) Control group (n = 30)

Career outcome expectancy Treatment group (n = 65) Control group (n = 31)

Gender and disability awareness Treatment group (n = 65) Control (group n = 30)

PATHS teacher bonding Treatment group (n = 64)


SDM M SD t Value

Test Statistic

p d

Note. Results include only participants with complete predata and postdata. d = Cohen’s d statistic (small effect = .20; medium effect = .50; large effect = .80); PATHS = Postschool Achievement Through Higher Skills.

3.41 3.64 3.90 4.14 3.27 3.29 3.14 3.21 4.28

0.68 0.67 1.28 0.98 0.50 0.57 0.86 0.91 0.57

3.68 3.53 4.19 4.02 3.32 3.12 3.67 3.18 4.44

0.71 0.68 1.25 0.89 0.44 0.50 0.88 0.78 0.53

3.91 –1.14 2.46 –0.74 0.75 –2.52 4.72 –0.23 2.38

<.001 .263

.015 .461

.456 .017

<.001 .815


.38 –.16 .22 –.12 .10 –.31 .60 –.03 .29


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The Career Development Quarterly December 2013 • Volume 61 337

This study had several limitations that should be noted when interpreting the findings. First, the study included young women with learning disabili-ties; thus, we have limited information about the impact of the curriculum for other specific disability groups. Although we used a comparison group, students were not randomly assigned to treatment and control groups. Finally, given the size of the sample, the study was clearly underpowered. We recommend that the study be replicated using a randomized controlled trial with a much larger sample to further develop and test the effectiveness of gender-specific career interventions to improve educational and employ-ment outcomes for young women with disabilities.

Despite these limitations, PATHS has a number of key features that we believe are essential to fostering career development for young women with disabilities and other barriers. First, participating in a girls-only environment seemed to be more condu-cive for discussing core issues related to vocational identity, such as self-awareness, gender socialization, and disability barriers. Small class sizes and consistent daily lessons allowed for active discussion, engaging group activities, and opportunities for bonding among the participants. Indeed, by participating in PATHS, these young women were able to gain critical self-knowledge and learn about a wide range of career options, thus broadening their opportunities for postschool success.

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Student Focus Group Results

Topic Question and Major Theme

What is the most important thing you learned by being in the PATHS class? 1. Confidence and determination to achieve goals 2. How to identify my strengths 3. Self-awareness and acceptance 4. Empathy/compassion/respect for others 5. Future planning/goal setting 6. Knowledge of disability

How have your goals for the future changed since you started the PATHS class? 1. Awareness of additional career options through career exploration 2. Open to pursuing a nontraditional occupation 3. Increased understanding of post- secondary education and training opportunities

Sample Interview Data

Note. N = 68. Themes are presented in rank order beginning with the most commonly identi-fied topic. PATHS = Postschool Achievement Through Higher Skills.

I definitely feel more confident about life af-ter high school now that I have taken this class, because before I did not have a lot of hope. I wasn’t really going anywhere.

It taught me a lot about myself.I have learned ways to become who I want

to be.

I learned that my disability can’t stop me.I’m open to a lot more things.I think I’ve actually added on and expanded

what I wanted to do. I have multiple options for me.

Well, at first, to be honest, college wasn’t in my plans. But, now, I take this class and I want to be a pediatric nurse.

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