The Rural Youth Apprenticeship Development Project: Integrated KT Strategies for Disability Stakeholder Engagement in Rural Communities

University of Massachusetts Boston
Institute for Community Inclusion

Submitted by DeBrittany Mitchell,


The Rural Youth Apprenticeship Development (RYAD) Project promotes the development and advancement of vocational rehabilitation (VR) apprenticeship programs for youth with disabilities (ages 16–24 years) in rural communities. At the core of RYAD is a learning collaborative that engages five participating VR agencies in peer-to-peer knowledge exchange to support the development of youth apprenticeship programs. Additionally, one of the VR agencies with expertise in rural youth apprenticeship programs serves as a mentor in the learning collaborative. The project uses integrated knowledge translation (KT) strategies, including the learning collaborative and advisory councils to help identify areas where VR agencies could use additional support. In response to these needs, the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) is developing a toolkit of rural-specific resources to generate new knowledge and improve the dissemination of apprenticeship resources to VR agencies that serve youth with disabilities in rural communities.


In 2020, the RYAD Project received funding from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) to support state vocational rehabilitation agencies (SVRAs) and American Indian Vocational Rehabilitation Services (AIVRS) to create apprenticeship programs in collaboration with local businesses and workforce system partners. The project is building and adding to a toolkit of resources to support the development of apprenticeship programs in rural communities, hosting a learning collaborative to facilitate peer-to-peer mentorship and support among SVRAs and AIVRS, and building capacity to evaluate the impact of new apprenticeship programs. This project’s resources are housed on The project is a partnership of the ICI at the University of Massachusetts Boston, the Montana Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities, Arkansas Career Development Center - Arkansas Rehabilitation Services, and Mathematica Policy Research.

KT Activities

The RYAD Project’s integrated KT strategies facilitate peer-to-peer knowledge exchange among participating VR agencies and subject matter experts and engage VR agencies in the development of rural-specific resources to meet their needs. Topics raised by VR agencies in the learning collaborative serve as the impetus for product development. These resources are then disseminated back to intended users through the learning collaborative and expert advisory council. ICI’s learning collaborative approach has recently evolved to facilitate mentor/mentee relationships between VR agencies.

Hosting the Learning Collaborative. The learning collaborative is an integrated KT approach that ICI has previously applied in other projects, including the progressive employment (PE) model, to guide replication (see a previous KT Casebook entry on the PE learning collaborative). The learning collaborative provides a forum for ongoing communication between VR agency leaders and staff who are developing apprenticeship programs and researchers who are creating resources to support these efforts. It also provides the needed infrastructure to enhance collaboration between VR agencies. The learning collaborative positions VR agencies as co-producers of knowledge who inform the development of resources to assist in the development of apprenticeship programs in unique rural settings. ICI’s role in the collaborative is to connect agencies to each other, facilitate opportunities for knowledge sharing among agencies and external partners, and help address the supports the participating agencies need.

Involving mentor agencies. ICI has adapted the learning collaborative to facilitate mentor/mentee relationships between state VR agencies. The learning collaborative is a peer-to-peer knowledge exchange model. The addition of a formal mentoring role means that lessons learned by agencies with more experience in youth apprenticeship programs are now explicitly built into this exchange. Arkansas Rehabilitation Services and Career Development Center serve as mentors in the RYAD learning collaborative, leveraging their experience with establishing apprenticeship programs across multiple industries to support three other agencies that are developing apprenticeship programs in underserved rural areas. The Arkansas Career Development Center began in 2016 and now serves more than 400 students annually. The RYAD Project decided to incorporate mentor/mentee relationships in the learning collaborative after determining that much of the collaborative’s value is in enabling VR agencies with different structures, barriers, and opportunities to learn from each other. The learning collaborative has identified challenges that are common to VR agencies operating in rural contexts—such as access to transportation, internet, employers, and resources—in addition to highlighting the ways in which VR agencies and the communities they serve are unique.

Maximizing impact of product development. By engaging with VR agencies, ICI learned that many existing strategies for youth apprenticeship development are of limited relevance to rural communities. For instance, rural communities often lack the transportation options that are available in urban communities and do not have access to as many businesses that can employ apprentices. In addition, it is clear from the experience of the collective that different rural communities face unique barriers and opportunities. The RYAD Project is responding to these insights by developing informational products that are specific to particular rural areas in states and local areas. The learning collaborative has helped to engage end users from the beginning of resource development in order to ensure that efforts to build these resources are focused on priority areas of need.

Leveraging advisory councils for stakeholder engagement. In addition to the learning collaborative, the RYAD Project has established an advisory council of experts that helps to disseminate resources to address challenges that have been discussed in the learning collaborative. For example, in response to agencies’ discussions about transportation barriers in their communities, the advisory board recently hosted a speaker who is an expert on transportation, Barbara Cline (executive director of Prairie Hills Transit). RYAD also plans to establish a youth advisory council to incorporate into resource development the experiences and feedback of youth who may participate in apprenticeship programs.


Few VR agencies have extensive experience in implementing youth apprenticeship programs in rural communities. The RYAD learning collaborative creates a space for agencies with differing levels of experience in apprenticeship program development to learn from each other and drive the creation of resources to address their needs. In previous projects, the ICI’s learning collaborative approach has been effective in enhancing communication and product use, encouraging problem-solving, and inspiring strategies for sustainability (see previous KT Casebook entry on the PE learning collaborative). An ongoing benefit for participating VR agencies is the connections made with their peers and the subject matter experts. These have been cited as key for sustainability once the project has ended.The RYAD project will continue to assess the effectiveness of the project’s integrated KT strategies (i.e., the learning collaborative, toolkit, and advisory councils) as the VR agencies move forward with developing apprenticeship programs in their communities and measuring the impact on employment outcomes for youth with disabilities.

Contact Information

NIDILRR Grant Name: The Rural Youth Apprenticeship Development Project
Organization: The Institute for Community Inclusion, University of Massachusetts Boston
Mailing Address: 100 Morrissey Boulevard, Room 80, Boston, MA 02125-3300
Key Contact: DeBrittany Mitchell,