How to Improve Post-School Outcomes for Youth with Disabilities

For young adults with disabilities finding employment to achieve financial independence following high school completion is one of the highest priorities within Minnesota and nationwide. One significant way states can help is to ensure that these young people have access to postsecondary education programs that prepare them for future employment. Researchers have projected that 63% of all U.S. jobs by 2018 will require some postsecondary education, and that 90% of all new jobs in growing industries with high wages will require at least some postsecondary education.

Challenges for Youth with Disabilities

Youth with disabilities face many challenges throughout their school career and beyond. Because October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I’d like to highlight three of the many areas where these hurdles exist: high school, postsecondary education and today’s workplace.

High School Graduation:

When we look at types of labels applied to individuals with disabilities, there are a couple groups in particular that make up the majority: those with emotional behavioral disabilities and those with learning disabilities, which make up 41% of all special education classes. Nationally, high school dropout rates are currently around 10% of the entire school population, but for students with disabilities, dropout rates double. One out of five students with disabilities fails to graduate with a diploma or its equivalent. For those with emotional behavioral disabilities, some states see up to a 50% dropout rate.

Postsecondary Education Access:

Access to postsecondary education is another challenge youth with disabilities face. On average, 80% of high school graduates in Minnesota enroll in some type of postsecondary education. Nationally, this figure is 62%. According to 2005 research, only 46% of youth with disabilities enroll in postsecondary education. Confounding this concern further is the lack of available information on what percentage of students who access postsecondary education successfully complete these programs.

Obtaining a Job in Today’s Workplace:

Many people have been feeling the effects of the recession in that past few years, and those with disabilities face an even more difficult journey within the work force. The unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities is twice that of the general population overall (approximately 14% versus 7%). And as a person with a disability under the age of 25, this rate is even higher, making it harder to achieve financial independence. Currently, only 20.5% of adults with a disability participate in today’s labor force, compared to 69% of adults without a disability.

Six Ways for Improving Post-School Outcomes for Youth with Disabilities

So what can we do to encourage change? Based on my work and research, here are six tips for school leaders, educators, families and individuals for improving the post-school outcomes for youth with disabilities.

  1. Families and youth with disabilities need to start early. We can’t wait until the last couple of years of high school to start thinking about what’s going to happen after high school. For students with more severe disabilities, I would suggest creating a long-term plan as early as elementary or entry into middle school. Often, this is easier said than done, especially when parents are worried about immediate issues, but there are many resources parents can use through their child’s school. Schools can play a pivotal role in making sure parents have adequate information. Counselors and advisors should communicate with parents to lay out possible school and post-school services and support options. Postsecondary education, for instance, doesn’t always mean a four-year university. There are options that include technical colleges, trade school and training programs leading to industry certifications.
  2. Schools need to have high college and career expectations for all students. Teachers must create an atmosphere that encourages students to make goals and plans. Parents and students also need information and consultation from professionals on opportunities available to raise their expectations for post-school involvement in further education, training and career pursuits beyond high school.
  3. At the school level, we really need to think about the type of preparation offered. Most special education students (around 86-90%) have mild cognitive and behavioral disabilities. Some learning disabilities are only in one specific area, but may still put the student at a disadvantage overall. For example, a student may struggle only in math or reading classes. Rather than separating these students from the general education classes, schools can provide support in general education courses that will put special education students on an even playing field with other students.
  4. Educators must teach students self-determination skills. These skills help youth navigate the educational and work place systems for themselves. They’re the skills we use when we make decisions for and about ourselves, assemble knowledge and create goals. We also employ these skills when we find and apply to a job. Self-determination skills do not always naturally develop in students with disabilities, but are critical to their success. The earlier these skills are learned, the better—I suggest they be part of middle school and high school curricula. These skills are in many ways just as important as academic skills to a student’s success throughout school and in the workplace.
  5. Youth with disabilities should also be active participants in their own transition planning. They need to engage in direct decision making over choices for their lives and future; it is not mom and dad’s responsibility to make adult life decisions for their child; the young person must be actively involved.
  6. I also urge youth and parents to research employment training programs for individuals with disabilities. The Institute on Community Integration (ICI) within CEHD has been researching a model for engaging and retaining students with intellectual disabilities in postsecondary education settings. This five-year collaborative project with Central Lakes College in Brainerd, MN and Ridgewater College in Willmar, MN is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education. These students enroll from high schools throughout northern and western Minnesota and are provided intensive levels of support and monitoring in their postsecondary studies. Several students take regular community and technical college courses, while others audit courses to develop knowledge and skills in specific career pathways leading to employment. Students are assisted in obtaining employment through county and state vocational rehabilitation agency support.
David Johnson

About the Author

David Johnson, Ph.D.

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