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Disabled Girls Face Poorer Prospects 3 to 5 Years After School

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A new national study suggests that young women with disabilities face more dismal prospects for life after high school than do their male counterparts.

Three to five years after leaving school, the data suggest, disabled women are much more likely than disabled men--and even nonhandicapped women--to be raising children. They are less likely than their male peers to have full-time jobs, to be getting postsecondary training, and to belong to any community groups.

And the gap in employment rates between disabled young males and females tends to widen over time.

"These girls don't even follow the pattern for girls in the general population,'' said Mary Wagner, author of the study. "There's something else going on here and it is more than gender differences.''

Presented last week during the conference of the American Educational Research Association in San Francisco, the new findings are among the first to focus on the effects of gender differences in the life patterns of special-education students. The data come from the National Longitudinal Transition Study of Special Education, a federally funded research effort that is tracking the progress of more than 8,000 students who were enrolled in high-school special-education programs during the 1985-86 school year.

Ms. Wagner, who is also director of that study, said the findings raise disturbing questions about the "long-term prospects of females with disabilities becoming financially independent and personally satisfied with their adult lives.''

They are questions, she added, that the field of special education, with its focus over the years on ensuring access for all students to needed services and on providing quality programs, has yet to address.

Gap in Earnings Found

According to the data, two years out of high school, 32 percent of disabled women were employed, compared with 52 percent of disabled men. Three years later, the gap between the two groups had widened, with 64 percent of disabled men, but only 40 percent of disabled women, reporting that they were employed.

In contrast, the study maintains, a similar employment gap between men and women in the general population tends to narrow over time.

Even when employed, the study found, disabled young women were significantly less likely than their male counterparts to work full-time.

And, while both disabled males and females experienced wage gains over time, the increase in the percentage of working youths who earned more than $6 per hour was much greater among males. The rate of disabled male workers earning that sum or more increased by 34 percentage points over the course of the study compared with a 22-percentage-point gain for females.

Beyond the workplace, disabled females were also much less likely to be engaged in job-skills training, volunteer work, or postsecondary education than were their male counterparts. When they had been out of school three to five years, 82 percent of males with disabilities had been in one of those activities outside the home in the preceding year compared with 62 percent of females.

The females in the study were also less likely to belong to social or community groups and their participation in such organizations tended to decline over time.

The study suggests that many such women may not be working or otherwise productively engaged outside their homes because they are raising children.

Although young women with disabilities were no more likely to be married than women in the general population, the study found, they were significantly more likely to have become mothers. About 41 percent of that group had children in the three to five years following high school, compared with 16 percent of disabled males and 28 percent of nonhandicapped females. The parenting rate for disabled males, in contrast, was about the same as it was for their nondisabled peers.

In her paper, Ms. Wagner said the discrepancies raise questions about the adequacy of the sex-education lessons that disabled females receive in school.

But experts who discussed the paper at the A.E.R.A. meeting also questioned whether young women with disabilities were in some ways particularly vulnerable to sexual pressures or whether they were being abused, Ms. Wagner said.

Another possible reason for the poorer employment outcomes among disabled women, the study suggests, is that only 41 percent of female students took occupationally oriented vocational-education courses in high school. More than half of disabled males did so.

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