Special Report
Special Education

Experience Is Key for Special Ed. Students Headed to the Workplace

By Christina A. Samuels — May 29, 2015 4 min read
Andrea Sorto, left, a student intern, adjusts a blanket in the neonatal intensive-care unit at Novant Prince William Medical Center in Manassas, Va. Andrea is getting hospital job training through Project SEARCH, which helps students with disabilities transition into the workplace.

For students with disabilities who are looking for steady employment after high school, research shows that the path is made easier if they have strong self-advocacy skills, a realistic understanding of their aptitudes and strengths, and a family who has high expectations for them.

Also essential: getting genuine employment experience in community-based locations where they earn competitive wages.

But for far too many young adults, achieving those goals is a real challenge. Those who need training and career support are often steered to jobs where they only work alongside other people with disabilities. Or their families are left to navigate the myriad community-based options themselves, with little guidance from the schools.

“You would think we would have a handle on how to do this the right way,” said Laura A. Owens, the president of TransCen, a Rockville, Md., nonprofit that provides career and workforce development for people with disabilities.

Since the 1990s, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has included a directive for schools to help youth and their families devise transition plans. “But we’re asking educators who are not trained in employment to be job developers,” she said. And for many people, that’s just hard to do.

Advocating for Youths

The Princeton, N.J.-based research group Mathematica recently finished an evaluation of a Social Security Administration initiative that offered counseling, career development, and job-placement services to youths ages 14 to 25 with disabilities in six locations. Three of the locations showed promise in getting the young adults into jobs that could reduce their dependence on federal benefits.

But even in agencies devoted to supporting youths with disabilities, some staff members seemed to be uncomfortable with some of the tasks involved in helping students get paid work experience, said Thomas M. Fraker, a senior fellow emeritus with Mathematica.

“You have to get on the phone, call employers, hit the pavement,” Mr. Fraker said. “Some of those projects [that were evaluated] had trouble convincing their staff to do this.” In Miami-Dade County, one of the locations studied, new staff members were hired who had experience as job developers, as opposed to a social-work background. The Miami-Dade site showed the highest number of positive impacts on youths, including in the areas of job attainment, total income, and decreased contact with the justice system.

Employment by Disability

According to results from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2, a majority of young adults in each of 12 different disability categories found employment following high school. Engagement in the workforce exceeds 90 percent for five of those types of disabilities, with the highest rates (95.5 percent) reported for those individuals with conditions categorized as “other health impairments.” Young adults with multiple disabilities have the lowest levels of post-high-school employment (62.5 percent).

33DC Work C1s

Sources: SRI International and U.S. Department of Education, 2011

“You have to be extremely creative to make this work at every level,” said Barbara Schulman, who teaches an adult transition class for students ages 18 to 21 in the 30,000-student Saddleback Valley district in Mission Viejo, Calif. That means enlisting her instructional aides to do some of the work making contacts in the community, and drawing on support from state training and community job coaches. “Our job as teachers, I believe, is to figure out a way to transition a student into a job that might go along with their desires.”

Several initiatives around the country are underway to make the transition from school to work easier for youths with disabilities and their families.

For example, the newly passed federal law known as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act is seen as a way to strengthen the connections between schools and community organizations. The law includes several specific provisions on transition. One requirement charges vocational-rehabilitation agencies with making “pre-employment transition services” available to all students with disabilities.

Also, in 2014, Rhode Island signed a first-of-its-kind consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to bolster its supports for students and adults with developmental disabilities. The Justice Department found that the state had steered young adults into sheltered workshops through its adult-services programs, rather than to more real-world employment situations. In the segregated workshop settings, the youths spent their time on menial tasks such as assembling jewelry.

Beyond Teachers

Now, Rhode Island can serve as a “national leader in the movement to bring people with disabilities out of segregated work settings and into typical jobs in the community at competitive pay,” said Jocelyn Samuels, the acting assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, in a statement.

Average Hourly Wage

All young adults: $11.40
Young adults with disabilities: $10.40

Note: Data are rounded to the nearest $0.10.
Sources: SRI International and U.S. Department of Education, 2011

The state is now working to improve life outcomes for youths and adults with disabilities in three ways: through family engagement, self-determination, and work experiences for students before they leave school.

The national efforts demonstrate why it is essential to engage an entire community in this work, rather than leaving transition planning primarily up to schools while youth with disabilities are still enrolled, experts said.

“I have never believed that teachers, who are charged with doing a million things, have time to handle employment and career stuff well,” said A. Anthony Antosh, a professor of special education at Rhode Island College in Providence and one of the professionals training school personnel in the state in best practices as part of the settlement.

“We need to target appropriate training information to the people who are actually charged with doing this,” Mr. Antosh said, such as job counselors and state vocational-rehabilitation agencies.

Translating big national programs down to the grassroots level is likely to take time, however. And that’s where families and students have to fill in the gaps.

“I think parents have a huge role to play in this, because right now transition is in place as one point in time. It needs to start so much earlier,” said Ms. Owens of TransCen. “We need to help parents understand that they need to have those work expectations for their children when they’re in early childhood.”

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