Special Report
Special Education

For Students With Disabilities, Transition From High School Requires Self-Advocacy

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 29, 2015 5 min read
Blake Yee, center, watches his MY VOICE presentation with his father, Steven Yee, and mother, Rolyn Yee, at the Supported Training Experiences Post Secondary (STEPS) building in Naperville, Ill., along with Kate Bruno, far left, a case manager and support teacher in the program. As part of the program, youths with disabilities prepare a multimedia presentation to showcase their post-graduation plans.

The first few years after high school are a huge period of change and growth, when many students fumble through the process of learning to be independent.

For students with disabilities, who are now graduating from high school and entering higher education in greater numbers than ever before, the transition can be even more jarring, and the need to develop self-reliance more critical.

“Many students with disabilities ... experience educational programs which stress compliance and teach them to second-guess their instincts and defer to others,” said Julia Bascom, the director of programs for the Washington-based nonprofit Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “When you couple that with the bullying our students face, we tend to find a significant need for explicit, supportive instruction in self-advocacy skills.”

Changing Supports

To a large degree, students with disabilities must do the same college- and career-planning that any high school student would undertake: understanding what courses are needed to qualify for a college or degree program, working through financial aid, and so on.

But there’s also a lot that most students on track to college don’t have to think about. For example, accommodations and services for students with disabilities after high school are no longer provided through the individualized education programs required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. They are provided instead through the legal framework of two other federal laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which do not require the same level of supports.

“We send them off to college where everything they are used to in high school—repetition, structure, assignments broken down—is gone, and we fail to provide them with an understanding of themselves as learners and how to work using their strengths and around their areas of weakness,” said Elizabeth C. Hamblet, a learning specialist at Columbia University and the author of the 2011 book Seven Steps for Success: High School to College Transition Strategies for Students with Disabilities.

Teaching Advocacy

In college, students are expected to manage their own paperwork and time. While a student’s high school IEP might include extra time for assignments, a student in college would be expected to just take fewer classes per semester. And all students are expected to seek out support services on their own.

Under federal law, schools must draft a transition plan with a student with disabilities, no later than age 16, focused on his or her strengths, preferences, and interests.

While self-advocacy is supposed to be part of that planning, there is no specific reporting on it. A 2004 federal longitudinal study found only 3 percent of students with disabilities in general education classrooms were specifically trained to speak and plan for themselves.

A forthcoming study in the journal Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals found transition programs stressing self-determination are more strongly associated with students with disabilities showing better higher education, employment, and independent-living outcomes. Specifically, those programs included goal setting, such as students establishing their own IEP targets, and autonomy, such as students making their own post-high-school plans and taking ownership for learning while they were in school, according to the study’s authors, Valerie L. Mazzotti and Dawn A. Rowe, both special education assistant research professors at the National Post-School Outcomes Center at the University of Oregon, in Eugene. But, Ms. Mazzotti warned, “We don’t have any data on where these skills are being taught or how often.”

A separate report in the federal longitudinal study found that while nearly seven in 10 students with disabilities said they understood what services they would need to deal with their disability, less than a third said they often gave their opinions on services to professionals they interacted with.

Sometimes, school supports can be “more harmful than helpful” in a student’s transition to the adult world, said Daniel Kish, the founder and president of the Long Beach, Calif.-based nonprofit World Access for the Blind, which teaches blind children self-advocacy and mobility skills. When blind students, or other students with disabilities, are restricted in physical education or extracurricular activities because of concerns for their physical or emotional safety, Mr. Kish said, it does more than make a student’s college résumé less competitive.

“This has devastating consequences to social development, which, of course, affects career readiness. … [Students] are guided around everywhere with the idea that this is safer and more efficient, but all this does is cause all capacity for freedom of movement to atrophy.”

“The biggest problem here,” Mr. Kish added, “is [when] extra time and modifications are being allotted liberally without regard to the fact that the real world won’t make such allowances.”

When possible, Ms. Hamblet recommends that schools begin to taper off accommodations that would not be available in college or work for 11th and 12th graders. “Anything that involves adults doing things for students are things that need to be closely examined,” she said.

Finding a Voice

Self-advocacy training should go beyond simply teaching students to replace old supports with new ones and instead help them start to find their own voices.

A former high school special education teacher, Toni R. Van Laarhoven, said often students in IEP meetings with parents and teachers “just sit silently, or people would ask them yes-or-no questions.”

In response, Ms. Van Laarhoven, an associate professor of special and early education at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, launched Multimedia for Youth to Voice Outcomes Individually Created for Empowerment, or MY VOICE.

Preservice special education teachers work with high school students with disabilities planning for life after high school. Together, each pair discusses the student’s interests, strengths, and weaknesses. The student also learns PowerPoint, video editing, and other skills needed to put together a multimedia presentation on his or her postgraduation plans.

At the end of the program, students give presentations to their IEP teams, including parents. At one meeting, Ms. Van Laarhoven recalled, “The young man’s parents kind of had in their minds that the student would live in a group home and work in a structured environment, but the kid said, ‘No, I want to go to college and live with some friends,’ ” she said. “The presentation was life-changing for him.”

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