Life After Graduation (Transition Planning)
A while back, I was asked by a parent of a child with a learning disability about what her child's employment and college opportunities may be after graduation. This mother was concerned that her child's disability would inhibit her daughter's ability to attend college, acquire a job, and provide for her basic living skills after graduation. This certainly is a important topic to address. Let's take some time and explore these questions.
There are other related questions to consider for students with disabilities. Would this student be able to live independently? What resources are available for this student after she graduates? Could she graduate? Many of these questions and answers can be addressed within your child's IEP team, when discussing the topic of "transition planning". In Kansas, transition planning is required to be discussed and noted with your child's IEP starting when they are 14 (or younger in some cases). Nationally, this discussion must happen by the time the child turns 16 (the requirement within IDEA). Your local IEP team will know the laws of your state and the resources available within your community. (This resource is designed for Kansas educators to use when developing a student's transition-related goals.)
High School Graduation
Let's first address the process of graduation. For disabled students with an IEP, their graduation requirements may be different than those students who do not receive special education services. For example, in one of the districts where I work, a typical student is required to have 24 high school credits to graduate, while a student with a disability is required to have 21. These students often have substantial accommodations and modifications to their academic programming, which may include attending school until they are 21 years old. The short answer to the question is that students with disabilities are generally able to graduate high school and attain a high school diploma. For an excellent resource addressing graduation for students with disabilities, you can read this article.
What about college? The short answer is that colleges today are more flexible than ever in providing curriculum adapted to the needs of adults with disabilities. While an IEP is only available for students through 12th grade (not higher learning settings), 504 and ADA protections still apply to college campuses. Colleges must provide reasonable accommodations for these students, and employ professionals to assist in ensuring those students receive those supports. While there aren't IEP teams in collegiate settings, there are offices for students which assist in these areas. When looking at potential colleges, it's important to talk to a representative of this office. (My alma mater's Center for Student Accommodations handles these requests.) You may want to read the National Center for Learning Disabilities' article on planning for college or the US News and World Report's article about showcasing your child's disability when applying for college. It's also important to note that colleges and universities approve these requests much differently. Some institutions will liberally allow for adaptations with very little question of the nature of the disability, while others are much more stringent when reviewing the documentation needed to apply for such program changes. As another example of the latter, check out Penn State's requirements page from their Office for Disability Services.
Again, the short answer is that employment opportunities for adults with disabilities also exist, both in traditional settings and in assisted employment settings. Federal laws also provide protections for adults with disabilities. A great starting point for more information is the US Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy website; they also have an Integrated Employment Toolkit, and a checklist of things to consider when looking for careers. Here's an inspiring YouTube video of a young man with Down Syndrome who has opened his own restaurant. Here's another link that focuses on the skills of students with Autism may bring to their employers. There's plenty of information online related to disability employment (both rights and services available) so I won't expand any more on those topics here. However, there is still progress to be made, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette stated in 2011.
Adult Living and Community Supports
Sometimes adults with disabilities may need assistance meeting their daily living needs (educator's refer to these as "adaptive skills") such as cooking, transportation, healthy living, and general quality of life. Thankfully, there are a number of professional organizations which offer a wide variety of assistance to disabled adults, often free of charge. A quick search online or of your local phone book will help you to identify these resources (look for "independent living" in the yellow pages"). In Kansas, the Community Developmental Disabilities Organization coordinates access to many of these services and ensure that adults with disabilities are referred to the appropriate agencies for support. As told here, billions of federal dollars have been allocated to expand some types of community living programs for adults with disabilities.
One Final Reminder and Caveat
To summarize, students with disabilities will generally have access to graduation, college education, and employment. I again encourage you to have these transition discussions with your child's IEP team. Your school psychologist, school counselor, or school social worker often have information related to adult services available in your community. I have provided a few other links below which you may find useful.
Important Note: You'll notice that I use the phrase "students with disabilities" and link to my page discussing the types of exceptionalities in Kansas. It's important to note here that students with giftedness do not generally need transitional planning. Students with giftedness are neither eligible to attend school until they are 21, nor are they eligible to receive a reduced credit requirement for graduation. Talk to your child's IEP team for the regulations in your state.
Other resources of note:
National Center for Learning Disabilities' Teens & Transition
Council for Exceptional Children - Division on Career Development and Transition's Resources Page (lots of links!)