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  3. Transition Age Youth with Disabilities: How Individualized Education Program (IEP) Transition Planning Makes a Difference

Transition Age Youth with Disabilities: How Individualized Education Program (IEP) Transition Planning Makes a Difference


Adolescence is a time of transition for all young people—planning for life beyond high school can surface feelings of excitement, anxiety, stress, and uncertainty as teens think about education, housing, employment, and relationships. These transitions are challenging for all teens, but may be especially daunting for youth with disabilities, who often face issues related to unemployment, underemployment, discrimination, homelessness, incarceration, and poverty, often as a result of increased rates of school dropout. Additionally, many young people with disabilities lack adequate supports and services as they enter adulthood1

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Youth in Juvenile Justice and Foster Care

Transition planning may be non-existent, or minimal, for students with disabilities who are in foster care, juvenile justice populations, or who have dropped out of school. Youth and young adults with disabilities tend to be overrepresented in these populations and face significant additional challenges in their transition to adulthood. For example, studies estimate that 30 to 60 percent of youth in correctional facilities have an educational  disability2 with many also meeting the diagnostic criteria for mental health disorders.3 Research suggests that learning disabilities, emotional disturbance, and intellectual disabilities are the most commonly seen disability categories among youth in juvenile justice populations.4

Youth with disabilities in these populations are more likely to struggle with unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, school dropout, and economic insecurity.5 Youth in foster care and youth who have been incarcerated are at particular risk as they move into adulthood, because frequent relocation, lack of consistent advocates, and lengthy absences from school may have prevented them from receiving appropriate special education services and transition planning.6 Unfortunately, many students with disabilities do not receive the mandated special education services, and this gap is potentially even greater among youth in corrections.7

Alternative Diplomas

School districts must offer all students, including students with disabilities, the opportunity to earn a regular high school diploma. As many states have adopted multiple diploma options and requirements for graduation, some youth with disabilities may graduate with a "certificate of attendance" or "certificate of completion"; these alternative diplomas may affect employment opportunities and present additional hurdles for transitioning youth.8

Confusing Information and Lack of Focus on Transition Services

Regardless of where youth and young adults with disabilities receive transition information and services, the process may be challenging and confusing. Youth, parents, and caregivers may be unsure about where to turn for support during and after high school, or how to secure needed services. Students who have left high school may struggle to find sources of support similar to those they received while in school. For example, a student who uses assistive technology provided as part of his or her IEP may find that he or she is unable to purchase needed devices, or are unsure where to find funding for assistive technology after leaving school. Securing comparable services may require the youth and his or her family to navigate multiple agencies. Schools, community organizations, and state and local agencies can all play an important role in ensuring that young people with disabilities have access to the resources they need to succeed beyond the classroom, but only with timely, effective, student interest-driven transition planning.

Despite the critical need for early and comprehensive transition planning well before a young adult leaves school, it can often take a back seat to core IEP goals and activities. In some cases, transition services are an "add-on" and may not be well coordinated with appropriate outside agencies9. Some transition activities may focus narrowly on employment, without a comprehensive plan for other activities of adult life, such as recreation, community engagement, independent living, peer interaction and support, and adult education. These activities may also focus more on an individual’s deficits, and less on promoting strengths that help to foster independence and resilience. Activities planned in isolation, or programs that are deficit-based and do not take an individual student’s strengths and goals into consideration are unlikely to be successful.10

1 Quinn et al., 2005; Wills, 2008
2 Mears & Aron, 2004; Osher et al., 2002; Rutherford et al., 2002; Stenhjem, 2005
3 Stenhjem, 2005
4 Mears & Aron, 2003; Rutherford et al., 2002
5 Hill & Stenhejm, 2006; Quinn et al., 2005; Westat, 1991
6 Badeau, 2000; Geenen & Powers, 2006; Quinn et al., 2005
7 Mears & Aron, 2003; Osher et al, 2002
8 Johnson & Thurlow, 2003
9 IDEA Partnership, n.d.
10 IDEA Partnership, n.d.