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Youth with disabilities need what all youth need, including school-based preparatory experiences and other opportunities to develop their knowledge and skills. While youth with disabilities should set and manage their own goals, they can experience many challenges in accessing and participating in education due to external barriers like stereotypes, low expectations, implicit bias (i.e., unconscious bias), the financial costs of providing unique services in a school, and underprepared educators. Special education services, accommodations, accessibility, universal design for learning, and modifications can help to bridge this gap and ensure that these youth have equal opportunities in school.

Protections Under the Law

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law requiring that eligible children and youth ages 3 to 21 be provided with a free and appropriate public school education. Specifically, the IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to more than 6.6 million eligible infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities. Infants and toddlers with disabilities, birth through age two, and their families receive early intervention services under IDEA Part C. Children and youth ages three through 21 receive special education and related services under IDEA Part B.1 IDEA was revised in 2017 to reflect changes brought on by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind law. ESSA is the fundamental education law for all U.S. public schools. This act makes schools accountable for students’ learning and achievement and aims to help ensure equal opportunities for those with special education needs.2

All children and youth who receive special education and related services must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that is customized to their needs. The IEP helps teachers, parents, school administrators, related service personnel, and often times the student, work together to design specialized instructional approaches to help improve the quality of the student’s education, and inclusion of the student in the school.3 You can find more information on IDEA and inclusion of youth here.

Youth with disabilities are also protected from discrimination based on their disability by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 is a federal law “designed to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education.”4 States also often provide special accommodations under Section 504, such as serving students with visual impairments or dyslexia. Unlike students who are covered by IDEA, students that are on a 504 plan do not have an IEP.

More recently, the Office of Special Education Programs has implemented a new monitoring system called Results Driven Accountability (RDA). RDA requires states to report on compliance and student outcomes for students with disabilities, rather than just focusing on compliance monitoring.5 This will help to hold states accountable for student growth and achievement. The core principles of RDA can be found here.

During the 2014–2015 school year, more than 1 in 10 children and youth aged 3 to 21 received special education services in public schools. Of these students, about one in three had specific learning disabilities (Exhibit 1).6 You can find more information on specific types of disabilities that are covered by IDEA here.

Exhibit 1: Percentage of children and youth aged 3 to 21, by disability, served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, during the 2014–2015 school year:

Exhibit 1: Percentage of children and youth aged 3 to 21, by disability, served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, during the 2014–2015 school year
Retrieved from

Education Outcomes, Universal Design for Learning, School Completion, and Transition Planning

Students with disabilities should be treated as individuals rather than seen as one group, since their academic experience will depend on a number of factors. Learning outcomes for each individual will depend on the disability, level of services provided, and personal characteristics such as:

  • age,
  • sex,
  • level of study, and
  • course content.7

To challenge and engage all students, many schools and teachers are using universal design for learning (UDL). Approaches to teaching and learning can be designed with diverse student learning needs in mind. Ramps, automatic doors, and curb cuts that are created to provide access to people with physical disabilities can also provide ease of access for everyone.

Embracing the concepts of inclusion and improved access for everyone, UDL incorporates flexible materials, techniques, and strategies for delivering instruction into the design of teaching and learning opportunities, allows options for student learning, and offers a variety of ways to demonstrate knowledge.

Students with disabilities are at greater risk of dropping out of school and having poorer adult outcomes than general education students.8 A 2016 report found that 82 percent of the general student population graduated from high school in the 2013-2014 school year, while only 63 percent of students with disabilities completed high school.9 While there are some interventions targeted to specific disability-related needs, the vast majority of interventions to assist students with disabilities in achieving high school graduation are typically the same strategies recommended for all students. Research has found that the most commonly used interventions include:

  • mentoring,
  • class setting and exit options,
  • family outreach,
  • academic support,
  • attendance monitoring,
  • additional support services, and
  • participation in school-related activities.10

A more detailed list of evidence-based and promising practices for school completion can be found here.

Although the significantly lower graduation rate for students with disabilities compared to their peers without disabilities is discouraging, it is important to note that 60 percent of young adults with disabilities who did graduate from high school went on to postsecondary education within 8 years of leaving high school. It is important to note that there is a drop in those who move onto postsecondary education and those who complete it.11 In 2014 among people aged 25 or older, about 16% of people with a disability completed at least a bachelor’s degree whereas individuals without a disability had a completion rate of almost 35%.12

Transition planning and assessment for students with disabilities is a critical strategy used to help them achieve academic, career, and personal goals in high school and begin to transition into adulthood. Transition planning should ideally begin well before the student reaches “transition age” which is when adolescents move into adulthood and often are concerned and need help with planning for postsecondary education, careers, health care, and housing. Transition planning can be used to help with needs in areas such as:

  • relationships with friends and family,
  • daily living skills,
  • housing,
  • healthcare,
  • vocational education,
  • high school graduation and dropout prevention,
  • employment,
  • and postsecondary education.13

The National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT) provides helpful resources specific to transition planning here.

Transition assessments can be used to actively monitor a student’s progress, setbacks, interests, and preferences as they progress through high school.14 A comprehensive resource on transition assessments developed by NTACT can be found here.


Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
This website from the U.S. Department of Education provides detailed information and resources on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), including the IDEA statute and regulations, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) policy documents, letters, and memos. Resources for key stakeholder groups are provided with information on children ages birth to 2, and 3 to 21.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
This webpage from the Center for Parent Information and Resources gives a comprehensive overview of Section 504 including eligibility and where to find more information.

IDEAs That Work
This website, established by the Office of Special Education Programs which is part of the U.S. Department of Education, provides easy access to information from research to practice initiatives that address the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Resources, links, and guidance for teachers and families on academic and social, emotional, and behavioral skills to help support infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities ages birth through 21 in achieving college and career standards are also included.

Frequently Asked Questions on Effective Communication for Students with Hearing, Vision, or Speech Disabilities in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools
This 30-page document, issued jointly by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education, explains public schools' responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to meet the communication needs of students with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities. This resource includes a fact sheet and information en español.

A Guide to the Individualized Education Program
The purpose of this guide is to assist educators, parents, and state and local educational agencies in implementing the requirements of Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) regarding Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for children with disabilities.

National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT)
NTACT aims to assist State Education Agencies, Local Education Agencies, State Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agencies, and VR service providers in implementing evidence-based and promising practices ensuring students with disabilities, including those with significant disabilities, graduate prepared for success in postsecondary education and employment. Funded by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), NTACT provides resources and guidance on evidence-based and promising practices for increasing school completion rates for students with disabilities, transition planning, and post-secondary education and services.

Age-Appropriate Transition Assessment Toolkit (PDF, 37 pages)
This toolkit developed by the National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT) provides background information on what a transition assessment is, why it should be used, how to select an appropriate instrument, emerging issues, and sample instruments.

Secondary Transition: Helping Students with Disabilities Plan for Post-High School Settings
From IRIS Center, this one-hour training module focuses on the transition process from high school to post-secondary settings. Among other topics, educators and parents can learn about IEP planning, engaging students in the process so as to become better advocates for their own needs, and the importance of outside agencies such as vocational rehabilitation.

Promoting the Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income (PROMISE)
The PROMISE program is an interagency collaboration of the U.S. Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Labor, and the Social Security Administration. Under this grant program, state agencies have partnered to develop and implement six model demonstration projects (MDPs) serving a total of eleven states that provide coordinated services and supports to youth with disabilities receiving supplemental security income (SSI) benefits and their families in order to improve the education and career outcomes. Information about interventions and supports for SSI eligible youth and their families, the MDPs working to create the best possible outcomes for youth and their families, and success stories are available here.

Office of Civil Rights: Guidance to Schools (PDF, 13 pages)
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued a letter to remind schools of the national problem of students with disabilities being bullied and the responsibility of schools to respond appropriately. The letter also provides guidance for how to investigate disability-based harassment.

Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR)
This webpage from CPIR provides resources by disability topic (e.g., behavior, disability, dispute resolution, IDEA, mental health, parental rights, etc.) and parent center practices (e.g., advocacy, best practices, family-centered services, outreach, etc.). Many of the provided resources are available in Spanish. CIPR also has information on the Parent Training and Information Centers (PTIs) and Community Parent Resources Centers (CPRCs) that are working with families and partnering with professionals and policymakers to improve outcomes for all children with disabilities in every state and territory across the nation.

Stopbullying.gov (PDF, 4 pages)
This brief from Stopbullying.gov provides information about bullying and children and youth with disabilities and special health needs. Bullying can lead to higher rates of absenteeism, loss of interest in academic achievement, and an increase in dropout rates.

Parent Fact Sheet: What Are Public Schools Required to Do? (PDF, 1 page)
This fact sheet describes the federal laws that schools need to follow and describes how you can respond when students with disabilities are being bullied. It is also available in Spanish (PDF, 1 page).

Transition of Students with Disabilities to Postsecondary Education: A Guide for High School Educators
This guide provides high school educators the ability to answer questions that students with disabilities may have when they are getting ready to transition to postsecondary education. The significant differences between the rights and responsibilities of students with disabilities in high school settings as compared to postsecondary education setting are clarified.

Making My Way through College
This guide is for all students, including those with disabilities, pursuing a degree or other credential after high school. It details how to prepare for and succeed in a postsecondary environment with the ultimate goal of employment.

Individualized Learning Plan (ILP) Resources
The Kickstart Your ILP Toolkit is an easy-to-use checklist for youth interested in planning for their goals. The ILP How-to Guide walks educators and school administrators through the process of using ILPs to promote college and career readiness in transitioning students.


1 National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
2 U.S. Department of Education, 2017
3 Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Department of Education, 2000
4 Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education, 2013
5 U.S. Department of Education, 2014
6 National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
7 Karmel & Nguyen, 2008
8 Wilkins & Huckabee, 2014
9 National Center for Education Statistics, 2016
10 Wilkins & Huckabee, 2014
11 Newman et al., 2011
12 Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015
13 Morningstar, Lattin, & Sarkesian, 2009; NICHCY, n.d; Stenhjem, 2005
14 National Technical Assistance Center on Transition, 2016

Other Resources on this Topic



Youth Topics

Youth Briefs

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

Youth who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) and especially young adults of transition age, should be involved in planning for life after high school as early as possible and no later than age 16. Transition services should stem from the individual youth’s needs and strengths, ensuring that planning takes into account his or her interests, preferences, and desires for the future.

Youth Transitioning to Adulthood: How Holding Early Leadership Positions Can Make a Difference

Research links early leadership with increased self-efficacy and suggests that leadership can help youth to develop decision making and interpersonal skills that support successes in the workforce and adulthood. In addition, young leaders tend to be more involved in their communities, and have lower dropout rates than their peers. Youth leaders also show considerable benefits for their communities, providing valuable insight into the needs and interests of young people

How Trained Service Professionals and Self-Advocacy Makes a Difference for Youth with Mental Health, Substance Abuse, or Co-occurring Issues

Statistics reflecting the number of youth suffering from mental health, substance abuse, and co-occurring disorders highlight the necessity for schools, families, support staff, and communities to work together to develop targeted, coordinated, and comprehensive transition plans for young people with a history of mental health needs and/or substance abuse.

Young Adults Formerly in Foster Care: Challenges and Solutions

Nearly 30,000 youth aged out of foster care in Fiscal Year 2009, which represents nine percent of the young people involved in the foster care system that year. This transition can be challenging for youth, especially youth who have grown up in the child welfare system.

Coordinating Systems to Support Transition Age Youth with Mental Health Needs

Research has demonstrated that as many as one in five children/youth have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Read about how coordination between public service agencies can improve treatment for these youth.

Civic Engagement Strategies for Transition Age Youth

Civic engagement has the potential to empower young adults, increase their self-determination, and give them the skills and self-confidence they need to enter the workforce. Read about one youth’s experience in AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).