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Employment and Postsecondary Education

Transitioning from School to Employment

As a student approaches the time to leave high school, it is important that preparations for adult life are well underway. For youth with disabilities, as with all youth, the transition from school to adulthood is an important time to prepare for future employment and being able to support oneself. Supports may be needed in the areas of education, vocational training, income supports, health insurance coverage, health care, transportation, life skills, housing, etc.1

Moving from adolescence to adulthood is a critical time period for all youth. Those with disabilities will benefit most when a continuity of services can be provided for them during this transition.2 The Federal Partners in Transition workgroup factsheet on youth transition services for students and youth with disabilities provides more in-depth discussion on providing continuity of services for this population. The Federal Partners in Transition workgroup, which includes representatives from several federal agencies, was formed to support all youth, including youth with disabilities, in successfully transitioning from school to adulthood. Another helpful resource is A Transition Guide to Postsecondary Education and Employment for Students and Youth with Disabilities with information for students, youth, and families.

The IDEA and its implementing regulations address secondary transition services for students with disabilities. Secondary transition services are meant to help a student with a disability successfully prepare for life after high school. Transition services may be special education, if provided as specially designed instruction, or a related service, if required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education. Beginning no later than the first IEP to be in effect when the child turns 16, and younger if determined appropriate by the IEP Team, and updated annually thereafter, the IEP must include post-secondary goals and the transition services needed to assist the student in reaching those goals.

Individualized Learning Plans (ILPs) are another helpful tool often used to aid the transition from school to employment for all youth, including those with a disability. ILPs are state-based transition planning tools currently used in 38 states. Working with their counselors and other supportive adults, students can develop ILPs to walk through the process of developing self-knowledge, relating that knowledge to career options, and laying out goals and skill-building activities to help achieve these goals.3 More information on strategies and resources for successful transition planning for youth with disabilities can be found here.

This transition can be difficult for all youth, especially for those with disabilities. Recent research has found that in comparison with their peers who did not have a disability, transitioning youth with disabilities were found: 4

  • to be less likely to have enrolled in postsecondary programs,
  • to be less likely to have attended a four-year university, and
  • to have lower completion rates of postsecondary education.5

Additionally, findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS) 2012 have found that in comparison to youth who do not have an IEP, you with an IEP are:

  • More likely to be socioeconomically disadvantaged and face problems with health, communication, and completing typical tasks independently;
  • More likely to struggle academically and yet are less likely to receive some form of school-based support;
  • Lagging behind their peers when it comes to planning and taking steps to obtain postsecondary education and jobs.6

However, it was also found that almost all of these young adults with disabilities, up to eight years after high school, were employed and more than half were living independently.7 This study also found that the most common post-high school goals for this population included:

  • secure independent living,
  • attending a 2- or 4-year college,
  • attending a postsecondary vocational training program,
  • enhancing social and interpersonal relationships, and
  • obtaining more functional independence.8

Two factors are crucial for youth with disabilities to transition successfully into employment:

  • employment training and work experiences while in high school, and
  • high parental expectations.

Students who have paid work experience during high school are more likely to develop workplace socialization skills. Career awareness training and attendance at a vocational school are also associated with greater likelihood of post-high school employment. The high expectations of parents are connected to high school academic achievement, goal persistence in college, and employment outcomes.9

In the hiring process, the main factors that drive employers’ decisions to hire a youth with a disability focus on their perception of the youth, including the applicant’s soft skills, such as:

  • preparedness for the interview,
  • professionalism, and
  • ability to perform on the job (i.e., prior paid work experience).10

Additionally, through a survey completed by employers in the U.S., it was found that the assistance of a job developer in making the job match is more likely to be highly valued by small- and medium-sized employers in comparison to larger companies. A job developer is a human resources professional that can help find job opportunities, perform outreach with potential places of employment, and provide training in soft skills. A job developer can also help in demonstrating the unique contributions that the youth can offer the employer.11 This is useful information to consider when working with youth who are preparing for employment aft­­er high school and finding the right fit for the youth and the employer.

A Workforce Development System

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was designed to strengthen and improve the nation's public workforce development system by helping people who have traditionally faced barriers to employment overcome those hurdles; including individuals with disabilities, out-of-school and at-risk youth, and others. WIOA is also intended to help employers hire and retain skilled workers. By providing a one-stop service delivery system, known as the American Job Centers, it is hoped that job seekers will have seamless access to a system of high-quality career services, education, and job-based training in areas that employers are seeking to hire. The U.S. Departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services are working together to support WIOA. More information and additional resources are available here.


Job Accommodation Network
The Job Accommodation Network, sponsored by the Office of Disability Employment Policy, is a leading source of free, expert, and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues.

Engaging Youth in Work Experiences: An Innovative Strategies Practice Brief
This Innovative Strategies Practice Brief provides practical examples and resources used by promising and exemplary youth programs to engage youth in work experiences.

Fostering Inclusive Volunteering and Service Learning
This guide for youth service professionals details how to engage all youth, including those with disabilities and other diverse backgrounds, in service learning experiences.

Benefits Planning for Youth with Disabilities
This reference guide was developed to help youth with disabilities navigate state and federal programs and benefits that are available to people with disabilities in the United States.

Disability Employment 101 (PDF, 68 pages)
This resource, developed by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, provides guidance to employers on how to find qualified workers with disabilities and how to successfully integrate employees with disabilities into the workplace.

Rehabilitation Services Administration
Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), a component of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), U.S. Department of Education, funds programs and activities that assist individuals with disabilities in the pursuit of gainful employment, independence, self-sufficiency and full integration into community life. Information on RSA programs addressing vocational rehabilitation and supported employment, and training is available here.


1 Honeycutt, Lyons, & Moreno, 2014
2 Federal Partners in Transition, 2016
3 National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability, n.d.-c
4 This study used a nationally representative sample of secondary students, who were 13 to 16 years old and receiving special education services in grade 7 or above during the 2000-01 school year; the study followed the participants over a 10-year period (Newman et al., 2011)
5 Newman et al., 2011
6 Lipscomb, Haimson, Liu, Burghardt, Johnson, & Thurlow, 2017
7 Newman et al., 2011
8 U.S. Department of Education, 2012
9 Wehman et al., 2015
10 Simonsen, Fabian, & Luecking, 2015
11 Simonsen, Fabian, & Luecking, 2015

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).