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Life After High School: What Comes Next For The Transitioning Student with Special Needs?

Life After High School: What Comes Next For The Transitioning Student with Special Needs?

Graduating from high school can be an exciting time in a young person’s life. As parents, we have thought about and tried to prepare for this important day for many years. Most of us have developed a plan with our children about what comes next.  We’ve encouraged them to think about their future after high school by taking college prep classes, scheduling their SAT’s, touring college campuses or vocational trade schools, gaining volunteer or work experience, or speaking with Armed Forces recruiters.

But how about the high school graduate with special needs? Roughly 62% of students with disabilities graduate from high school, many of them still not sure about what’s next. High school graduation does not have to be the end of the educational road for these youth. There are plenty of avenues for the transitioning special needs graduate, ranging from post-secondary education and vocational training to life skills education and independent living preparation.

Although it’s never too late, ideally, planning for the special needs graduate should start as early as possible, because while in school there’s a process, structure and predictability that disappears when out in the wider world. Also, many of the mandated educational support services you rely on as part of your child’s public education often are no longer available after they turn 21.

So how do you help your teen or young adult child with special needs plan for their future? If developmentally appropriate, you can start by asking about their goals after high school. Do they want to go to college or do they have a different plan?  Chances are – if they graduate with a regular diploma - college is on their minds. It is estimated that about 2/3rds of students with disabilities graduate with a regular diploma. And, according to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), about 80% of special needs graduates have a goal of attending college, while 60% will enroll in a post-secondary institution.

If college is a goal, discuss with them what subjects they like and do well in. What college major or career paths interest them? Are they attracted to the advanced classes that will help them prepare for the rigors of college? Ask what college factors appeal to them: large or small campus, living at home or living the dorm life, four-year university, community college, or cooperative education program.  Answering these questions will help narrow the focus to the right school and the course of study.

is an excellent resource for college-bound students with disabilities and their families. It provides training and technical assistance on a variety of topics critical to the post-secondary success of special needs students. You will find uplifting success stories from students with a range of learning disabilities. Additionally, there is a resource library that can help you find information on transition-related services, including college funding. FinAid.org has a list of fellowship and scholarship opportunities for students with disabilities. 

But what about the graduate who is not heading to college?

The Individuals with Disabilities Act requires school districts to offer a wide variety of services to ease transition into the adult world. Your special needs child’s Individual Education Program (IEP) should list what transition services are to be provided. The IEP will outline a transition plan for your child by the time he or she reaches age 14.

Included in this transition plan are usually some type of career or vocational assessments which are used to not only determine some possible employment paths based upon your child’s abilities, it also takes into consideration the students interests. These are usually begun after the child turns 12, providing ample time to structure an education program that paves the way for their success.

Another option is job training, which is critical for those not going on to college. A survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that – besides the disability itself – lack of job training and education was the biggest obstacle to finding employment. So, transition planning for students with disabilities not on the college path might begin with vocational training as early as middle school.  Many public schools offer a vocational training component to their curriculum for special needs youth.  Visit your school district’s website or arrange an appointment to speak with your school special education coordinator or administrator to find out what is available for your child.

Early work experience, including volunteer work, can positively affect a special needs student’s ability to find paid employment after high school. A determined that students who held a paid, community-based job were twice as likely to find employment after high school.

Another option is to contact your . Every state offers vocational assistance to youth and adults with disabilities to assist help them prepare for, obtain, maintain, or regain employment. Oftentimes, these state workers meet with students and parents at the high school to begin developing their plan for employment.  

The keys to transition planning for special needs include starting early, fully involving your child in the planning and taking advantage of all the resources available to you prior to graduation.



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