Answering ‘What Comes Next?’ for Students with Disabilities

When I was a special education teacher in the 1990s and early 2000s, we almost never talked about what our students would do after high school. We just focused on getting them to graduation.

That’s changing. With increasing attention on career and college readiness, teachers and caretakers of youth with disabilities are talking more about “transition” — the move from high school to young adult life. In FHI 360’s National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities, or NICHCY, we field countless calls and emails asking, “What comes next?”

Too often, teachers and parents don’t even know special ed students have options, let alone rights. Our experts at FHI 360 help families understand their choices and decide what their children are going to do after age 22, when federal support ends.

But educating the special ed community is only half the battle.

The other half is reminding those in the mainstream population that people with disabilities have something to offer. Many people with disabilities are bright — even brilliant. Others have unique talents and dispositions. Even those who are not verbal can offer reliable help or skills. To exclude people with disabilities from conversations about career and college readiness is not only unjust but impractical: people with disabilities are 12 to 15 percent of the population. We as a society need to harness their contributions.

Students in our network go on to regular jobs or to supported employment. Some enter independent living programs. Others go into two-year professional programs, or even to four-year colleges where they learn without being on a diploma track. These are all good options, but they’re only possible if teachers and caretakers know about them and if states support them.

The disabilities community has been working — largely behind the scenes — on “transition” for decades. Even though it’s not always effectively done, federal law requires teachers and caretakers to come up with a plan for students with disabilities post-high school. Recently, the U.S. Department of Education confirmed that schools are responsible for preparing all students for the workplace, even those with severe disabilities.

Currently, our partners are developing resources for students with disabilities around common core standards, as well as alternate assessments for students who can’t take state-mandated tests. These elements are essential for making sure students with disabilities not only finish high school, but also do more than stay home or sit idle after they graduate.

Yet, as policymakers and parents increasingly push for higher standards in education, I fear our more modest goals for students with disabilities are overlooked or discounted. The truth is, we need to be talking about career and college readiness for all students. These include high-achieving students as well as students who struggle, wealthy kids as well as poor, middle-class and mid-performing students, and students who do not seem to fit in anywhere. Every student has something to offer, and no student deserves to work her way through high school only to find she has nowhere to go.

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