Young adults with disabilities are less likely than their nondisabled peers to be employed full-time, enroll in postsecondary education, earn a bachelor’s degree, and engage in recreational activities such as going to the movies with their friends. Unlike their nondisabled peers, upon leaving school and entering the real world, young adults with disabilities tend to be more reliant on society and are less likely to engage in meaningful employment, postsecondary education, and independent living. In an effort to increase the ability of individuals with disabilities to become contributing members of society and to have a better quality of life, transition planning has become part of school programming. Coupled with the need for school programming to better prepare individuals with disabilities for post-school life is the need to provide appropriate education to a growing number of adolescents with disabilities. In 1974, federal legislation mandated public education, equal to their nondisabled peers, for all students with disabilities. As a result, a greater number of individuals with disabilities remain in the school system through middle and high school. However, a larger percentage of students with disabilities fail to graduate than do their nondisabled peers.
Outcome research indicates that many students with disabilities are not obtaining the same quality of life as their nondisabled peers. They are more likely to leave school before completing high school, be socially isolated, live with their parents, and be unemployed. Research shows that 22 percent of students with disabilities do not complete high school, compared to 9 percent of students without disabilities. Between the ages of 18 and 64, individuals with disability experience a 32 percent employment rate while their nondisabled peers experience an 81 percent employment rate. Sixteen percent of students with disabilities who enroll in postsecondary education earn bachelor’s degrees, while 27 percent of their nondisabled peers earn bachelor’s degrees. Approximately 60,000 individuals with disabilities ages 18-24 annually qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Income (SSDI). Once enrolled, fewer than 1 percent ever leaves. These statistics illustrate that many individuals with disabilities lead a dependent life rather than a life as an independent, engaged, and contributing member of society.
Defining Transition Living
Responding to these poor outcomes, federal legislation mandated schools to provide transition planning to students with disabilities beginning no later than their 16th birthdays. The law defines transition as a results-oriented process focused on improving the functional and academic achievement of students with disabilities. Transition planning focuses on assisting students who are leaving school to move successfully into vocational education, integrated employment, postsecondary education, adult services, continuing and adult education, independent living, and community participation. Transition planning and services rest on individual student needs, strengths, preferences, and interests. The range of services includes instruction, related services, community experiences, employment, and other adult living objectives, and daily living skills and functional vocational evaluation, when appropriate. Each student’s interests and needs on an individual basis through the Individualized Education Program (IEP) determine development of transition services. A team that meets on an annual basis develops this document. Through IEP meetings, the team determines the student’s desired postschool outcomes (where the student wants to live, work, and play), determines the student’s present levels of educational performance and priority educational needs, evaluates progress toward meeting previous measurable annual goals and short-term objectives or benchmarks, and develops new measurable annual goals and short-term objectives or benchmarks for the coming year. The content of the IEP determines the transition programming and services provided.
As the field of transition developed, so did transition service delivery models. The initial transition model depicts high school with three bridges crossing to employment. These bridges represent the levels of services that students need to transition successfully from high school into employment. The three levels are (1) no services, (2) time-limited services, and (3) ongoing services. This first model since expanded to incorporate competencies learned prior to and throughout high school, such as self-determination, communication, academics, health and fitness, and relationship building. Expansions of the first model also include additional outcomes such as postsecondary education, residential living, social and interpersonal networks, leisure and recreation, and community membership. In addition, the expanded models address the needed systems change to support transition services and programs, including interagency collaboration, integrated community participation, and transition planning and services.
Identified best practices addressing skills needed by students include competencies in self-determination, academic and vocational education, relationship building, consumerism, and self-maintenance. Best practices in processes needed to support transition programming include community experiences, individualized planning, family involvement, and interagency coordination. One example of a curriculum addressing skills needed for transition and life is comprised of 22 competencies grouped under the three headings: daily living skills, personal and social skills, and occupational guidance and preparation skills. The competencies include such skills as maintaining personal relationships, obtaining specific occupational skills, making adequate decisions, getting around the community, managing personal finances, and exhibiting responsible citizenship. Another curriculum for life skills instruction lists six domains: employment and education, home and family, leisure pursuits, community involvement, physical and emotional health, and personal responsibility and relationships. Examples of competencies listed within these domains are the ability to seek and secure a job, maintain a budget, prepare to go on a trip, understand legal rights, plan a nutritional diet, and establish and maintain friendships. Although both these curricula were developed for use with students with diverse learning needs, they are appropriate and easily adapted for all learners.
Transition and life skills are taught through infusion into existing curriculum as well as in separate career-related classes and lessons. Learning takes place in schools, in the community, and on work sites. Students receive individualized transition services based on their interests and needs as outlined in their IEP. Some students will require minimal transition supports and services. Their programs occur in fully integrated high school settings with a college preparation course of study leading to entrance into a 4-year university. These students graduate with standard diplomas, are able to function in the community, and hold jobs without supports. In school they may need limited academic or behavioral supports. Other students will need a higher level of supports and services, receive more intensive specialized services focusing on daily living skills and community-based instruction, and are less likely to enter general high school programs. Upon leaving school they receive nonstandard diplomas or certificates. In both work and the community, they are able to function independently or semi-independently with ongoing necessary supports. Between these two ends of the continuum are programs with various levels of independence and supports within the school, community, and employment settings.
School-based and community-based supports and services are crucial to successful transition programming. Within the school system teachers, transition specialists, and related personnel work with the students to provide academic and vocational education, transition assessment, life skills education, and on- and off-campus job training. Community-based personnel from agencies such as vocational rehabilitation and children’s medical services provide services to eligible students as designated by the mission of the agency. These might include support to clientele in integrated employment, vocational evaluation, living arrangements, physical or mental health, and adaptive equipment. Linking students with these agencies while they are still in school aids in a smooth transition into these services when they are adults.
As students with disabilities reach the age of majority, changes occur in their legal rights and the provision of agency and postsecondary educational services. Changes include, in part, issues related to guardianship, lessening of services received as a child, provision of services based on eligibility, not entitlement, and self-identification of disability in order to receive accommodations in employment or education. It is important for young adults with disabilities and their families to be aware of these changes before they occur to ensure a smooth transition. An interagency council comprised of individuals with disabilities, family members, secondary and postsecondary educators, employers, community-based organizations, and agency representatives help facilitate the provisions of these services.
Evaluation of transition programming and services is ongoing. One method of identifying best practices is looking at student outcomes and evaluating the impact of the services and programs students received on these outcomes. As the field grows, it is crucial to use these evaluations to identify and support needed changes.
- Alwell, Morgen and Brian Cobb. 2006. “A Map of the Intervention Literature in Secondary Special Education Transition.” Career Development for Exceptional Individuals 29:3-27.
- Kochhar-Bryant, Carol. 2007. What Every Teacher Should Know about Transition and IDEA 2004. Boston: Pearson.
- Repetto, Jeanne. 2006. The Middle School Experience: Successful Teaching and Transition Planning for Diverse Learners. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.
- Sitlington, Patricia and Gary Clark. 2006. Transition Education and Services for Students with Disabilities. Boston: Pearson.
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