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Volume 26, Number 1
January/February 2010

From Special Ed to Higher Ed

Transition planning for disabled students focuses on advocacy skills


When freshmen visit E. Lynne Golden, the director of the University of Hartford’s program for students with disabilities, she first asks them to identify their disability and describe how it limits their learning. To obtain accommodations from the college for their disability, they need to be able to ask for them, but many students just don’t know how to do it, she says.

“Many students say they have a disability, but they don’t know what it is,” says Golden. “Others say they’ve never read their records.”

“In K–12, they’ve learned to talk about their strengths, but these students can’t talk about their weaknesses,” Golden adds. “My mandate is to provide the accommodations they request, but I get kids in my office who can’t talk about what they need. I may provide provisional services the first semester, but they have to come back to talk with me and bring additional documentation.”

The experiences in Golden’s office highlight the issues that confront students with disabilities and the high school teachers who are mandated to prepare them for the transition to college. As more students with disabilities gain acceptance to college, educators find that they need to do more than get the students through high school with good study skills, decent grades, and acceptable scores on their SAT exams.

Students with disabilities, educators say, need solid documentation to prove their disability to college officials in order to qualify for accommodations. They need instruction in the latest technologies to help them cope with increasing demands for reading and writing (see sidebar, "Transitioning to New Technologies"). Above all, educators say, these students must learn to advocate for themselves and become confident making independent decisions about their schooling.

Once in college, they’ll need to become much more assertive. In high school, they’re entitled to a broad panoply of services and accommodations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). They are supported by an interdisciplinary team charged with making sure that each student’s individualized education plan (IEP) is followed. The onus is on the school to provide the services.

In college, those entitlements no longer exist. Instead, students are eligible for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. But to obtain those services, they have to identify themselves as disabled, prove that disability, and then ask for accommodations. That some students may be falling through the cracks between high school and college is indicated by research: the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2, which tracked a large, nationally representative sample of special education students who were 13 to 16 years old beginning in 2001, found that 55 percent of students identified as having disabilities in high school did not identify themselves as disabled in college.

“Students get such strong support in high school from their families and schools that these students don’t learn how to make autonomous decisions,” says Greg Stefanich, professor of science education at the University of Northern Iowa, who spearheads a project that helps disabled students pursue college degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math. “They can become passive. In college, they quickly learn that they can’t assume there will be extra support and extra materials.”

Student-Led IEPs

One way some educators are helping is by teaching students to advocate for themselves while still in high school. They put them in a leadership role at annual IEP meetings when the team of professionals, the student’s parents, and the student meet to review the individual education plan and set goals for the coming year and for the transition to college.

Since 2004, federal law has required that students attend IEP transition-planning meetings. But having students at the meeting does not ensure that they know why they are there, understand the nature of the discussion, or know what their role is in the session. A 2006 study by James Martin, Zarrow Chair in Special Education at the University of Oklahoma, found that teachers spoke 51percent of the time in teacher-led IEP meetings, with students speaking just 3 percent.

Martin has developed what he calls the “self-directed IEP,” in which the student leads the meeting. This puts the students squarely at the center of the planning process. Martin encourages teachers to make the self-directed IEP part of a school’s curriculum beginning in ninth grade.

To lead the meeting, students need to talk about their disability, review their past goals, and discuss their future goals and the supports they’ll need to reach them. Those are the skills they would need on campus as a college freshman, when they ask for accommodations from the school administration and, once they have that approval in hand, from each professor who teaches them.

“These students need to learn how to speak up for themselves,” Martin says. “This teaches them to clearly articulate, to a group of professional educators, what their needs and goals are. This helps them own it. These are foundational skills that they need to know to get ready for life after high school.”

At Southmoore High School in Moore, Okla., all of the school’s 60 special education students are encouraged to lead their IEP meetings. Students struggling with verbal skills may prepare a PowerPoint presentation. One slide, for example, might detail what the student wants to do after high school, while another describes what he needs from teachers, family, and himself to be more successful in the coming year.

At Normal Community West High School in Normal, Ill., high school students with disabilities prepare their own IEP presentations as part of their curriculum in a special class. At the meetings, the students detail what works and doesn’t work for them in the school setting. They talk about their objectives for the coming year and outline how their teachers and families can help them be more successful. They tell the group what accommodations they need when taking a test—having more time, a room in which to take the test without distractions, a reader to explain the questions, or a scribe to write out the answers.

“When we first started doing it, we were worried about taking classroom time away,” says Jane Collins, a vocational coordinator for special education at McLean County Unit District No. 5 schools in Normal. “Now, the student-led IEP is like the final exam,” she says. “One of the biggest problems with our population is that they have problems speaking for themselves. If you can’t tell your teachers about yourself and what you want to do, how are you going to do it with your boss?”
Four-Year Transition Plans

Transition planning for students with disabilities is required under IDEA, the federal law that covers students through high school graduation or until they reach age 21. The federal policy covers 14 categories of disabilities—from learning or emotional disabilities to blindness, autism, or mental retardation. The transition-planning mandate has been strengthened over the years, with schools required to start developing postsecondary goals for students once they turn 16.

Those policies have paid off. Forty-four percent of students with disabilities enrolled in postsecondary education in 2005, up from just 26 percent in 1990. In 2006, nearly 1 in 10 college freshmen reported having a disability, which has more than tripled since 1978, according to a recently published book, Preparing Students with Disabilities for College Success.

The demands on guidance counselors and special education teachers to prepare disabled students for college will grow as more students are mainstreamed, obtain regular high school diplomas, and are accepted into two- and four-year colleges. For Greg Stowell, administrator of special education at the Mahopac (N.Y.) Central School District, and his staff, transition planning begins in ninth grade and is part of a four-year program for all students, including 300 disabled students. Ninth graders in Mahopac create a plan in which they think about where they are going after graduation—vocational training, two- or four-year college, or the workforce. Tenth graders create a career inventory, and eleventh graders get an introduction to colleges through workshops and college nights. Special education students are part of the caseload of guidance counselors, each of whom serves 220 students.

Guidance counselors also connect students with colleges that offer special programs for students with disabilities, such as the University of Hartford, whose Learning Plus program provides time management and organizational support for students with learning disabilities and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. This year, Mahopac is holding a college fair just for students with disabilities. “We want to make sure they have every opportunity to be accepted to a school that’s in line with their postsecondary goals and interests,” Stowell says.

In Wisconsin, the State Department of Public Instruction requires schools to create four-year plans to help parents, teachers, school counselors, and special education students with the transition to college. By senior year, the team of professionals needs to assemble a packet of information that includes up-to-date evaluation reports, transcripts, medical records, writing samples, and letters of recommendations.

Schools are also required to provide a summary of progress, which includes a review of each student’s academic performance, with recommendations about accommodations needed for success on the postsecondary level. Some colleges require evaluation reports that were done in the past three years, which can trip up students who seek accommodations in college if the reports were not done before graduation. Students need these documents in hand when they arrive on campus so they can advocate for help. Often the documentation isn’t specific enough for college administrators. “The report may say the student has a learning disability, but that’s not enough,” says Golden, of the University of Hartford. “It needs to be specific. We need the diagnosis.”

Finding the Right Accommodations

In planning the transition to college, high school guidance counselors, disabled students, and their families need to consider the right level of accommodation that matches the students’ plans beyond college as well as their ability to qualify for accommodations, educators say.

Choosing a college with a full range of services may not be what’s best for students preparing for the ultimate transition into the working world as an independent member of society. It’s a tricky balancing act. Students may need accommodations on tests to thrive in college, but too many supports in college could make it difficult for a student to succeed in the workplace, according to Margaretha Izzo, associate director at Ohio State University’s Nisonger Center, one of the nation’s 67 university centers for excellence in developmental disabilities.

Seeking a waiver of a college’s foreign language requirement, for example, could deprive the student of the opportunity to take on a serious challenge, she says. “The student may not get an A or a B, but they would learn how to persist through difficult periods,” says Izzo. “Being persistent in life leads to being able to manage situations that arise in living, working, and having relationships.”

She also warns high school counselors and families to begin the transition by considering what accommodations a student might qualify for once they reach college, when they have to deal with the rigors of postsecondary academics. In high school, a student may be allowed unlimited time or use a textbook to complete a test. In college, however, it’s rare for students to be given unlimited time, says Izzo. Students with disabilities are typically allowed time-and-a-half or double-time. If professors in college allow students with disabilities to use their textbooks, it’s typically with a strict time limit.

“You don’t want to prepare students to have false expectations for what it’s like in college,” says Izzo. “We do a disservice to high school students if we give them so many accommodations and modifications that they’ll never be replicated on the college level. If we do it, we are setting them up for a very difficult transition.”

At Nyack (N.Y.) College, freshman Christian Jackson, who had support for his physical and cognitive disabilities in high school, decided to start his college studies without accommodations. Near the end of the first semester, he says he needed to work more on his time-management skills, but was passing his courses. “I could have asked for extra time on my tests, but I wanted to challenge myself,” says Jackson. “I wanted to do it without help. I’m doing OK, and on my way to doing well.”

David McKay Wilson is a New York–based education journalist.

For Further Information

For Further Information

Erin Carter, Kathleen Lane, Melinda Pierson, and Kristin Stang. “Promoting Self-Determination for Transition-Age Youth: Views of High School General and Special Educators.” Exceptional Children 75, no. 1 (2008): 55–70.

Christina Samuels. “Charting a Course After High School.” Education Week 28, no. 25 (3/18/2009): 18–21.

Stan Shaw, Joseph W. Madeus, and Lyman L. Dukes III. Preparing Students with Disabilities for College Success: A Practical Guide to Transition Planning. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co., 2009.

Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction. Opening Doors to Postsecondary Education and Training: Planning for Life After High School, A Handbook for Students, School Counselors, Teachers and Parents.