Improving Postsecondary Education Access and Results for Youth with Disabilities
By Megan A. Conway
A postsecondary degree is increasingly becoming an equalizer for individuals with disabilities seeking to enter and advance in the workforce. For the general population, level of education is correlated closely with employment rate and earnings. This correlation is even higher for people with disabilities. Fortunately, the number of postsecondary students who identify themselves as having a disability is on the rise, from 2.6% in 1978 to 10%-20% in 2002, with individuals who identify themselves as having a learning disability representing over half of these students (National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational Supports, 2002). This increase is likely due to the passage of federal special education and disability rights legislation resulting in increased identification and educational supports, as well as changes in awareness and attitudes about disability.
Despite these gains in postsecondary participation, individuals with disabilities are still half as likely to be employed and significantly less likely to initiate and complete a postsecondary degree as are individuals without disabilities (National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational Supports, 2002). There is an urgent need to further explore ways to improve access to and participation within postsecondary education for youth with disabilities.
Issues of Preparation
Barriers to preparation for postsecondary education is one area that needs to be addressed in increasing access and participation. The following four barriers are among the most significant:
Meeting entrance requirements. Dropout rates and the receipt of an alternative diploma are both exceptionally high for youth with disabilities. One problem is that as an alternative to supporting youth with disabilities in a regular content class, they are often placed in special content classes that do not meet the entry requirements of many post-secondary institutions. Additional barriers are assessments that are not geared towards evaluating the actual abilities and performance of all students, and issues of economic status and cultural and linguistic diversity.
Exercising self-determination and self-advocacy skills. Many youth with disabilities are not given the opportunity in secondary school to be self-determined (i.e. make choices, develop self-understanding) or to practice self-advocacy skills that they will need after they graduate from high school. Few attend their own Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, and teachers, support personnel, administrators, and parents usually makes most of the decisions about student goals and needed supports. This means that students with disabilities are often left without an understanding of their disability and its impact upon their learning. Unlike secondary school students with disabilities, postsecondary students are expected to identify themselves as having a disability, provide documentation of their disability (an IEP usually does not suffice), and advocate for their own accommodations.
Getting needed supports. The kinds of supports that are offered to students generally differ between secondary and postsecondary school. Postsecondary supports tend to focus on what is "reasonable" rather than what is "least restrictive" or "free and appropriate." As a result, supports are geared around providing basic access to content rather than promoting student achievement. For example a postsecondary institution is more likely to provide a notetaker than a tutor.
Accessing technology. Despite the significant benefits that technology can provide, such as access to communication, peer support, help with job readiness, and tools that support academic achievement, youth with disabilities in secondary school often do not have access to technology nor can they utilize it even if it is available. This impedes their ability to use technology in postsecondary environments. Even when students with disabilities do have access to technology in secondary school, it is more than likely that they will not be able to take that technology with them when they graduate.
Issues of Participation
Once in a postsecondary environment, students with disabilities often encounter barriers to participation, including:
Variations in supports. While most postsecondary institutions do provide some level of support, the type and scope of support may vary widely across institutions (two-year, public and larger institutions tend to provide more comprehensive supports than do four-year, private and smaller institutions). Some schools may have a variety of programs and supports for students, with a number of staff who are responsible for providing them, while other schools may have a single individual who has this responsibility in conjunction with other responsibilities.
Focus on "reasonableness." Post-secondary institutions are generally not required by law to meet the same standards in supporting youth with disabilities as are secondary schools. As a consequence, many focus on matching students with accommodations from a fixed menu of supports based on disability category rather than focusing on students' individual needs or preferences. Thus, while a student may be receiving some form of supports or accommodations, those supports and accommodations may not be the most appropriate for a specific learning context, or at the level of intensity that the student needs in order to succeed.
Service coordination. Postsecondary students with disabilities are often required to juggle, with little or no assistance, supports and services related to their housing, medical, financial, social, transportation, and academic needs. Managing these supports and services can be time-consuming and frustrating. Government programs that provide these supports and services often have conflicting qualifying and participation criteria; students may actually have to appear "disabled" and "able" at the same time to qualify.
Strategies for Improving Results
Six strategies that may be used in secondary and postsecondary schools to address the barriers identified here are the following:
Move away from a separate content model. Secondary educators should examine the impact that placement in separate content classes may have on the opportunities that will be available to students in the future. While placing a youth in a separate content class may be the easiest way of addressing some immediate learning needs, providing adequate supports and accommodations in a regular classroom could equally meet these learning needs. The same principle applies to alternative assessments and diplomas ¿ students with disabilities must be given the opportunity to achieve the same standards as other students. These opportunities must be coupled with supports and accommodations integrated into the regular school environment.
Address cultural and economic barriers. Educators need to explore and address problems associated with cultural and economic barriers to high school graduation. Teachers and paraprofessionals must be culturally competent. Schools should also work closely with students with disabilities and their families to examine and respond to cultural values and economic circumstances that may affect student education.
Provide youth and families with information and experiences. Strategies for informing youth and families about secondary and post-secondary support provision processes include holding direct parent and youth training sessions, integrating information into IEP meetings, and providing youth and parents with resources for exploring postsecondary options. Schools can provide students with the opportunity to practice self-determination and self-advocacy skills by implementing student-directed IEP meetings, providing students with support to participate in mentoring and work development programs, and encouraging teachers to implement self-determination and self-advocacy curricula.
Improve access to technology. Schools must take steps to (a) direct resources towards assessing student technology needs (both in and out of school); (b) ensure that technology or learning methods used by students are accessible to all students; (c) purchase adaptive technology as needed; and (d) educate all stakeholders (parents, students, teachers) about how to identify, use, and maintain equipment. It is also important for secondary schools and other stakeholders to work together so that student use of technology across secondary and postsecondary school is as seamless as possible.
Focus on outcomes. Postsecondary institutions should move beyond focusing on restrictive interpretations of civil rights laws to focusing on the needs and goals of their students. Postsecondary institutions invest time and money in order to support and retain a wide variety of students, and institutions and society at large benefit from extending these support and retention efforts to students with all types of disabilities.
Improve efforts to streamline services. Postsecondary students with disabilities should be able to pursue their postsecondary education without being bogged down by a complex web of service management. State government, schools, and community organizations must work together to streamline support provision and eligibility criteria as students transition between secondary and postsecondary school. They must also work closely with postsecondary institutions to build outside services into the postsecondary education structure and to assist students to manage these services.
Youth with disabilities must be given every opportunity to access and participate in postsecondary education. A postsecondary degree is a critical component of career success for all youth, and it is even more so for youth with disabilities. In order for equal postsecondary participation to become a reality for students with disabilities, schools must address issues in preparation and participation that impede student success.
National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational Supports (2002, July). Briefing book and proceedings of the national summit on preparation for and support of youth with disabilities in postsecondary education and employment. Washington DC: Author.
Megan Conway is Assistant Professor and Coordinator with the Center on Disability Studies, University of Hawai'i at Manoa, Honolulu. She may be reached at 808/956-6166 or email@example.com.
Citation: Gaylord, V., Johnson, D.R., Lehr, C.A., Bremer, C.D. & Hasazi, S. (Eds.). (2004). Impact: Feature Issue on Achieving Secondary Education and Transition Results for Students with Disabilities, 16(3). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from http://ici.umn.edu/products/impact/163.
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