Transition to Graduation – What’s Next?

Three Paths Well Traveled

Transition woodland pathsSummer is almost here and as many students with disabilities are either graduating or seeing their peers graduate from high school they may be asking themselves, “What’s next?” That’s why we’ve asked Margaret Gilbride, JD, CT to be our guest blogger for this week’s post so she can share her extensive knowledge on the subject of “transitioning into adult life.” Ms. Gilbride is one of New Jersey’s foremost experts on employment programs and aging for people with disabilities and is the Instructor of Pediatrics and Director of Employment Programs and Aging & Disability at The Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities. She has generously offered to take us through an overview of three common paths individuals with disabilities and special needs
may pursue as they transition out of high school:

  1. Further Education
  2. Employment
  3. Independent Living

Transition is Change

I mean no disrespect, but Benjamin Franklin was wrong. What was he thinking when he observed, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” and left out change? How could Mr. Franklin omit a certainty we wrestle with, literally from birth? When we think of change as our moving from the place of “the familiar” to the place of the “unknown,” we are defining the process of transition.

When I was new to the field, I read a definition of high school transition by Halpern (1992) who described it as “a period of floundering that occurs for at least the first several years after leaving school as adolescents attempt to assume a variety of adult roles in their Communities.” Too often, for students with disabilities, the period of “floundering” lasts for more than several years. It is critical that parents realize the path a student with a disability will follow after high school is mostly influenced by his or her parents’ attitudes and expectations. Fortunately, there are a number of strategies that special educators can apply to prepare their students for postsecondary education, employment, and independent living upon which parents can build.

Enjoying a rich adult life is the targeted outcome of special education. This language is reflected in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) citing that “equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency” for students with disabilities; and its purpose being, “to prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living. . .” Let’s look at these three paths of successful school-to-adult-life transition realizing that future blog posts will be more in-depth on each area.

Further Education

Person with disability at collegeTypically, students and their families focus on two options—community colleges (2-yr) and colleges or universities (4-yr)—though other options exist such as vocational/technical schools, specialized training programs, internet-based learning, etc. Choosing the most appropriate educational setting can be a difficult task. The main goal is to match the student’s unique attributes, needs and career goals with the characteristics of the institution.

There are nearly 2,500 colleges and universities in the United States with too many variables in admission standards, location, size, academic, residential and social opportunities to examine.  The importance of identifying the level of services provided to students with disabilities on the campuses being explored cannot be overstated. If you follow this link, you will be able to scratch the surface of questions to ask and matters to consider regarding the selection of a 4-yr college or university.

Community colleges usually require applicants to take a placement test but, even if the student scores below the admission standard, he or she can still enroll in remedial classes or vocationally oriented programs. Community colleges are usually conveniently located to students’ homes, have much lower tuition costs than 4-yr institutions, and are found by many students with disabilities to be a more comfortable setting. Additionally, many students who attend community college do so part-time, so it is not unusual for students to take several or more years to complete the requirements for an associate’s degree or vocational program. This allows the educational experience of the student with a disability to mirror more accurately the characteristics of their learning community.

Only recently has postsecondary education become an option for students with more significant intellectual and developmental disabilities. Some school systems have implemented programs for 18 to 21 year olds that allow students to “walk” with their graduating class but still continue their education on the campuses of community colleges, 4-year institutions, universities and vocational-technical schools. In other instances, colleges and universities themselves have instituted non-age restricted programs for similar adult learners. These programs are designed to provide a more age-appropriate setting for learning in which students with significant disabilities can increase their independence.

The traditional college or university experiences associated with postsecondary education may not be the best choice for a particular student with a disability. Some students will prefer and/or flourish pursuing alternative educational opportunities such as a vocational-technical school or specialized training program as their pathway to employment.  What is of utmost importance is the transition planning process itself and its assurance that students and families understand all the available postsecondary options.

Students with disabilities that aspire to postsecondary education will need above all to be able to advocate for themselves.  For an introductory understanding of the differences between high school and postsecondary education, read this.

EmploymentPerson w/ disability at work

 Many of the life activities that represent independence in our society depend directly on having an economic base of support. For most of us, that economic base is employment. Gaining and maintaining employment at a competitive wage allows a young person to achieve other post-school outcomes such as pursuing more education, living independently, buying goods and accessing recreational activities. But employment isn’t just about the paycheck. Work can provide a sense of accomplishment, enhance self-worth, contribute to an evolved identity of self, and open the door to a social network of frie
ndship and support.

As with the likelihood of a student transitioning into postsecondary education, parent expectation is the number one predictor of employment after school. Second is the opportunity to have engaged in paid work experience while still in school. The Center on Transition to Employment Issue Brief on Post School Outcomes reveals that youth with previous paid work experiences were 4.53 times more likely to achieve integrated competitive employment. If a school system offers comprehensive transition services, it will include a strong employment preparation component that provides a spectrum of services and activities (school and community based) that nurture the development of individual productivity.

For the student who anticipates transitioning directly into competitive employment from high school, an important member of the transition team to have at the table is a Department of Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. Read the attached letter from the Director of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation regarding inter-agency collaboration with the school systems and suggested timelines for referral: DVRS. If a student is eligible to receive services from the Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD), there may be additional employment-related supports and strategies available as well. You can learn more at DDD services.

With the governor’s proclamation that made New Jersey an “Employment First” state, ours became the fourteenth state (of over thirty-two) to determine competitive employment is the “first and preferred” post-education activity for everyone, including people with disabilities. Not only are persons with disabilities expected to become increasingly more a part of the economic mainstream; providers are to support individuals with complex disabilities to become fully accepted into the workplace. The more the expectation of employment is reinforced throughout the special education experience; the stronger the link between earning and quality of life becomes and the better prepared students will be for adulthood.

Independent Living

The availability of community living options is still limited for many young adults with disabilities. To improve this, planning and instruction for community living outcomes must be infused into all aspects of education and transition planning.  Team members entrusted with assisting in the development and oversight of transition goals and activities play a huge part in helping students and families learn about community housing options.

Man picks fruit with womanFor persons eligible for funding through DDD there may be residential services and supports available. These should be explored with your supports coordinator. When considering supported living services, remember that they should provide individualized services in all or most of the following areas:

  • Budgeting and money management
  • Homemaking/housekeeping
  • Home maintenance and repair
  • Self-care
  • Communication and social skill development/enhancement
  • Monitoring of health, safety and (when necessary) personal care assistance
  • Accessing community resources (fitness club, etc.)
  • Travel and mobility
  • Recreational activities

Other options exist for young adults with disabilities and their families to consider, and each has varying strengths and weaknesses that should be considered in light of personal and family circumstances. Potential resources for community rental housing include:

  • The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program
  • HOME Investments Partnerships Program (HOME) rental assistance
  • Bridge rent subsidy program
  • Section 811 Supportive Housing for Persons with Disabilities Program
  • Section 521 Rural Rental Assistance Program
  • Low-income housing tax credit units

Also, there are home ownership assistance programs, but individuals wishing to become homeowners must be able to save money and budget for the two major types of expenses: those upfront (cost of the home purchase and move) and those ongoing (mortgage, utilities, maintenance and repairs).  Typically, home ownership assistance programs provide one or more of the following:

  • Help with the down payment
  • Low-interest rate mortgage
  • Assistance with closing costs
  • Forgivable loans
  • Support for renovation, accommodations and maintenance

Young adults with and without disabilities need certain skills in order to move out of the family home and live more independently. Many transition-aged youth will continue to live at home for a period of time after leaving high school or will live in somewhat sheltered settings like college dormitories or transitional living programs. The school years and those that follow provide young adults with a wide range of opportunities to learn and practice personal budgeting, housekeeping, and home maintenance while still receiving support from family.

For more information on how to increase opportunities for young adults with disabilities to achieve successful, positive futures, visit The National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET) at

Change is unavoidable but not insurmountable. Anticipating it, planning for it and navigating through it is more than just “part of life,” it is life itself.

About the Author:

Margaret Gilbridge photoMargaret Gilbride, JD, CT, Instructor of Pediatrics, is Director of Employment Programs and Aging & Disability at The Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities.

Ms. Gilbride graduated from Indiana University School of Law and is a certified Thanatologist through the Association of Death Education and Counseling. Prior to joining The Boggs Center, Ms. Gilbride worked as an Administrator, Research Associate, and Project Coordinator at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community (IIDC) where she provided direct technical assistance on topics such as program evaluation, strategic planning, staff development, and issue-specific workshops and group facilitation to schools, provider organizations, governmental agencies, businesses, family groups, and advocacy organizations.

In addition to her responsibilities at IIDC, Ms. Gilbride has held positions as Job Coach, Program Manager, Director, Chief Operating Officer, and Executive Director. She is also a regular presenter at national conferences.

To learn more about The Boggs Center, visit:


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