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Negotiating adulthood as a teen or young adult with disabilities

Mary C. Schuh Director, National Center on Inclusive Education University of New Hampshire, Institute on Disability

There are many “rites of passage” to adulthood that must be available to all young people, including those with disabilities. Growing up is a time of both opportunity and risk. Attending the prom, taking driver’s education classes, visiting colleges, registering to vote and opening a checking account are all important aspects of growing up and becoming independent. Teenagers need to learn how to negotiate the world of adulthood through a wide variety of experiences, most of which do not happen in a special education classroom.


Do understand the options for a strong transition plan from school to adult life

Students with disabilities should graduate with their peers and utilize their time between graduation and "aging out" of special education to explore (with support from the school system) all opportunities outside of the school building. These opportunities include higher education, travel, career exploration, national community service and independent living. Buy-out financial arrangements between schools and adult service agencies, as well as pooling transition resources, can expand the options available to young adults with disabilities.

Do plan ahead

Students with disabilities and their families must actively begin planning for the future well before the end of high school. Typically, this begins at age 14. For all students, setting goals and having positive dreams evolve out of a wide variety of school experiences, including classes, extracurricular activities, internships, community service, relationships and after-school jobs. Inclusion and participation in typical high school activities helps students better understand what they may want for their future.

Do grasp the importance of typical rites of passage for students with disabilities

Lifelong habits of learning and working are inherently promoted and developed through participation in typical educational experiences and traditional rites of passage. These experiences lead to connections, career and educational opportunities,
increased social relationships, and a greater likelihood for entering adulthood as valued, contributing members of their communities.

Do consider critical questions for a successful transition

When transitioning young adults from school to adult life, it is critical for families to think about the following questions:

Does the student have a typical daily schedule, which includes age-appropriate, general education classes in the neighborhood school, as well as supports provided so she/he can be successful?

Does the student move through grades in a typical fashion (9th to 12th grade) and participate in all grade-related activities, such as move-up day and graduation planning?

Does the student use natural environments and people to gain support, such as study halls, guidance and the nurse?

Is the student valued for her/his participation in school? Do grades, transcript and diploma reflect this?

Is the student supported to have friends and meaningful relationships in and out of school?

Does the student have an after-school, weekend and summer job, if desired?

Is the student supported to participate in community-based instruction during times when other students are engaged in such activities, such as after-school, weekends, summers and after senior year?

Is the student supported to gain meaningful skills and knowledge through participation in typical classes?

Is the student involved in career and future planning classes and activities?

Does the student have regular contact with the school guidance counselor?

Does the student graduate from high school after senior year and continue to receive supports in the community via the school and adult systems?

Is the student supported to pursue career, continuing education, housing and recreation choices after completion of senior year in high school?

Is the student’s school working collaboratively with all additional resources to achieve positive outcomes between ages 18 and 21?

Is the student involved in creative planning strategies, such as personal future planning and self-directed services?

Do involve your students in their own transition plans

Involve your children. Ask them to participate in the development of their transition plan as this will help ensure that your children will be invested in the plan. Be sure that they attend all IEP and planning meetings, and participate in a student-directed plan.


Do not believe that your student must fit into a specific program created by the school district

Special education funding within each school must be highly individualized and flexible enough to meet student needs, especially for young adults age 18 to 21. Older students, along with their families, should be primary decision-makers in developing individualized transition services. They should be able to use educational funding for options available to their same-age peers, including technical colleges, four-year colleges, training programs and employment. School districts must work to ensure that these students, where appropriate, have access to Medicaid, are receiving support from adult service providers, and have the supports they need to work and live as independently as possible.

Do not remove students from typical high school experiences to participate in segregated, community-based instruction

Instruction in the community is important for all students, including students with disabilities. This instruction can--and should--happen during times that are considered typical for young people. These times include after school, weekends and summers. It is no longer necessary to give up the value experienced within a typical high school routine by removing students during the school day for separate community-based instruction. Seek out support for your daughter or son to explore career and volunteer experiences during times that are typical for all students. Support can be provided through vocational rehabilitation, extended- year programming, paraprofessionals and related services.

Do not deny your student any rites of passage experiences during age-appropriate times

Your children have the right to participate in the same experiences as other youth their age. This includes participation in all graduation activities, prom, drivers education, a part-time job, texting and social media, getting a tattoo, exploring their own style, class trips, club memberships and any other activities that their peers are involved in. Give yourself permission to find out what other students their age are involved with and support your daughter or son to get connected and participate. Enlist the school in these endeavors and use support creatively. Remember that when activities are sponsored by the school, your daughter or son has the right to participate and be supported.

Do not limit your student based on other people’s expectations and assumptions

The field of special education is growing and changing faster than most educators, medical providers and therapists can keep up. New knowledge and advances in technology are continuing to inform us that disability labels are less about perceived intellectual capacity of students--and more about the environmental context and our limited ability to provide students with the supports they need to be successful. It is far better to presume the competence of students and provide them with the supports necessary for participation in valued life activities and rights of passage. Too often, special education systems are designed to separate and track young people into a segregated adult life that is not defined by a young person’s own hopes and dreams for their future.

Do not forget to consider your student’s vision

Think about your children’s vision for themselves and their future. How might you translate these thoughts into a plan, which provides guidance on transition planning from school to adult life? Whether it is college or career, or a combination of the two, it is very important to set a vision and approach that vision with creativity, flexibility and commitment so your vision can become a reality. When thinking about options for your student’s transition plan, be sure to consider these questions:

What might we expect if our child did not experience a disability?
What are the traditions and values that exist in our family that guides decision-making?
What rites of passage are common in our community?

Jumping cartoon

It is vital to create a strong vision and transition plan for young adults with disabilities. Approach this vision and plan with creativity, flexibility and commitment. Instant messaging, getting a driver’s license, attending college fairs, enjoying flexible senior schedules and applying for a credit card are all experiences that are taken for granted by most young adults. However, there are rites of passage to adulthood that should be available to all young people, including those with disabilities.

More expert advice about Caring for Teens and Adults with Disabilities

Photo Credits: Drivers License -Teen driver by State Farm via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Mary C. SchuhDirector, National Center on Inclusive Education

Dr. Mary Schuh has been with the Institute on Disability since its inception in 1987, working to coordinate family and consumer leadership development and educational systems change activities in the areas of: preschool through secondary transit...

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