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Students with disabilities must plan for postsecondary education

Kelly D. Roberts Associate Professor University of Hawaii, Center on Disability Studies

Individuals with intellectual disabilities (ID) often graduate from high school without clear transition plans. Because this leaves them with limited options, it is very important to develop plans early. If your student is considering postsecondary education, start planning today.


Do develop a detailed transition plan

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law ensuring services to children with disabilities throughout the nation. It states: “Beginning not later than the first IEP to be in effect when a child turns 16, or younger if determined appropriate by the IEP team, and updated annually, thereafter, the IEP must include:

  1. Appropriate measurable postsecondary goals based upon age appropriate transition assessments related to training, education, employment, and, where appropriate, independent living skills; and
  2. The transition services (including courses of study) needed to assist a child in reaching those goals.

It is critical that your student’s transition plan be comprehensive. Be sure to involve him/her in the development of this plan, so his/her dreams for the future are integrated into the plan. When the plan includes accessing postsecondary education, all high school coursework, as well as any measures necessary for this to occur, should be included in your teen’s IEP.

Do check admissions criteria for postsecondary institutions

To ensure that admittance policies can be met by your student, it is imperative to understand all of the admissions criteria at institutions. While still in high school, your teen’s IEP team should work to guarantee that all admittance criteria are addressed and completely satisfied.

Do verify that your student’s institution of choice is supportive of individuals with disabilities

Not all postsecondary educational institutions are open to accepting and supporting individuals with intellectual disabilities. The more supportive the institution, the better the chances of success for your teen. However, if an institution is unsupportive, do not necessarily rule it out because they may just require more extensive planning and supports from outside the institution.

Do research vocational rehabilitation supports

Check with your local vocational rehabilitation (VR) office to see what supports they may provide for your student. It is also appropriate to have VR staff members at your student’s IEP meetings to ensure the entire team stays on the same page.

Do ensure disability support services are in place

Most postsecondary educational institutions have disability support services available to students. However, the range of these services tend to vary greatly from institution to institution. So meet with the staff and ask exactly what they offer. Discuss the accommodations that are necessary for your student and work to get these in place prior to beginning the first semester. Keep in mind that once individuals with disabilities graduate from high school, they are no longer legally covered by an IEP.

A person with a disability in postsecondary education must advocate for themselves. While parents tend to be highly involved in the K-12 years, this changes drastically as a student enters postsecondary education. Parents have no legal right to review records or even contact offices on behalf of their student. Thus, it is important that individuals with a disability be aware and able to verbalize their needed accommodations. In addition, it is helpful for students to have a clear understanding of which offices and staff at the postsecondary institution are available to assist them.


Do not believe that students with ID can’t attend postsecondary educational institutions

Many individuals--even those working in the disability field--do not think that individuals with ID should attend postsecondary education institutions. While this is a perceptual barrier that will slowly reduce as more individuals with ID succeed in postsecondary education, it can be a current barrier to education for those with disabilities.

Do not allow your student to enroll in too many courses

It is important to plan out every course that your student will take, as well as the supports needed for each course. Taking on too many classes may result in failure.

Do not forget to work on time management skills

Time management skills are often a barrier for many individuals in postsecondary education. The inability to grasp how to use all of the hours in the day can be difficult for students with ID, so be sure to practice these skills.

Do not overlook the importance of strong study skills

Study skills are another crucial area to practice. Because these skills are learned, start teaching them early in life. It is extremely helpful to master good study skills and strategies, such as color-coding notes and using technology to record lectures for later review.

Do not wait to plan for the future

Do not put off planning. The time you spend planning now will pay off in the long run.

Jumping cartoon

Detailed planning for entrance into postsecondary education is vital for the success of students with ID. Start early and be sure to include high school coursework, which is necessary for entrance into--and success in--postsecondary education.

More expert advice about Caring for Teens and Adults with Disabilities

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Kelly D. RobertsAssociate Professor

Kelly D. Roberts, PhD is an Associate Professor at the Center on Disability Studies (CDS) at the University of Hawai`i. She has worked at CDS since 1997. She has been the director of the of the Pacific Basin UCEDD since 2006. Presently she is ...

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