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Learning Disability: Life after High School

University of Buffalo: Center for Assistive Technology
Study what the research says about options after high school for students with learning disabilities. This article covers outcomes of students who go to college, career and technical education, and to work. The issues of disclosure and obtaining accommodation are covered.

No matter the official diagnosis, people who experience the challenges associated with disabilities must overcome many obstacles in order to succeed in school and work. During kindergarten through 12 th grade (K-12) education, children should be instructed on skill development but they should also be taught what type of accommodations may be able to help them to overcome the challenges associated with their disability. Without key skills in both of these areas, it will become difficult for children with learning disabilities (LD) to succeed later in life.

The transition to college or technical school calls for the person with a LD to take on more of the responsibility, not only in proving that they have a disability, but also for bringing accommodation needs to the attention of professors and other staff at college (Stodden & Conway, 2002). In many cases, the skills and knowledge they learn about their disability and what they need to do to accommodate themselves in K-12 education will ensure that accommodation for a disability will become part of the daily routine. In addition, the role of technology changes from a focus on basic skill development (remediation), a focus in K-12, to accommodation, which is more important in college. While in K-12 schools, much of the responsibility to provide accommodation falls upon the school. The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is a document that describes the services and accommodations that the child with a disability needs to participate in school. It is the responsibility of the school and teachers that the accommodations described in that document are available to the student with a LD. When a student goes to college or work, they have much more responsibility as they must first choose whether or not to tell their professors or employers about the LD and then have to explain which accommodations are necessary to complete the course of study or the essential functions of the job.

Learning disabilities in post-secondary institutions

For students in college and technical schools, getting the accommodations you need to succeed is ensured by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504). Title II of the ADA requires that people with disabilities receive equal opportunity to benefit from public programs including public education (Department of Justice, 2004). Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 states that “no qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall be excluded from, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under” programs and/or activities that receive federal financial assistance (P.L. 93-112 § 794). Section 504 applies to people who have all of the skills necessary to fill a position or enter college, this is know as “otherwise qualified,” and as a result it does not guarantee the automatic acceptance of people with disabilities into colleges or work places. However, it does allow for “reasonable accommodation” to be considered when determining if a person is qualified.

These pieces of legislation have allowed people with learning disabilities to enroll in college in greater numbers than in previous years (Levine & Nourse, 1998; Weintraub, 2005). In particular, they have helped to develop disability services on college campuses around the country. These offices provide a number of services to students with disabilities, including (Mangrum & Stirchart, 2003):

  • Diagnostic testing;
  • Remediation;
  • Tutoring;
  • Special courses;
  • Counseling;
  • Advocacy;
  • Advisement; and
  • Auxiliary aids and services.

In order for a student with a LD to receive these services, he must verify to the college that he has a qualifying disability. To qualify a disability must cause you to have a significant limitation in a major life activity like learning or working. The proof of this limitation is usually provided via documentation from a licensed professional that includes a diagnosis of the student’s disability, limitations associated with the disability, and current substantial limitations to learning ( Northwestern University, 2005). Students who are enrolled in colleges are not required to tell anyone about their disability if they do not require accommodation.

At the college level, it is the student’s responsibility to let professors know about what accommodations are necessary. Therefore, it is beneficial for the student to have be aware of his strengths and weaknesses about learning when choosing classes, asking for accommodation, and when studying. According to the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET) (Stodden & Conway, 2002), the differences between the requirements for accommodation in K-12 and college education are so vast that awareness of what accommodations a student needs may not be developed before he leaves 12 th grade. NCSET recommends that students and parents are provided with information on the changes in how to get the accommodations a student needs in college during high school transition planning.

When applying to colleges, students must remember that it is not necessary for colleges to change their acceptance criteria for a student with a disability. A study conducted by Vogel et al (1998) stated that while almost half of colleges they surveyed made no change to regular admissions procedures, one fifth of the admissions officers modified their admission standards for students with disabilities. However, given the limited number of colleges who do alter criteria and the lack of knowledge of what might encourage them to do so, students should consider their choices of colleges carefully. Generally speaking, in order to be accepted a student must be qualified to complete the course of study with or without reasonable accommodation. Applicants with disabilities should review the acceptance criteria of the colleges they wish to attend to ensure that they are qualified for the programs offered as they may vary widely between types of post-secondary institutions (i.e. between research universities, liberal arts colleges, or technical schools) (Vogel, Leonard, Scales, Hayeslip, Hermansen, and Donnells, 1998). Resources such as Peterson’s Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities or ADD , (7th Edition) are excellent sources of information for prospective post-secondary students with a LD.

Career and technical education

For many students with a LD, the move toward academic achievement and continuing education after graduation can present a problem when seeking career and technical education in K-12 schools. The passage of the recent IDEA amendments and No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) are creating an atmosphere in which it is expected that all students will attend some form of college. As a result, opportunities for vocational training are disappearing (Weintraub, 2005). The National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium (NASDCTEc) (2003) stated that some states were already experiencing a decline in enrollment in career and technical education as the demand for academic courses increased under NCLB.

The continuation of career and technical education is critical to the success of many students, including those who are disadvantaged economically or educationally and those who have disabilities. Recent data indicates that 7 years after graduation, the economic advantages of career and technical education were evidenced in participant’s earnings (NASDCTEc, 2004). Students who continues career and technical education:

  • Earned approximately 2% (or $450) for each additional career and technical education course taken;
  • Earned an additional $1350 per year when they concentrated their training on a specific occupational area.

This report further stated that students who took both academic and career and technical education courses received the greatest earnings. The fact remains that career and technical education is an essential component of lifelong success for many students, including those with learning disabilities (NASDCTEc, 2004). As a result, it is vital to maintain career and technical education programming in secondary schools. Despite this demonstration of need, data from the U.S. Department of Education reports a continuing drop in enrollment in career and technical education courses (Hurst and Hudson, 2001). In 2001, the U.S. Department of Education cited a drop-out rate for students with a LD of 27.1%, which is well above the 11% of students without disabilities who dropped out of high school in the same year. Student enrollment in college preparatory classes between 1982 and 1998 creased by over 30% (from 8.7% to 38.9%) and enrollment in vocational education decreased by over 8% (from 33.7% to 25%). The largest declines in vocational education occurred in the trade and industry (5%) and business (6.8%) areas (Hurst and Hudson, 2001). The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 (P.L. 109-270) may help to address this decline. The Act, signed into law on August 12, 2006, links K-12 career and technical education programs with industry certification, 2- and 4-year degree programs, and registered apprenticeships. This new legal requirement for schools to provide “programs of study” that link academic and technical content across K-12 and college education will also ensure that courses offered focus on careers that are popular now, versus more traditional career choices like manufacturing.

Some state career and technical education programs are also being redesigned for the current economy. South Carolina recently passed a state law titled the Education and Economic Development Act of 2005. The law is designed to address economic changes as the state moves to a technology- and research-based economy from a manufacturing-based economy. South Carolina has a poor graduation rate for its students with estimates as low as 51% (Green and Winters, 2005). The new law requires freshmen entering high school to choose a career major. Sixteen career clusters have been identified by the state, and high schools must implement at least 3 of these programs beginning in 2007-2008 school year (Richard, 2005). This project is in its infancy and no data has been recorded to verify the program’s effectiveness in South Carolina schools.

College and technical schools

Many students with a LD who choose to go on to college earn more after they graduate. Recent research has indicated that people with a LD finish college at the same rates as students without disabilities (Madaus, Foley, McGuire, & Ruban, 2002). A study conducted by Madaus, Ruban, Foley, & McGuire (2003) found that the mean income of people with a LD who did not attend college was far lower (approximately $17,900) than that of their peers who did go to college. In fact, the salaries of college graduates with a LD were about the same as other college graduates.

Learning Disabilities in the Workplace

People with a LD face the same challenges as any adult who begins a new job, with the added challenge of overcoming the assorted difficulties associated with their disability. For instance, Stacey (2001) reported that students with a LD often described a very high level of stress on the first days at work. The lack of training and feedback on how to perform a job can make working very difficult for a new employee with a LD who often requires mentoring, training, and immediate feedback to succeed. In addition, people with a LD must decide whether to disclose a disability, how to accommodate their needs on the job, and how to address social situations in the workplace. Dickenson and Verbeek (2002) reported that many people with a LD were part of a “marginal workforce” (p. 176) where the rewards of work (like pay) were likely to be lower.

Regardless of these difficulties, people with a LD are entering many fields upon graduation from college. People with LD are getting jobs in business, education, health care, and technology (Madaus et al, 2002). Many people with a LD report that their LD can affect their ability to do a job well. A survey conducted by Madaus et al (2002) found that 90% of the people with a LD surveyed reported some of problems on the job. These problems included:

  • Writing skills;
  • Information processing;
  • Reading comprehension;
  • Time management; and
  • Organizational skills.

The study also reported that the following accommodations were used to make working easier:

  • Setting goals and priorities;
  • Using time management;
  • Using time outside of work to complete tasks;
  • Problem-solving/brainstorming with colleagues;
  • Seeking a quiet work environment; and
  • Using proofreaders to edit written material.

Madaus et al (2003) reported that additional accommodations also helped people with a LD to succeed on the job. These included using assistive technology, assessing task demands and developing a schedule that reflects the demands, seeking social assistance, and using social skills to get assistance from co-workers. Many people with a LD are able to develop successful strategies to address their functional limitations. When these strategies are used effectively, the job satisfaction reported by people with a LD remains high (Madaus et al, 2003).

Many of the accommodations discussed above can be put into place by the person with a LD on the job. For accommodations that require approval by an employer, the employee with a LD must decide whether to tell their employer about their disability. Disclosure of disability is a personal choice and yet, in order to be eligible for accommodations under the law, a person with a disability must reveal the disability. Just as in college, a person must have a qualifying disability under the law to get accommodations at work; which means that the person with a LD must experience a substantial limitation to a major life activity, such as working or learning. Despite the availability of accommodations under the law, many people with a LD choose not to disclose because they fear discrimination in hiring practices (Dickinson and Verbeek, 2002). Madaus et al (2002) listed the following reasons for not disclosing a LD:

  • Do not see how telling someone about their disability can help them on the job;
  • Fear a potentially negative impact on relationship with supervisors or co-workers; or
  • Worry it would threaten their job security.

The percentage of people with a LD who choose to disclose their disability is relatively small. A study conducted by Silver, Strehorn, and Bourke (1997) reported that the majority of people who did choose to tell someone about their disability, told a co-worker or a supervisor.

Technology that all people can use to make their jobs easier allows many people with a LD to accommodate themselves on the job. Calculators, automatic spell checking, text-to-speech programs, and auto-summary features are a few of the commonly available technologies that can aid people with learning disabilities on the job. These common technologies put people with a LD in a position to easily overcome difficulties on the job.

K-12 schools are in an excellent position to help children and their families learn about these helpful technologies. The growth of technology related programs in American schools must start with the education of these simple to use tools. Children who are able to use technology to accomplish tasks as they grow up are at a distinct advantage in terms of succeeding later in life. They become familiar with the technology from a very young age so it is far less difficult to learn to use it effectively to compensate for the difficulties that their disability presents. Students should also be taught how they learn, so that they can seek out learning and working opportunities that best fit their learning style. For example, if a student learns best by doing something, they may want to look for lab classes or an apprenticeship on the job. Learning is something that builds upon itself, know how we learn and what we need to learn is a key part of later success.

Technology Transfer Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (2006). University at Buffalo: Center for Assistive Technology. Revised from Industry Profile on Education Technology (2006). Written exclusively for LD Online.
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