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Investigating Postsecondary Options Leads to Later Satisfaction

excerpt from PACESETTER, PACER Center, Winter 2006
By Deborah Leuchovius

Preparing for future employment takes important planning by young adults with disabilities-and their family. A four-year college is not for everyone-nor is it the only path to a good-paying, highly skilled job. Community college courses, technical training, certificate programs, or trade schools may be the best means of acquiring competitive job skills for some students, including those with intellectual, severe, or multiple disabilities.

Identifying student interests and exploring various postschool options is part of the transition from high school to the broader world. For example, some of a student's special education services could include attending technical college, taking a university class while still in high school, or attending a transition program for 18-to-21-year-olds that is located on a college campus. Some colleges and universities have summer programs designed to give students an early taste of the postsecondary experience. Then, if students learn from these experiences that one of their transition goals is inappropriate, their Individualized Education Program (IEP) team can revise the IEP and services accordingly.

Whether they are interested in a four-year college, a community college, or a trade school, students should visit programs in which they are interested.

Don't just tour the campus, advise transition experts. Sit in on a class of your choice and talk with other students at the school about their experiences. In addition, visit the school's Disability Support Services (DSS) offices. That is essential.

Disability Support Services

Most postsecondary schools have a DSS office that provides some level of service, support, or accommodations to students with disabilities. Nevertheless, it is important for youth and families to know there is not a universal process for determining educational assistance for students with disabilities once they leave high school.

In general, the approach to academic accommodations at the postsecondary level differs significantly from the special education system. Postsecondary institutions are required by law only to provide equal access to their programs and services for students with disabilities - access to facilities, course materials, lectures, discussions, and examinations. Students with disabilities may be given testing accommodations (such as extra time or testing in a separate environment); however, they are expected to master the same content and skills as students without disabilities.

Typically, DSS offices offer students a limited menu of possible accommodations and supports. In addition, accommodation practices can vary widely from one program to the next. For example, some postsecondary schools focus on meeting the minimum requirements of the law, while others are more liberal in meeting all students' needs. Likewise, the expertise of disability support personnel available on campuses varies extensively.

Since some postsecondary programs are better than others in providing needed supports and accommodations, it is important to talk with DSS before selecting a program. Success in postsecondary education is closely linked to accommodations, services, and technical and instructional supports, so students and families should learn as much as they can about what prospective schools provide to their students with disabilities.

The most frequently used postsecondary accommodations include:

  • Extra time to take tests or complete assignments
  • Quiet or alternate learning environment
  • Communication with an instructor about their disability
  • Tutoring services
  • Priority registration or scheduling options
  • Low-tech, inexpensive assistive technology, such as talking books, specialized tape recorders, and portable note-taking devices and mouse/switch options.

Colleges are not required to grant requests for accommodations that would fundamentally alter an academic program. Some colleges grant course substitutions or waivers of required coursework, such as a foreign language, but students are advised to investigate whether this is an option before they count on it.


Postsecondary administrators and instructors expect students with disabilities to

  • make a request if they need services,
  • work with DSS personnel in planning accommodations, and
  • negotiate accommodations with each instructor.

To prepare for these adult responsibilities, it is essential that students come to postsecondary programs with a basic understanding of their disability, knowledge of the accommodations they will need in the classroom or program, and the ability to articulate both to others.

If they expect to reap the benefits of furthering their education, students must be ready for the challenges. Some individuals may be more successful with additional life experience behind them before they enroll in a program. For example, a growing number of Americans are postponing college education until they are older. According to 1990s statistics from the Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Education, 40 percent of college students were over 25 years old and approximately 50 percent of college students were part-time students; more than 70 percent of part-time students were 25 and older.

Options for students who may need more time to mature or build skills leading to postsecondary success include:

  • working or participating in community activities for a year or two before enrolling in a program
  • starting out with a lighter course load until they feel confident they can handle full-time student status
  • attending adult education courses such as cooking, exercise and fitness classes, computer, or learning a foreign language
  • taking private lessons to develop skills needed for a particular kind of job-such as music or singing lessons

Whatever decisions students with disabilities make about postsecondary education, if they are prepared for the experience, they can begin with confidence.

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