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A preliminary comparison of successful and nonsuccessful closure types among adults with specific learning disabilities in the vocational rehabilitation system.

A Preliminary Comparison of Successful and Comparison of Successful and Comparison of Successful and Nonsuccessful Closure Types Among Adults with Specific Learning Disabilities in the Vocational Rehabilitation System

The vocational success of adults with SLD has only recently been investigated (Zigmund, 1990). This is surprising since it has been extensively documented that the learning problems characteristic of persons with SLD persist into adulthood and that the sequelea of the disorder have significant implications for vocational success (Haring & Lovett, 1990; Koller, 1994; Mellard & Hazel, 1992). For example, adults with SLD are less likely to graduate from high school (Adelman & Vogel, 1990; Malcolm, Polatajko, & Simons, 1990), and typically demonstrate increased problems finding and maintaining employment compared to persons without SLD (Shapiro & Lentz, 1991; Smith, 1992). Additionally, adults with SLD typically have a lower job status (Gerber, Reiff, & Ginsberg, 1988) and are often underemployed (Koller, 1994). Typically working in unskilled, entry level jobs, many adults with SLD are financially dependent and live at home with their parents (Haring, Lovett, & Smith, 1990; Spekman, Goldberg, & Herman, 1992).

In addition to on-the-job difficulties associated with traditional academic deficits, many persons with SLD possess other cognitive deficits including memory, processing visual information, comprehending spoken language, or solving novel problems requiring higher-order executive mental processes (McCue, 1995). Specific problems in the job setting may range from such tasks as accurately completing job applications, comprehending instructions in technical manuals, to writing summaries of completed work. Difficulties in the interpersonal sphere, often associated with learning disabilities, exacerbate the overall adjustment process of the individual (Reiff & Gerber, 1994) and promote difficulties on the job. In fact, some researchers have concluded that client social skill deficits lead to more on-the-job difficulties than academic or vocational deficits alone (Blalock, 1982; Patton & Polloway, 1982; Smith, 1988).

Although a number of different definitions of learning disabilities exist (e.g., Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-Fourth Edition [DSM-IV; 1994] and Public Law 94-142 [1977]), the following VR definition of SLD relates directly to employment issues:

A specific learning disability is a disorder in one or more of the central nervous system processes involved in perceiving, understanding, and/or using concepts through verbal (spoken or written) language or nonverbal means. This disorder manifests itself in one or more of the following areas: Attention, reasoning, processing, memory, communication, reading, writing, spelling, calculation, coordination, social competence, and emotional maturity (RSA, 1985). As can be seen from this definition, SLD is more than an academic deficit and manifests across a variety of higher order cognitive functions, all of which can affect a successful vocational outcome.

It is clear that the number of individuals with SLD entering the work force is continuing to grow. In 1993, the U.S. Department of Education noted that 51% of students in public school special education classes were diagnosed with SLD, representing a 200% increase since 1977 (Coutinho, 1995). Consequently, it is not surprising that specific learning disabilities constitute the fastest growing disability population served by the Vocational Rehabilitation system (Dowdy & Smith, 1994). Given the increasing complexity and advancing technological pace in the next century, the growing emphasis on more collaborative approaches to problem solving, and the demand for more rigorous employee credentialing and productivity requirements (Brown & Gerber, 1994), there is an acute need for more realistic predictors of long-term vocational success for individuals with SLD.

Although few studies have investigated the factors that lead to vocational and post-secondary success for persons with SLD, only one study (Berkeley Planning Associates [BPA], 1989) has carefully examined factors associated with successful VR intervention. This study found few variables that distinguished between VR defined successful versus nonsuccessful closures. Therefore, the purposes of the present study were to replicate and expand the BPA (1989) study and to describe the current cognitive, demographic, educational, and service characteristics of successful and nonsuccessful VR closures of those clients referred to the VR system diagnosed with SLD. Additionally, because individuals with SLD often present with significant functional limitations, and because these functional limitations and their corresponding impediment to employment are one factor ultimately determining VR eligibility (Missouri Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Policy and Procedures Manual, 1988), the present study compared the number and type of client functional limitations across both closure types.



Subjects consisted of all 613 former VR clients independently diagnosed with SLD during fiscal years 1992-1993 by licensed psychologists whose files were reviewed in cooperation with the State of Missouri VR central office. The mean age for the total population was 20 years (SD = 6.0) and included 582 Caucasians, 30 African Americans and one Hispanic. There were 448 males and 165 females. Eighty-eight percent of the subjects never married while 12% reported being married, divorced, or widowed. As a group academically, the highest average level achieved in school was the 11th grade. Table 1 presents the average ability and achievement standard scores for the population studied.


Data were categorized according to closure type and compared across individual client (e.g., cognitive, academic) and service variables extracted from individual client files. For cases closed Status 26, two additional variables were available (i.e., monthly income and Dictionary of Occupational Code job type). Aside from these two variables, data sets for both groups were identical.


A significant majority of the VR clients were male (71%) and did not have a high school diploma. The average age for persons placed in Status 26 closure was 20.3 years (SD = 6.3) and 19.7 years (SD = 5.5) for persons placed in Status 28. Not surprisingly, participants in this study demonstrated academic achievement levels significantly below the average when compared to non-SLD persons. As a group, participants in this study had academic achievement standard scores over one standard deviation below the normative mean with Reading, Mathematics, and Written Language standard scores of 82.4, 85.4, and 79.0, respectively. Consistent with the BPA (1989) findings, with the present SLD population both the successful (Verbal = 88.3, Performance = 99.8, Full Scale = 92.4) and nonsuccessful (Verbal = 91.2, Performance = 101.7, Full Scale = 95.2) closure types displayed significantly higher Performance than Verbal IQs. Chi square and independent t-tests were computed to determine whether significant differences existed between the two closure status groups (see Table 2). Regarding client performance on standardized psychometric tests, five variables were found to be significantly different between the two groups at the .05 level or below. Similar to previous findings (BPA, 1989), persons placed in Status 28 had significantly higher Full Scale, Verbal Scale, and Performance Scale IQ scores as well as significantly higher reading and writing standard scores than persons in Status 26.

Comparisons of functional limitations between Status 26 and Status 28 groups yielded significant differences on three variables. Chi square results indicated that individuals with an unsuccessful closure status were more likely ([X.sup.2] (1, [Mathematical Expression Omitted], [Mathematical Expression Omitted]) to have significant affective states of depression compared to those with a successful closure status. Similarly, the proportion of unsuccessful SLD closure types with a secondary diagnosis of a mood disorder was significantly higher ([X.sup.2] (1, [Mathematical Expression Omitted], [Mathematical Expression Omitted]) compared to successful closures. In addition to the SLD diagnosis, individuals with unsuccessful closure status were also more likely ([X.sup.2] (1, [Mathematical Expression Omitted], [Mathematical Expression Omitted]) to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) compared to individuals with a successful closure status. Among VR service variables studied, statistically significant differences ([X.sup.2] (1, [Mathematical Expression Omitted], [Mathematical Expression Omitted]) were found between the successful and unsuccessful groups receiving college services. Unsuccessful VR clients, as a group, were more likely to have received college training as part of their intervention plan yet were closed Status 28. By contrast, individuals with unsuccessful VR closures were more likely ([X.sup.2] (1, [Mathematical Expression Omitted]), [Mathematical Expression Omitted]) to receive guidance and counseling services compared to successful closures.
Table 1

The Average Ability and Achievement Standard Scores

Instrument Mean SD Range

Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Revised

Full Scale IQ 93.6 9.5 70-138
Verbal IQ 89.5 10.0 67-137
Performance IQ 100.6 11.6 61-141


Reading standard score 82.4 11.0(*) 65-126
Mathematics standard score 85.4 12.2(*) 65-120
Writing standard score 79.0 10.4(*) 65-117

 [Mathematical Expression Omitted]

Another noteworthy finding is the minority client representation found in this study. Compared to the BPA study (1989) which reported an SLD client sample consisting of slightly more ethnic minority representation than representative of the U.S. population, only five percent of VR subjects for this study were African American and less than one percent were of Hispanic origin. This was surprising since the proportion of African-Americans and Hispanics in Missouri is generally commensurate with the remainder of the United States (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1994) and because the present data included the entire population of VR clients with SLD served over an entire two year period.


Consistent with the BPA (1989) findings, these results did not support the ability of standardized psychometric tests to predict vocational success following VR intervention. Apparently, factors not directly associated with SLD are contributing to the increased likelihood of Status 28. Given the significant differences between both groups regarding those employment barriers created by affective problems and attention/concentration disorders, it is incumbent upon vocational rehabilitation counselors to carefully consider the possible accumulative effects of having multiple diagnoses on obtaining and maintaining employment. Waldo, Koller, and McIntosh (manuscript submitted for publication) have reported that 20% of a VR sample of individuals with SLD displayed marked elevations on the MMPI, further supporting the need to consider client personality variables during the VR process. Additionally, the present findings support those of several authors (Blalock, 1982; Patton & Polloway, 1982; Reiff & Gerber, 1994; Smith, 1988) who have also discussed the impact of SLD upon general interpersonal functioning which subsequently influences job seeking and job maintenance skills.

Although a rationale for significant differences between groups regarding college placement services is not readily apparent from the data, several hypotheses can be postulated. For example, those attending college may have unreasonable vocational goals or may have significant concurrent affective problems which ultimately leads to school drop out and the termination of VR services. Also, because of their higher intellectual and academic achievement, counselors may perceive, or be pressured by the client and his or her parent, to provide college training as an appropriate service option. This, however, may be unrealistic especially if the college or university does not provide progressive and realistic academic accommodations. Further, students with SLD in a college environment are prone to poor self-advocacy and sometimes hide their disability until classroom failure is inevitable (Koller, 1994). However, it cannot be determined from this study the proportion of college-trained clients in Status 28 who completed college, only that their cases were closed as unsuccessful.

Also consistent with BPA (1989) findings, guidance and counseling was significantly associated with Status 28 but not Status 26 outcomes. This finding may be the result of the counselor's recognition of various affective correlates more characteristic of Status 28 clients which warrant further individual intervention [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 2 OMITTED] before committing additional resources in training. Similarly, VR counselors may perceive a lack of vocational direction or commitment to follow through with services by a client and, therefore, attempt to intervene via counseling or guidance prior to providing additional services.

Although no differences were found between Status 26 and Status 28 groups regarding the representation of African Americans, when compared to the BPA sample (1989), this study had significantly less African Americans and persons of Hispanic origin. Previous findings have documented lower acceptance rates (Dziekan & Okacha, 1993) and under-representation (Atkins & Wright, 1980) of ethnic minority clients while others (Wheaton, 1995) concluded there were no significant differences in VR acceptance rates between European-American and ethnic minority clients. As with the discrepant findings among previous studies, it is difficult to determine the variables underlying differences in minority representation in the present study. It may be that under-representation of ethnic minority clients is the result of not being referred or following through with VR services. Individuals with SLD in transition are typically referred to VR while they are still in high school - traditionally during their senior year. Considering that 37% of applicants fail to complete the eligibility determination process (BPA, 1989), students may drop out of school before the time for referral. Further, it is conceivable that VR referral during their senior year is too late for effective vocational transition to occur (Koller, 1994). Additionally, it can be expected that unless the student is prepared for the transition to employment, an increased risk of drop out may occur as part of the ongoing rehabilitation process. Therefore, the need for earlier VR intervention for those at risk for drop out is needed.

It can be concluded from this study that several psychological, vocational, and educational differences exist between those who succeed in VR and those who do not. For rehabilitation counselors, these findings have several important implications. First, the nature and extent of client affective problems and those behavioral difficulties associated with ADHD should be considered as contributing to Status 28 closure. Counselors should recognize that SLD is not just an academic issue. Assessment and understanding of how these issues influence employment will be necessary for the counselor to make informed decisions regarding service options. Secondly, because of cognitive processing (e.g., reasoning, concentration) problems inherent in clients with SLD, they may need more assistance than other VR clients in understanding how SLD influences their vocational success. A better understanding of their individual strengths and limitations may help the client make more informed choices regarding vocational options. Third, counselors should carefully consider individual client variables other than academic and intellectual functioning when choosing college training as a service option. Fourth, earlier intervention in the school to work transition process seems indicated. Given that students with SLD have one of the highest drop out rates (Sixteenth Annual Report to Congress, U.S. Department of Education, 1994), those in greatest need of assistance may not be available to participate in the VR referral process during high school. Lastly, under-representation of minorities receiving VR services demonstrates a need for enhanced outreach with African Americans and persons of Hispanic descent.

Future research should explore those variables that have potential to help VR counselors recognize client characteristics that will possibly lead to Status 26. Counselor variables that should be considered for future research include pressure to secure a Status 26, often irrespective of job appropriateness, the size of case load, and the availability of local resources.

Consistent with the conclusions of the BPA study (1989), definitional issues of SLD within and between schools and VR also needs to be reconsidered. For example, a typical public school perspective of SLD is based upon a statistical regression formula discrepancy between potential and achievement whereas the VR definition of SLD is more expansive and requires documentation of deficits in psychological processing typically difficult to measure psychometrically (BPA, 1989). However, the VR definition relates directly to the world of work, is more realistic regarding employment issues and allows for an inclusion of a wider range of disability characteristics. Additionally, VR's definition of successful and unsuccessful closure appears misleading. For example, a case can be successfully closed if the client is employed as a homemaker and/or employed part-time. An alternative approach to this problem may be to define successful closures by comparing income levels between the successful closures and those in the nondisabled population.

Additional studies into the combination of factors ultimately leading to VR success and nonsuccess with the SLD population needs to be pursued further. To gain a better understanding, multivariate procedures, not just descriptive analyses typically employed, should be used to investigate the interaction of variables and how they discriminate between clients with a successful versus unsuccessful status. Ultimately, since SLD is the fastest growing disability in the VR system (Dowdy & Smith, 1994), research that provides a better understanding of what leads to underemployment among individuals with SLD is critically important. Our current analyses did not address whether the level of employment of individual VR clients was appropriate (given their functional strengths and weaknesses) nor the interaction between intellectual level, severity of SLD, interpersonal functioning or levels of success by income - only that their cases were closed as successful. Furthermore, many of the service variables that were assessed did not measure intensity, quality or duration, but whether or not they were provided. The effectiveness of these services need to be explored in future studies if we are to get a better grasp of the client with SLD entering the 21st century work force.


Appreciation is extended to Dr. Don Gann, Commissioner of the Missouri Division of Vocational Rehabilitation for his fireless support and encouragement on behalf of those clients served with SLD.


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Author:McIntosh, David E.
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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