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Improving transition outcomes for persons with specific learning disabilities.

Most people would agree with the basic assumption that one goal of education is employment. Yet, the problem of securing gainful employment for the regular high school student, let alone college graduate, is becoming more and more difficult. Likewise, for persons with substantial impediments to employment, such as specific learning disability (SLD), a positive vocational outcome is far from guaranteed, even with appropriate vocational planning.

Since the enactment of Public Law 94-142 in the mid-1970's; SLD has continued to receive increasing attention from both a research and service perspective. More articles and research studies have been published in the last 7 years than in the previous 25. However, until the early to mid-1980's, the primary focus was upon the person's academic problems resulting from SLD; the impact that SLD would have on employment was not often considered. In point of fact, it was assumed by many that the individual's functional limitations associated with SLD were often considered irrelevant or were ignored completely in the non-academic, adult world of employment (Berkeley, 1989).

With the realization, however, that kids with SLD grow up to be adults with SLD, the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) convened a national task force in the early 1980's to investigate how people who have this impediment to employment could be better served through the state-federal vocational rehabilitation (VR) system. As a result, SLD has been recognized as a category eligible for VR services only since 1985, when RSA adopted its formal definition of this disabling condition (RSA, 1985).

While considerable time, money, and effort have been expended by concerned parents, schools, and various state and federal agencies, positive transitional outcomes for many people with SLD leave a lot to be desired. People with SLD are often unemployed, underemployed, and significantly at risk to drop out of school or for subsequent job failure (Berkeley, 1989; Tillman & Abbott, 1992). According to RSA, SLD continues to represent the fastest growing impediment to employment (Mars, personal communication, 1993). Thus, concerted efforts related to self-advocacy and those expended on behalf of the individual with SLD become increasingly important as individuals go from school to work, job to job, from school to postsecondary education, and from school to independent living.

Various SLD models exist for the provision of transition service delivery, but the comments and recommendations that follow reflect observations from our RSA grant project and participation on the RSA Commissioner's SLD Workgroup, as well as VR training and consultation conducted primarily in RSA Regions VII and X.

Disability Complexity

The needs of individuals with SLD in transition are compounded by the fact that learning disabilities, while officially categorized by service delivery systems as a single disability category, are essentially heterogeneous in nature. Thus, individuals display a wide permutation and combination of SLD types, including abilities and deficits. It is not enough, then, to say a person is just "SLD." What type or types? SLD for what? As a result, the diagnosis and subsequent service delivery provisions need to be individualized to effectively meet the specific needs of the person. To assume that all individuals have the same problem and then to provide similarly for each is archaic and will only postpone or stop progress in transition.

It is also important to recognize that SLD manifests differently, whether in the classroom or on or off the job. We consistently encounter consumers, parents, and, surprisingly, rehabilitation and school personnel who remark "If he/she can only graduate, get out of high school and get a job, then he/she will be OK" or "relax, your child will outgrow it." Concerted effort must be undertaken to eradicate the notion that the disability will somehow go away. Graduation from a public school, or a vocational-technical training program for that matter, will not guarantee success. On the other hand, sufficient evidence is accumulating that SLD deficits, regardless of severity, can be effectively accommodated to enable the individual to live a meaningful, productive life. (Ginsberg, Gerber, & Reiff (cited in Gerber and Reiff, 1994)).

Conflicting Definitions

Major differences exist between various definitions of SLD, e.g., educational and vocational, thereby directly affecting not only the diagnosis but also subsequent placement and service provision. For example, it is understandable that public schools, who represent children and adolescents, typically follow more of an educational model that centers around deficits related to the academics. Agencies, including VR, however, typically follow the RSA definition which is more encompassing, relates to adolescents and adults, and has wider ramifications, especially in regard to employment and independent living. However, given the fact that secondary schools represent the largest single referral source for VR applicants with SLD (Berkeley, 1989), it is important to recognize that VR and special education mandates also differ. State VR agencies screen applicants based upon several factors, including:

* the documentation of the impairment,

* that it represents a significant impediment to employment, and

* that services are required for the applicant to be successful as he/she enters employment.

It is not unusual, then, to see major difficulties when schools do not understand the VR mandate and assume that any student eligible for special education placement is automatically eligible for VR services. A number of problems, including hurt feelings, could be avoided if both sides would clearly understand each other's position until a more unified and solitary operational definition could emerge.

Differences between the public schools and VR also exist relating to the theory and practice of remediation and accommodation intervention. All individuals concerned, including parents, need to realize that the primary focus in special education is on curricular remediation, which is a method of compensation designed to internalize the learned skill, while VR looks to primarily establish effective accommodation or circumvention strategies that eliminate barriers to employment. Essentially, accommodation is a method of compensation in which an externally imposed system or device enables a person to accomplish a given task (Bencomo & Schafer, 1984). The point, however, is that the primary intervention focus by VR is not on remediation.

Establishing the Diagnosis

Perhaps no single factor has potentially as great an influence on a positive educational or vocational outcome as does a clear determination of the problem or diagnosis itself. To aid in identification, school systems often follow a discrepancy or disparity model, which is the application of a statistical regression formula applied typically between cognition and achievement. Essentially, given certain exclusionary factors, e.g., the disability is not due to emotional disturbance, mental retardation, etc., it assumes that SLD exists when there is a significant difference between measured individual intelligence (e.g., WISC-R or WAIS-R tests) and achievement (e.g., PIAT-R, W-J, and other tests). It is important to note that the school's multidisciplinary team may also document, through procedures involving informal assessment, that a significant discrepancy exists even though the deviation is not statistically significant. It is not unusual, however, for well-intended school personnel to place struggling students in SLD services who do not fit in the regular classroom and who do not meet the intent of a psychological processing disorder (e.g., slow learner, etc.). State VR agencies, on the other hand, follow the DSM-III-R diagnostic system and must recognize not only the discrepancy or disparity that exists between cognition and achievement and its effect in the classroom, but significant deficits across all areas of psychological processing as it impacts on the world of work. This includes memory (auditory, visual, short-term, long-term, etc.), visual/spatial and verbal/auditory reasoning, coordination, social competence, and emotional maturity. Further, it is important to recognize that diagnosticians at all levels must not look only for the presence or absence of SLD but also for different types existing concurrently, their frequency, severity, and duration. While special education and VR definitions and mandates differ, it is important for all to effectively communicate on behalf of the consumer; otherwise, the consumer suffers. Interrelated factors such as turf issues between special education and regular education, well-intended but misguided parents, inability to access the VR system, inconsistency between theoretical and formal state agency definitions and their operational practice, communication problems between all parties involved, the person's denial of the disability, and mechanistic Individualized Education Plans and Individualized Written Rehabilitation Plans (IEP's and IWRP's) further exacerbate the problem.

While a complete psychoeducational assessment is essential across all areas of development, it is as important to recognize an individual's strengths as it is to identify his/her weaknesses. Vocationally, it is often possible to accommodate to a person's deficits by fully exploiting his/her strengths. Clearly, while educational and rehabilitation personnel alike need to look at "what is right" as well as "what is wrong" with the individual, rehabilitation counselors need to break the typical "medical model" approach in looking only to establish functional limitations for eligibility determination. How often do we encourage consumers to openly discuss their strengths or divulge positive accommodative strategies they have found to work? Again, is not sustained and meaningful employment one of the goals of education?

Further, is it not time that we realize that SLD also exists outside the domain of average intelligence? For example, we consistently see reports by various professionals--including school personnel and rehabilitation consultants-- stating that you cannot have both SLD and gifted intelligence. With advances in measurement and developmental theory, methodology (including medical and neuropsychological instrumentation), research, and practice, is it not possible to assume that SLD exists in less than average intelligence (e.g., borderline) as well?

While the historical and traditional focus on the assessment of SLD lies in standardized psychometric procedures, we must not be so inflexible as to fail to recognize the importance of authentic or functionally-based assessment, work samples, and observations from consumers and significant others.

All diagnosticians and service providers (including parents) must recognize the increasing evidence demonstrating corollary psychosocial adjustment problems existing concurrently with SLD (Grasso & Price, 1992). Nearly one-third of a sample of SLD prospective persons referred to determine VR eligibility received DSM-III-R diagnoses (e.g., mood disorders, etc.,) along with a primary diagnosis of SLD when independently evaluated by licensed doctoral psychologists (Lapan, Koller & Holliday, 1991). Clearly, it is not enough to identify a type of SLD without knowing corroborative personal, social, and emotional strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, the person's ability to get a job may relate to the type of SLD, its degree, and accommodation; however, the person's ability to sustain and keep the job often appears to rest as well in his or her own personal/social/emotional functioning.

Situational Assessment

Perhaps the most fundamentally pragmatic objective of the entire assessment process is the determination of the individual's actual functional ability (again, both strengths and weaknesses) related to a context of real life demands. Procedures such as the administration, scoring, and interpretation of standardized as well as clinical psychoeducational instruments by competent professionals represent a valuable tool in the development of hypotheses or inferences concerning real life performance. However, it is not just the derivation of scores that is important, but a clear understanding of what skills and abilities make up those scores related to the accomplishment of real life educational and vocational issues that is necessary. And, while research evidence suggests an increasingly positive correlation between the individual's performance on these procedures and real life circumstances (McCue cited in Gerber, 1994), gaps continue to occur in accurately predicting behavior. For example, higher order cognitive (executive) skills or specific personality characteristics essential to the satisfactory completion of complex daily tasks are often difficult to measure directly. Nonetheless, reasonable hypotheses can be generated from these procedures and then directly tested in a more functional or situational assessment (SA) setting. With the addition of SA to both clinical and standardized psychometric assessment, including all available school information, the individual's functional job skills can be observed by placing him/her directly on a specific job of interest, thus allowing for the opportunity to observe how the deficits manifest in the natural environment. This also presents an opportunity to develop more realistic job accommodation strategies that can be directly field tested.

Situational assessment is an ever-evolving, dynamic evaluation involving the placement of an individual directly on a real world job, not in the typical vocational evaluation or contrived work sample laboratory. As a process, SA generally consists of four broad phases:

1. Specific Job/Task Analysis. Utilizing the format suggested through the use of The Revised Handbook for Analyzing Jobs (1991), each job task is analyzed for potential strengths and weaknesses identified in the psychoeducational evaluation and the review of school records, including teacher comments. This allows the evaluator the generation of more realistic strategies to meet the specific needs encountered by the individual in real life.

2. Job Teaching. A job coach teaches the job tasks to the person being evaluated and assesses each task directly as it is performed. When the task has been determined to be a functional limitation (unable to be performed the standard way), a strategy or job accommodation is developed and observed. The most important source of accommodation strategies is the consumer, while the job coach assists in the generalization of skills to other areas.

3. Development of Accommodation Strategies. The strategies developed are taught directly to the consumer for self-implementation to meet job performance standards. The use of assistive technology, job restructuring, and adaptive teaching strategies are often found to be beneficial.

4. Empowerment. Through guided and repeated practice coupled with positive reinforcement, the consumer gains in confidence and his/her performance on the job can then be videotaped for use by the rehabilitation counselor, school personnel, employer, and the consumer for continued vocational planning, job placement, and self-advocacy.

Thus, SA allows for the establishment of individually designed strategies to test specific daily vocational job duties found in the natural environment. By directly placing the individual in a real job, the opportunity to observe him or her in a real world environment over an extended period of time provides the best measure of future job success.

Career Expectations

For individuals with SLD in transition from school to work, problems abound regarding the appropriateness of individual career goals and job expectations and a general lack of career maturity. This problem is a pervasive and often debilitating concern affecting not only the consumer, but significant others (e.g., parents, and employers) as well. Often, due to a lack of real world work experience, direct exposure to various jobs, labor market uncertainty, notions that "you can be and do anything if you just try hard enough," students in transition often do not, even remotely, consider or know their functional strengths and weaknesses and those resources that impact on vocational success. To compound the problem, students from rural communities are often plagued by isolation problems, a general unavailability of social services, massive inaccessibility, and limited educational and employment opportunities (Sarkees, 1990). As a result, it is even more beneficial for these students to become involved in the transition process as early as possible. Waiting until the student is a senior before developing appropriate work-related behaviors is too late. Under this condition, failure is often inevitable. As a result, the importance of gaining work experience while in school--i.e., Cooperative School-toWork Programs, the opportunity to directly experience various real life job shadows (not just read about the job), and career counseling which reconciles required job skills and abilities with the consumer realizing his/her own strengths and weaknesses--is essential. Furthermore, all individuals in transition should be required to participate in a functionally relevant job skills class. Activities should include:

* directed career exploration by rehabilitation counselors, vocational adjustment coordinators, vocational resource educators, employers and others as it relates directly to the consumer's impediment;

* job readiness training, including the development of effective field-tested individual accommodation strategies;

* participation in a support group; and

* the promotion of self-advocacy. Exercises including locus of control, appropriate goal setting, confrontation, rights, and individual learning styles are needed. An increased focus on teaching the student self-advocacy skills should be encouraged, as these skills will not develop otherwise.

Thus, for transition to occur, the educational curricula in school must relate directly to the world of work even if that means a more functional and pragmatic curriculum--not merely to the number of hours of math or geography the school board decrees. For those students in more remote, rural areas, opportunities to directly experience real, not contrived, jobs need to be secured.

In response to the needs addressed above, a special projects and demonstration grant was secured through RSA to fund a model school-to-work rural learning disabilities project at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Through a cooperative agreement between the Missouri State Divisions of Vocational Rehabilitation and Special Education, rural students with SLD are brought to the campus, as part of the IEP, to directly experience one or several of the 7,000 jobs on campus. Those students planning to continue their education beyond high school are placed directly in college classrooms, where their strengths and weaknesses are observed through job shadowing and situational assessment; subsequently, effective classroom accommodations can be made. Recommendations are then made to the consumer, his or her rehabilitation counselor, parents, LD teachers, and vocational adjustment coordinator as the individualization of the consumer's transition process continues.

Concluding Comments and Recommendations

President Clinton has proposed, through the passage of the Goals 2000 Educate America Act, that significant education standards be met by every child before he/she becomes an adult. As complex technological changes (as well as the human skills and abilities which drive the technology) escalate throughout our society, it is imperative that advances in both transition research and practice continue for the individual with SLD. Again, is not employment one of the goals of education?

The following are selected comments and recommendations concerning individuals with SLD as we approach the year 2000:

* Individuals with SLD can and do succeed. Just because they have a specific learning disability does not mean that they can not learn even at very high levels. Our task, as advocates, is to find the ways they can learn and the conditions under which that learning is facilitated and to ensure that transfer or generalization of the learned skills results.

* The goal of self-advocacy must be attained. Individuals with SLD need to have control of their lives, not be subjugated to others or made to feel like second-class citizens. Consistent opportunities for successful experiences to counter the pervasive sense of failure that often develops must be made available. Non-academic tasks (e.g., clubs, jobs, volunteering, aiding) build feelings of self-worth. The practice of teaching appropriate social skills, including interpersonal communication, assertiveness, conflict resolution, network building, finding support systems, etc., needs to be required to the same extent that math class is required. Few adolescents in transition are able to accurately describe their SLD, how it impacts in school socially, vocationally, or what specific accommodation strategies they need to experience success.

* Expanding our efforts to identify the individual's strengths, not just weaknesses or deficits, should occur in both schools and rehabilitation settings. Granted, deficits need to be determined before placement to receive special education services, or as a part of eligibility determination for VR services, but we should actively search for those skills and abilities that aid in remediation or accommodation efforts. Both the strengths and weaknesses should translate directly to functional real life behaviors.

* For the adolescent and adult with SLD, personality variables play a far greater role than previously assumed. A personal, social and emotional assessment should be required as a part of every evaluation and staffing as the individual progresses through school to employment.

* A concerted effort should be undertaken to study those variables that predict success in persons with SLD. When possible, those variables should then be incorporated into the special education curriculum while the student is still in high school.

* The vocational rehabilitation counselor needs to get involved in school transition planning long before the future consumer is a second semester senior. This does not necessarily mean a case should officially be opened, but the counselor could act as a consultant to the school IEP team on a particular student's vocational needs. Few persons know more about the world of work for special needs individuals than rehabilitation counselors.

* Major efforts should continue in the education and training of rehabilitation counselors regarding not only the assessment of SLD, but what services you provide once eligibility is established. The rehabilitation counselor needs to serve as an advocate for the consumer by educating the employer about SLD.

* An effective recommendation for the rehabilitation counselor is to find a person who, as a previously successful SLD closure, can act as a small group leader or mentor for others with SLD as they progress through the rehabilitation process. It is a point of fact that people tend to identify with people of like need. And, the successful SLD individual can be an extremely positive advocate for another entering the world of work.

* The purview of SLD needs to be expanded both in terms of assessment as well as intervention. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 50-80 percent of those in adult basic education programs may have a learning disability. The recently completed National Adult Literacy Survey determined that 80 percent of those adults self-identified with SLD had literacy skills below the required levels to be considered functionally literate (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993).

* State interagency communication and cooperation efforts--especially among special education and vocational rehabilitation professionals-- have to exist not just in theory, but in practice at all levels in order for effective programmatic efforts to occur at the local level. The intent should not be to "get them through school so VR can find them a job." The job market is too competitive. To avoid underemployment, the person with SLD must be competitive as well. Therefore, effective transition programming is everyone's responsibility. To achieve these ends, a state interagency council should be created to establish policy and monitor local compliance. Representatives from the business community as well as special education and VR should be active members.

The author wishes to extend appreciation to all who advocate for individuals with SLD as they transition to employment, with special recognition to the grant project sites, staff at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and the following individuals: Dr. Don Gann, Steve Wooderson, Dr. Rich Presberry, Merle Sindt and Bud Heineman (Missouri Division of Vocational Rehabilitation); Drs. John Allen and John Heskitt (Missouri Division of Special Education); Zanne Tillman, Jerry Abbott, Pam Martin, Yvonne Mapson, Ike Johnson, and Dr. Doug Burleigh (RSA); Dr. Dave Roberts (RCEP VII); and Colleen Fox and Jack Kite (RCEP X).

The author requests that all correspondence concerning this article be directed to him: James R. Koller, Ph.D., Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology, University of Missouri-Columbia, 15 Hill Hall, Columbia, MO 65211


1. Bencomo, A. A., Armando, A., & Schafer, M. (1984). Remediation and accommodation for clients with learning disability. Journal of Rehabilitation, April, 64-67.

2. Berkeley Planning Associates (1989). Evaluation of services provided for individuals with specific learning disabilities (Contract No. 300-87-0112) Washington, DC: Rehabilitation Services Administration, U.S. Department of Education.

3. Ginsberg, R., Gerber, P. J., & Reiff, H. B. (1994). Employment success for adults with learning disabilities. In E J. Gerber & H. B. Reiff (Eds.). Learning disabilities in adulthood: Persisting problems and evolving issues (pp. 204-213). Boston, MA: Andover Medical Publishers.

4. Grasso, R. A., & Price, L. (1992). Adults with LD in the 1990's. Intervention in School and Clinic, 28, 6-20.

5. Kirsch, I. S., Jungeblut, A., Jenkins, L., & Kolstad, A. (1993). Adult literacy in America: A first look at the results of the National Adult Literacy Survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

6. Lapan, R. T., Koller, J. R., & Holliday, G. A. (1991). A role for counselors in school to work transition programs for learning disabled students. The Counseling Interviewer, 21.

7. McCue, M. (1994). Clinical diagnostic and functional assessment of adults with learning disability. In E J. Gerber & H. B. Reiff (Eds.). Learning disabilities in adulthood: Persisting problems and evolving issues (pp 55-71). Boston, MA: Andover Medical Publishers.

8. Rehabilitation Services Administration (1985, January). Program policy directive. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

9. Sarkees, M.D. (1990). Meeting the needs of at-risk learners in rural areas: Challenge for the 1990's. TASPP Bulletin, 2, 1. Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois, College of Education.

10. Tillman, Z., & Abbott, J. (1992, March). Transition of youth with learning disabilities (working papers). Rehabilitation Services Administration, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.

11. U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration (1991). The revised handbook for analyzing jobs. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Dr. Koller is a professor in the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology and Director of the SLD Assessment and Consultation Clinic at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is psychological consultant for the Missouri Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, an RSA Region VII and X trainer on SLD, and a member of the RSA Commissioner's national SLD workgroup. Dr. Koller also directs a Missouri VR and RSA funded rural model demonstration project for persons with SLD as they transition from school to work.
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Author:Koller, James R.
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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