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Mentors: paving the transition from school to adulthood for students with disabilities.

The word transition announces a time of change, and change is often accompanied by growth, uncertainty and possibility.

The transition from K-12 education to the world of work or higher education is both a trying and exciting time for most young adults, but it can be particularly stressful for students with disabilities. While everyone can recall times when they encountered difficulties in school, many of those experienced by students with disabilities are unique and not completely addressed under the current systems of services to individuals with disabilities. For instance, students with disabilities do not always have access to necessary classroom materials and technology. At the same time, transition-age youth often struggle with social acceptance and negative stereotypes about their disabilities, frequently are unable to participate in extracurricular activities and are not always taught the disability-specific skills and techniques they need to succeed at school and life.

As a result, dropout rates among students with disabilities are significantly higher than those of the non-disabled population, and their college enrollment is approximately five times less than that of the general public. In addition, students with disabilities have a harder time finding summer and part-time employment and lack work-related experience, leaving them at a distinct disadvantage as they enter the work force.

The Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) is committed to making the transition from school a positive experience that opens the doors to employment, postsecondary education and independent living. Accomplishing this goal will require a comprehensive and coordinated delivery system that recognizes the critical role of vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies throughout the transition process.

A recent longitudinal study of state VR programs found hat approximately 13 percent of all VR clients are transition-age youth. This constitutes a sizable portion of state VR clients and one that may continue to grow as he school-age population in general continues to increase. Evidence shows that VR services provided to this population--such as education and training, physical or mental restoration, and diagnostic or evaluation services--were strongly associated with positive employment outcomes and entering into competitive employment. These quality services provide consumers with the ability to exercise choice in working with VR agencies to chart a course for further development of client skills.

However, despite the invaluable role and expertise of VR agencies, they can't meet all of the needs of this population. Recognizing this, RSA recently launched an initiative to connect students with disabilities with mentors who have similar disabilities and who possess the practical knowledge and personal experience necessary to help students effectively transition to adulthood and overcome the attitudinal and environmental barriers that are so pervasive. These mentors will not only serve as powerful role models but will support students by assisting them with career and professional development, improving their life skills and the disability-specific techniques that will enhance independence, helping them to obtain their academic goals and providing students with encouragement and moral support.

Like many of you, I have greatly benefited from mentors at different times in my life. It is hard to estimate the value of mentors be cause they give something that is intangible yet more valuable than anything--time, sound advice and encouragement. My own experiences, research and the successes of mentoring programs around the country demonstrate that mentoring is effective in helping youth with disabilities gain confidence, increase their academic performance and obtain experience in the workplace--all of which lead to increased opportunities to find meaningful employment and independence for these students.

Along with mentoring, RSA is committed to enhancing postsecondary education opportunities for transitioning students. Work done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that most of the occupations with the highest number of new jobs will require some sort of higher education. Evidence also shows that individuals with disabilities who engage in higher education or training services have higher rates of employment than individuals with disabilities who possess only a high school diploma. Investments in these areas can foster positive results for VR consumers. Additionally, time after time, evidence shows that preparation from high school to employment, postsecondary education and independence must begin early, certainly by the early teens. Congress recognized this, and in 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

(IDEA) established new parameters intended to smooth the transition of students with disabilities from secondary school to higher education and work. Across the country, state VR agencies are working to establish relationships with local education agencies (LEAs) and work force development initiatives that smooth the transition of students from high school and open doors to employment.

Because the issues surrounding transition services are so varied and important, this issue of American Rehabilitation is dedicated to promoting a more seamless and effective delivery system for students with disabilities. Of course, one issue alone cannot address all of the topics that deserve attention. However, I hope that the information presented in this issue will provide our readers with some valuable insights, strategies and motivation.

Finally, my own transition from being the director of a rehabilitation program to being the Commissioner of RSA embodied all of the transition trademarks--growth, uncertainty and possibility. In addition, my transition process provided me with a unique opportunity to evaluate all of RSA's practices, priorities and productivity, as well as our outreach efforts and publications. As a result, we have refocused our efforts and are committed to improving how we support and foster quality rehabilitation programs, including transition services. An important part of this transition process has been a renewed focus on and commitment to RSA's journal, American Rehabilitation. Undoubtedly, this publication can be a powerful means of informing and supporting rehabilitation professionals, educators and consumers alike.

Recognizing this publication's value, we are working towards improving its content, dissemination and layout. To this end, the journal will focus on best practices, philosophical approaches to rehabilitation, and resources designed to support quality outcomes. In addition, the journal will include input from those most impacted by rehabilitation programs--individuals with disabilities.

To send its message to a broader readership, American Rehabilitation will go online, making articles available to a larger audience than the journal has ever had. The decision to go online reflects our commitment to produce a document that will be accessible to all individuals with disabilities.

In order to make this journal more relevant and effective, we need your help. I encourage all of our readers to provide us with your suggestions, feedback and needs. We welcome all article submissions and abstracts, believing that our readers should drive our content.

I recognize that the work being done by the rehabilitation field continues to enhance the lives of individuals with disabilities and to make America a more inclusive society. It is my goal that American Rehabilitation will assist and support professionals as they carry out their work.

Joanne Wilson Commissioner

Rehabilitation Services Administration

Joanne Wilson is the 10th Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), having been appointed to this position in 2001 by President Bush.

Prior to this appointment, Commissioner Wilson created, developed and oversaw the daily administration of Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB), Louisiana's first adult orientation and adjustment and independent living center for the Blind. Commissioner Wilson's passion for improving rehabilitation and education services in the state of Louisiana led her to establish eight additional programs, created to increase the employment potential of Louisiana's blind citizens.

She graduated with honors from Iowa State University in 1969, where she earned a B.S. in Elementary Education and was named a Merrill Palmer scholar. In 1971, she earned a master's degree in Guidance and Counseling/ Administration from Iowa State University and for a number of years taught in the Ames, Iowa, public school system. This year, Menlo College awarded Commissioner Wilson a Doctor of Humane Letters in recognition of her significant contributions to the field of rehabilitation.

Commissioner Wilson considers her own rehabilitation training at the Iowa Commission for the Blind during 1966 to be the catalyst that changed her life, and ultimately the compelling force that led her to establish a model training facility for serving the nation's blind.

Joanne Wilson

Commissioner Rehabilitation Services Administration
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Article Details
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Author:Wilson, Joanne
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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