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Postsecondary Education and Employment of Adults with Disabilities.

Americans with disabilities still face gaps in securing jobs, education and accessible public transportation and in many areas of daily fife. Less than 30 percent of working age adults with disabilities have even part-time employment, compared with nearly 80 percent of the general population. We propose that better access and outcomes in postsecondary education will improve not only the rates of employment for adults with disabilities but also the quality of employment. The National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational Support, University of Hawaii at Manoa, recently funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, will seek to identify the nature and scope of existing supports and their effectiveness, with a specific look at technology and the center will also examine the connection between outcomes and supports in postsecondary education with those in the workplace.

In 1998, the National Organization on Disability (NOD) surveyed 1,000 adults with disabilities in the United States and found that only 29 percent of adults with disabilities, ages 18-64 years, worked full- or part-time, compared with 79 percent of the nondisabled population. It also reported that 20 percent of adults with disabilities have not completed high school, in contrast to 10 percent of adults without disabilities and other findings regarding the different levels of access and success in obtaining employment, education, public transportation, and many other necessities of daily living.

The Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1992 (PL 102-569) clearly acknowledge that "disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the civil rights of individuals." Despite this legislation, people with disabilities continually encounter various forms of discrimination in such critical areas as postsecondary education, transportation, healthcare, and employment (Walker, 1996). It is important that we understand their present and future needs for full participation in society. This article will examine published literature on emerging strategies to enhance access to and participation in postsecondary education. Further, it will describe the development of the National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational Supports, University of Hawaii at Manoa, to support the outcomes for students with disabilities.

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 (PL 101-336), along with the recent reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Amendments of 1997 (PL 105-17), has led to an expanding social awareness of disability issues and, increasingly, to students with disabilities seeking access to colleges, universities and vocational technical programs (Benz, Doren & Yovanoff, 1998; Stodden, 1998). The number of postsecondary students reporting a disability has increased dramatically, climbing from less than 3 percent in 1978, to 9 percent in 1994, to nearly 19 percent in 1996 (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996). Since 1990, there has been a 90 percent increase in the number of postsecondary programs offering opportunities for adults with disabilities to continue their education (Pierangelo & Crane, 1997). Nonetheless, the enrollment rate of people with disabilities in postsecondary institutions is still 50 percent lower than that of the general population. This gap in educational attainment significantly and adversely affects the long-term employment prospects for people with disabilities.

Impact of Postsecondary Education on High Quality Employment

Over the past 20 years, changes in the nation's labor market have increased the importance of postsecondary education as a factor in the job market, particularly high quality employment and long-term career opportunities. Students who continue their education after high school maximize their preparedness for careers in today's changing economy as they learn the creative thinking and technical skills necessary to take advantage of current and future job market trends.

Adults with disabilities are negatively and disproportionately affected by changes in general employment trends. For example, employees with disabilities experienced a larger relative layoff in manufacturing than employees without disabilities (Yelin & Katz, 1994). Thus it appears that people with disabilities, as with other minority groups, often face labor market liabilities which place them in the position of being the last-hired and the first-fired (Trupin, Sebesta, Yelin, & LaPlante, 1997). Indeed, disability may combine with gender, age and race to place some people with disabilities at an even greater disadvantage in the job market, especially in relation to high quality employment options.

With the changing job market, access to postsecondary education becomes more critical to the pursuit of high quality employment positions. A clear, positive relationship among disability, level of education and adult employment has been firmly established in numerous studies (e.g., Benz, Doren, & Yovanoff, 1998; Blackorby & Wagner, 1996). In fact, employment rates for people with disabilities demonstrate a stronger positive correlation between level of education and rate of employment than appears in statistical trends for the general population (Stodden, 1998). In 1996, U.S. Census Bureau statistics indicated labor force participation rates at 75 percent for people without a high school diploma, 85 percent for those with a diploma, 88 percent for people with some postsecondary education, and 90 percent for those with at least 4 years of college. By contrast, only 16 percent of people with a disability and without a high school diploma currently participate in today's labor force. However, this participation doubles to 30 percent for those who have completed high school, triples to 45 percent for those with some postsecondary education and climbs to 50 percent for adults with disabilities and at least 4 years of college (Yelin & Katz, 1994).

These figures help portray the huge cost of failure to support people with disabilities in postsecondary education programs, both to these individuals as well as to society. In order to provide needed supports, institutions need to: (a) focus attention on overcoming barriers to high quality employment for people with disabilities, and (b) identify educational accommodations and supports, including assistive technologies, that promote the successful completion of postsecondary education programs.

Barriers to Postsecondary Education

While the data for students with disabilities show a consistent positive correlation between high quality employment prospects and higher levels of education, as a population their postsecondary education enrollment levels--although on the rise--remain low in comparison to the general population. For example, 25 percent of students with disabilities age 14 or older, as compared to only 12 percent of nondisabled students, do not even complete high school (OSEP, 1996). Of those who graduate, 19 percent of students with disabilities, in contrast to 56 percent of students without disabilities, attend a postsecondary school within the first 2 years of leaving high school. Three to five years after high school, 27 percent of students with disabilities, as opposed to 68 percent of students without disabilities, attend some form of postsecondary education (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996).

In 1996, the Office of Special Education Programs published Results of the Second PASS Field Test, an extensive study of the types of services youth with disabilities require in their transition to adulthood and postsecondary programs. Eighty percent of the youth surveyed required some type of case management service. Assistance and training related to the areas of communication, including speech and language therapy, interpreter services, reader services, Braille training, and tactile interpreting services were cited as primary needs by over a third of the total sample.

Even with these supports to their primary needs, students with disabilities face a host of systemic, sociocultural, financial, and personal factors that contribute to low postsecondary enrollment rates. One of the first studies concerning implementation of ADA found that students with disabilities have a continuing need for information and technical assistance in postsecondary education programs; minorities with disabilities are not being adequately served; and people with certain disabilities are not being helped by the current levels of ADA implementation (Pfeiffer & Finn, 1997).

Other social and cultural factors continue to play a major role in discouraging students with disabilities from pursuing higher education. Media stereotypes tend to depict people with disabilities as victims employed in low-skill jobs. People with disabilities continue to be poorly represented among faculty, staff and education administrators, thus depriving students with disabilities of role models for postsecondary success (Grosz, 1998). All these factors, in combination with low expectations from teachers, counselors and sometimes even parents, create powerful psychological obstacles to the pursuit of higher education.

Even when students overcome barriers to enrollment in postsecondary education, disturbing evidence suggests that many of them experience difficulty staying in and completing their programs of study (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996). Failure to provide appropriate academic development services, supports, and programs for students with disabilities may cause them to achieve grade-point averages well below that of their nondisabled peers which, in turn, may hasten their withdrawal from postsecondary settings. Also, students with disabilities who earn a tangible certificate or degree take considerably longer to finish than nondisabled students. Clearly, students with disabilities need more and better services, supports and programs, both to access postsecondary education and to be successful in this setting.

Regrettably, there is virtually no current research regarding the differential effects that various accommodation services, supports and programs have in relation to postsecondary education access, participation and long-term outcomes such as student retention, graduation rates and high quality employment opportunities (Tindel et al., 1998). As Gajar (1998) chides, "The recent influx of students with disabilities into postsecondary settings has precluded the establishment of both a body of proven practices and a clear relationship between practices and outcomes. Services have evolved sporadically and programs have been pieced together in a haphazard manner" (p.388). It is essential that some basic data-based understanding of these issues be established through research. Studies need to be conducted not only on the characteristics and needs of the students with disabilities found in various postsecondary settings but also on the unique characteristics of the postsecondary settings.

Self-Determination: Preparing for High Quality Employment

Transition from secondary to postsecondary education for students with disabilities is complex and challenging. The differences between high school and postsecondary environments are more than cosmetic (Gajar, 1998). Students with disabilities graduating from high school move from a protective environment in which school personnel are legally responsible for identifying and providing appropriate services under IDEA to an environment in which the students are expected to request specific accommodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and under ADA.

Under Sections II and III of ADA, postsecondary institutions are "required by law to provide any reasonable accommodation that may be necessary for those with disabilities to have equal access to educational opportunities and services available to nondisabled peers, if requested." Unquestionably, postsecondary students are charged with the bulk of the responsibility for initiating, designing and ensuring their own educational accommodations. It is their responsibility to inform school officials of their disability, provide documentation of the disability and propose viable options for meeting the unique accommodation needs specific to their disability. Thus, for students with disabilities to access, participate and perform successfully in postsecondary programs they must be personally responsible for linking any accommodations they may require to their course of study. So, self-advocacy and self-determination--the abilities to express one's needs and to make informed decisions--are considered to be some of the most important skills for students with disabilities to have before beginning their postsecondary education experience (see Benz et al., 1998, and others). The role of self-advocacy in determining the success of postsecondary students with disabilities is a necessary area of study for researchers.

Decreased contact between teachers and students, increased academic competition, changes in student support networks, and a greater expectation that students will achieve on their own--all add to the difficulties of making a successful transition to a postsecondary education program. Furthermore, in contrast to high school services to students with disabilities, postsecondary services, supports and programs vary extensively across states as well as campus-to-campus; are generally not well-developed programmatically; and tend to lean toward advocacy, informational services, or remediation of content rather than accomodating areas necessary for independent learning and self-reliance (Reis, Neu & McGuire, 1997).

Current Status of Postsecondary Educational Supports for Students with Disabilities

Though variable in quantity and quality, support services to students with disabilities are available at most of the postsecondary education institutions in the United States. Required to meet access mandates of the 1977 passage of Section 504 of the amended Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and more recently, under ADA, schools have had to ensure that the programs they offer, including extracurricular activities, are accessible to students with disabilities. Postsecondary programs have done this in a number of ways, such as by providing architectural access, aids and services necessary for effective communication and by modifying policies, practices and procedures.

Buildings constructed or altered after June 3, 1977, have had to comply with the relevant accessibility code required by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and, after January 26, 1992, by ADA. Qualified interpreters, assistive listening systems, captioning, TTYs, qualified readers, audio recordings, taped texts, Braille materials, large print materials, materials on computer disk, and adapted computer terminals are examples of auxiliary aids and services that provide effective communication. Legally, such services must be provided unless doing so would result in a fundamental alteration of the program or would result in undue financial or administrative burdens.

One of the most challenging aspects of modifying classroom policies or practices in postsecondary programs is the planning and preparation that is necessary. The difficulty lies in anticipating students' needs and preparing to meet those needs in advance. The actual modifications themselves may be relatively simple and inexpensive. Examples include:

* rescheduling classes to an accessible location;

* early enrollment options for students with disabilities to allow time to arrange accommodations;

* substitution of specific courses required for completion of degree requirements;

* allowing students to use note takers or to record lectures;

* allowing service dogs in the classroom; or

* arranging for appropriate accommodations for test taking.

The only time when such modifications of policies and practices would not be required is when they would fundamentally alter the nature of the activity or create unreasonable costs.

It is important to remember that supports and services provided by postsecondary institutions are often relatively new and, thus, not yet well known by faculty members. Faculty and other stakeholders, therefore, may find it difficult to accommodate students simply because they lack an understanding of the students' needs or familiarity with campus services. Moreover, some students elect not to disclose their disabilities in order to avoid being labeled "disabled" while on campus. Unfortunately, students who fail to identify themselves as "disabled" are often unable to access many of the supports designed to get them closer to having equal--rather than special--access to education (Gordon & Keiser, 1998).

The Research Agenda

Although a wide array of supports are provided for students with disabilities, understanding which specific accommodations are appropriate to the student and under what conditions these accommodations may be applied are issues that continue to dominate postsecondary conversations regarding students with disabilities. Definitions of what supports are "appropriate" vary extensively. Research programs must seek to identify the most promising strategies, technologies, services, supports, and programs for (a) facilitating successful transition of students with disabilities from secondary to postsecondary settings, (b) improving student performance and graduation rates within those settings and (c) promoting personally satisfactory high quality employment outcomes.

Given that most disability-related services are a relatively new requirement within the postsecondary education environment and the likelihood that a student will run into obstacles when attempting to set up necessary support services, there is clearly a need for research to address such questions as:

* To what extent is the requirement that a person disclose his or her disability in order to obtain services a deterrent to postsecondary enrollment and completion?

* Are vocational rehabilitation or other funding sources for services not covered under ADA or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act readily available to postsecondary students?

* What kind of impact have various services and supports, including various assistive devices, had on students' access, participation, performance, and completion of postsecondary education?

* What are the systemic obstacles to service provision?

* To what extent does helping students develop self-advocacy and self-determination skills assist in the transition into postsecondary settings and student success within the postsecondary setting?

* To what extent do educational institutions provide transitional support to graduates as they attempt to enter high quality employment settings, and how does this affect employment outcomes?

* Which of the various services available to postsecondary students with disabilities do they--the consumers-find most effective?

* How would they like to see the services delivered?

* How can postsecondary institutions accommodate student needs in ways that are empowering for students as well as being efficient and effective at the institutional level?

Development of a National Center

The Center on Disability Studies/ University Affiliated Program, at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, has undertaken in collaboration with the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research to establish a Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (RRTC) for the Study of Postsecondary Educational Supports. The purpose of this national research center is two fold:

* to explore ways to increase access to and improve outcomes for students with disabilities, in a variety of postsecondary educational settings and

* to directly involve students with disabilities, families, educators, and other support people in research activities.

The center is focusing on the study of current support practices and models of delivery and identifying barriers to educational practices, disability-related services and transitional assistance. Further, it is providing training and information to education support personnel, public and private rehabilitation personnel, career placement specialists, and students with disabilities. The center works within the following goal areas:

* To examine and evaluate the current status of educational supports, including: individual academic accommodations, adaptive equipment, case management and coordination, advocacy, and personal counseling and career advising;

* To identify effective support practices and models of delivery that contribute to successful access to and completion of postsecondary programs;

* To identify specific barriers to the provision of disability-related services including policy and funding requirements;

* To assess effectiveness of promising educational practices and disability-related services that are important to career mobility and success in the workplace;

* To test the effectiveness of specific models of delivery that are believed to increase the accessibility of educational supports and technologies;

* To identify the types of educational and transitional assistance that postsecondary programs provide to improve academic performance and subsequent success in the labor market; and

* To provide training, technical assistance and information to education support personnel, public and private rehabilitation personnel, career placement specialists, and students with disabilities based on the findings of the center and to implement a consumer-driven empowerment evaluation plan for assessing the RRTC's progress in achieving its goals.


Students with disabilities face administrative, social and cultural barriers to accessing and succeeding in postsecondary education programs, and the lack of higher education adversely affects employment options. A systematic research approach such as that undertaken by the RRTC on Postsecondary Educational Supports can help reduce these barriers and has the potential to dramatically improve the participation of people with disabilities in high quality employment. While the value of attaining higher levels of education may not be entirely quantifiable, graduates of postsecondary education institutions can expect to earn at least $250,000 to $600,000 more over their lifetime than high school graduates (High Hopes, 1998). The poverty levels endured by one in three Americans with disabilities (NOD, 1998) are unconscionable. These levels plummet from 50 percent for high school dropouts to 15 percent for adults with disabilities with college degrees (Stodden, 1998). Unfortunately, in spite of some relative growth, the NOD (1998) report indicates that, for students with disabilities, access to postsecondary education and high quality employment continues to fall substantially below the levels attained by their nondisabled peers.


Benz, M., Doren, B., & Yovanoff, P. (1998). Crossing the great divide: Predicting productive engagement for young women with disabilities. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 21 (1), 3-16.

Blackorby, J., & Wagner, M. (1996). Longitudinal postschool outcomes of youth with disabilities: Findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study. Exceptional Children, 62, 399-413.

Gajar, A. (1998). Postsecondary education. In F. Rusch, & J. Chadsey (Eds.). Beyond high school: Transition from school to work. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Gordon, M., & Keiser, S. (1998). Underpinnings. In M. Gordon & S. Keiser (Eds.). Accommodations in higher education under the Americans with Disabilities Act. De Witt, NY: GSI Publications.

Grosz, K. (1998). Meeting the needs of the disabled. Caped Journal, 5 (1), 20-25.

Henderson, C. (1995). College freshman with disabilities: A statistical profile. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

High Hopes for College for America's Youth. (1998). [WWW document]. URL http://www/ OPE/PPI/highhopes.html

National Organization on Disabilities. (1998). 1998 N.O.D./Harris survey of Americans with disabilities. Washington, DC: Louis Harris & Associates.

Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). (1996). Services anticipated to be needed by exiting students with disabilities: Results of the second pass field test. In Eighteenth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Washington, DC: Author.

Pfeiffer, D., & Finn, J. (1997). The Americans with Disabilities Act: An examination of compliance by state, territorial, and local governments in the USA. Disability and Society, 12, 753-773.

Pierangelo, R., & Crane, R. (1997). Complete guide to special education transition services. West Nyack, NY: The Center for Applied Research in Education.

Reis, S., Neu, T., & McGuire, J. (1997). Case studies of high-ability students with learning disabilities who have achieved. Exceptional Children, 63, 463-479.

Stodden, R.A. (1998). School-to-work transition: Overview of disability legislation. In F. Rusch & J. Chadsey (Eds.). Beyond high school: Transition from school to work. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.

Tindel, G., Heath, B., Hollenbeck, K., Almond, P., & Harniss, M. (1998). Accommodating students with disabilities on large-scale tests: An experimental study. Exceptional Children, 64, 439-450.\Trupin, L., Sebesta, D., Yelin, E., & LaPlante, M. (1997). Trends in labor force participation among persons with disabilities. 1983-1994. San Francisco, CA: University of California, Disability Statistics Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, Institute for Health and Aging.

U.S. Census Bureau. (1996). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Walker, S. (1996). An examination of the impact of federally supported community services and educational systems on underserved people with disabilities from diverse cultural populations. Washington, DC: Howard University (ERIC Reproduction Services No. ED 397588).

Yelin, E., & Katz, P. (1994). Labor force trends of persons with and without disabilities. Monthly Labor Review, 117, 36-42.

Author Note

Partial support for the preparation of this article was provided by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), Grant Number H133B980043. Address correspondence to either author at: 1776 University Av. UA 4-6, University of Hawaii, Manoa 96822, USA;;;

The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of NIDRR or the U.S. Department of Education.

Dr. Stodden is Director and Professor and Dr. Dowrick is Professor at the Center on Disability Studies, National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational Supports, University of Hawaii at Manoa.
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Author:Dowrick, Peter W.
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Date:Dec 22, 1999
Previous Article:Basic Skills and Labor Market Success: Findings from the VR Longitudinal Study.
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