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Postsecondary experiences of young adults with severe physical disabilities.

Postsecondary Experiences of Young Adults with Severe Physical Disabilities

Families, educators, service providers, and policymakers whose responsibilities include meeting the transitional needs of youth with disabilities are hampered by the lack of information about these youth after they leave high school (Donnellan, 1984). It is not known how well the educational system meets the needs of students with disabilities and what can be done to improve services. Educators need to know if the curriculum of special schools that accommodate students with severe disabilities helps to prepare these students for the demands of the postschool environment. Parents also need to be aware of possible outcomes to assist them in planning for their children's future (Edgar, 1985). The goal of this study was to describe how well youth with physical disabilities manage after they leave high school in terms of other educational endeavors, employment, and general social adjustment.

The generalizability of past follow-up studies has been limited by the populations selected for study and by the type of information gathered. Most follow-up studies of special education students have focused on individuals with mental retardation (e.g., Schalock, 1986). There is little information on the postsecondary status of students with other handicapping conditions. Few folow-up studies have included students with severe physical disabilities, and even fewer have examined factors related to outcomes for this population. Furthermore, even when these students have been included, they were not described separately (e.g., Edgar, 1987), their numbers were very small (e.g., Brieland, 1967), or the methodology resulted in possible self-selection (e.g., McCarthy, 1986; Owings & Stocking, 1985).

Moreover, few studies have collected data about students' high school programs or comprehensive outcome information on employment, postsecondary education, and community adjustment (e.g., living arrangements). Two statewide follow-up studies of special education students in Vermont and Colorado (Hasazi, Gordon, & Roe, 1985; Mithaug, Horiuchi, & Fanning, 1985) have helped to start a data base on youth with disabilities. These research efforst, however, did not discuss factors related to outcomes for different disability groups.



The population for his study included all high school graduates of Human Resources School, a special school for youth with physical disabilities located in a suburban area near New York City. The initial list included members from the first graduating class in 1967 through those graduating in 1984, for a total of 222 students. Of these, 47 had died, and contact had been lost with 57 others, leaving a total of 118 alumni. The final sample participating in the study consisted of 106 graduates, or 90% of the total population that could be contacted. Approximately 10% of the respondents graduated in the years between 1967 and 1972, 34% between 1973 and 1978, and 56% between 1979 and 1984. Of the 12 graduates who did not participate, 10 refused to respond and 2 were in institutions.


Three instruments were developed to survey the students:

1. A structured telephone interview consisting of 68 questions covered the following topics: high school experiences; postsecondary education and training; current occupation and employment history; marital and residetial status; recreation and leisure activities; need for assistance; provlems experienced; and support received. Additionally, those who were currently employed were asked one set of questions, and those unemployed were asked another. Those who attended college or a training program were asked questions related to that experience.

2. A shorter mail survey consisting of 25 of the 68 phone interview questions was developed to reach those who were not able to be surveyed by telephone. The 25 questions were selected to collect information on educational and employment history, as well as school preparation, work experience, transportation, and need for assistance.

3. A Student File Information Form, for obtaining background information from school files, included information on gender, race, handicapping conditions, age of disability onset, nature of disability, parent information, school attendance, academic records, and services received.


Three interviewers with graduate degrees and research experience were trained prior to the collection of information. They reviewed the questionnaire item by item with project staff to check for misunderstandings and to clarify terms and procedures. All three interviewers coded simulated interviews with project staff to determine and correct any inconsistencies between interviewers. Each interviewer then completed two pilot interviews with rehabilitation clients. The interview procedure was again discussed, and ambiguous items were revised. Ninety-four interviews (89%) were completed by telephone. An additional 12 persos (11%) completed the mail survey, for a total of 106 respondents. Of those interviewed, 79 respondents (84%) signed consent forms to review their school records.


Background Information

Of the 106 respondents, 59% were male and 41% were female. Almost all were Caucasian (97%). The age of the respondents ranged from 19 to 37, with a mean of 26 years. The primary disability of the majority of the group (54%) was classified as orthopedic (spina bifida, birth defects, or accidents). Other major classifications were neurological (23%) and cerebral palsy (15%). The mean verbal, performance, and full IQ scores were 105,91, and 98, respectively. About 70% of the mothers of the respondents were housewives; the majority of the fathers were in service, manufacturing, or construction occupations; 24% were in professional occupations. One-third of the mothers had attended college, as had almost half the fathers.

To determine the representativeness of the sample, school records of the alumni who did not participate in the study were examined. The alumni who did not participate were significantly older, M = 29.3, than those who did participate, M = 26.3, t(157) = 4.02, p < .001. A higher proportion of those who did not participate were male (77%) as compared to the sampled alumni (59%), [X sup.2] (1) = 4.95, p < .05. There was also a difference in the nature of disability between the two groups. Fifty percet of those who did not participate had neuorological disabilities, and another 34% had orthopedic disabilities. The group that participated had a lower proportion of neurological disabilities (23%) and a higher proportion of orthopedic disabilities (54%). There were no differences between the groups on IQ scores.

Evaluation of High School Experiences

Most respondents (72%) said they were generally satisfied with their high school educational program. Table 1 shows the alumni's evaluations of the high school services they received. Counseling for college and general counseling were the most frequently received services followed closely by vocational career guidance and vocational evaluation. Driver's education and training in an independent living center were also frequently received.

Those services rated highest were driver's education, the independent living center, therapy (physical/occupational/speech), and attendant services. However, 52% said there were services not received that would have been helpful. Some of the more frequent suggestions for improving the high school program were as follows: to have more exposure to peers without disabilities (23%); more guidance counseling (14%); and a less sheltered environment (12%).

Postsecondary Education

Respondents achieved a high level of education: Over three-fourths attended or were currently attending college (see Table 2). Most of them also had earned or were expecting to earn degrees. Over half said they had difficulties adjusting to college or their training program. Almost hald did not feel adequately prepared academically. Yet, most said they found it easy to make friends in college.


Sixty-two percent of the respondents were employed: 45% full time and 17% part time (see Table 3). The majority of jobs were in competitive employment; over one-half could be classified as semiskilled and another quarter as skilled. Approximately 12% of the respondents were unemployed and actively seeking work. The labor force is defined by the U.S. Department of Labor as the total of employed persons and unemployed persons who are actively seeking work. Using this definition, 75% of the sameple was in the labor force and 25% was out of the labor force.

Over three-fourths of the respondents had held at least one job after high school. Most found their first job within 6 months after leaving school (high school or college) and had only a few different jobs since high school graduation. Respondents held an average of 1.8 full-time jobs and 1.6 part-time jobs. Those employed were at their current job for an average of 26 months, and their longest held job lasted an average of 30 months.

Most of those who were currently or previously employed were somewhat or very satisfied with their jobs. Most also indicated they did not need physical accommodations, job modifications, or day-to-day support services at work. The mean salary of those who were currently employed full time was $1,112/month; for part-time employment, $278. The mean monthly salary for full-time college graduates was highest ($1,497), followed by those with some college ($1,105) and those with no college education ($521).

Variables Associated With Employment

Personal networks such as family and friends were the avenues used by over half of the young adults to find work, as contrasted to the use of rehabilitation or other placement agencies. However, those who had gone to the State Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) or another rehabilitation agency for assistance were more likely to be employed than those who had not, especially those who received job referrals, on-the-job training, or attendant care from the agency. Most had received other kinds of assistance, such as financial support, assessment, or training, rather than direct placement assistance.

Currently employed respondents felt their employment was primarily due to their greater determination as compared to their unemployed classmates. The majority of respondents said their families expected them to be able to get a competitive job if they worked hard in school and prepared for it. None said that their parents expected them to stay home and be supported. One half rated their parents as "very important" in the development of their career plans and in obtaining employment, with siblings, teachers, and counselors rated as "somewhat important." Most thought that rehabilitation professionals and medical professionals had not been important. Finally, high school work experience was not found to be associated with employment status or salary.

Discriminators of Employment Stauts

Four initial discriminant analyses were calculated to determine which variables significantly differentiated the employed from the unemployed respondents (Table 4).

In the first analysis, covering personal characteristics and indicators of functional independence (e.g., age, gender, marital status, mobility, severity of disability), the significant variables were type of transportation used, age, and medical condition. The employed were more likely to use their own cars, to be older, and have a stable medical condition. In the second analysis, covering services received and resources used (e.g., services at school, training during high school, and use of outside agencies), employed respondents were more likely to contact OVR and to receive job referrals, attendant care, and on-the-job training. In the third analysis, covering socialization factors (e.g., extracurricular activities; extent of socialization with friends, colleagues, and classmates), the only significant variable was participation in "other extracurricular activities" in high school. The employed were less likely to engage in such activities. In the fourth analysis, covering educational and vocational training factors (e.g., postsecondary education, degree received, grades, SAT scores), the only significant variable was the presence of an educational or vocational training problem since high school. Those employed were less likely to have such a problem.

A fifth and final discriminant analysis combined those variables found to be significant in the previous analyses. Four variables emerged as the best predictors of employment: type of transportation, age, contact with OVR, and job referrals. The employed were more likely to use their own cars, be older, have contacted OVR, and have received OVR job referrals.

The only variable that significantly discriminated different levels of job skill was education. College graduates were more likely to have skilled jobs than nongraduates. Those who were in a higher paid job reported higher job satisfaction. Severity of disability and medical condition were not related to job skill or satisfaction. A stepwise regression was calculated to determine the variables that predict wages (Tables 5 and 6). Older workers and those who used their own cars for transportation tended to have higher wages. Education did not explain significantly more of the variance in wage than the amount already explained by age and transportation.

Community Outcomes

The marital status and housing arrangements of students in this study were similar to those reported in other studies. Almost all were single, and many were living with their parents. A large proportion of respondnets (56%) needed assistance in some daily activity, including traveling, dressing, and homemaking. Most were receiving this assistance from their parents. It is surprising that in view of these apparent needs, only a few sought help from agencies other than OVR. The only other agency that a substantial number had contacted was the rehabilitation agency associated with the school they attendend.

Although a very high percentage (90%) of the available population of graduates participated in the study, outcomes for graduates with whom contact had been lost may have differed significantly from those who did participate. It may be that those who were most difficult to contact were more likely to be living independently, because they had moved and left no forwarding address. If this reasoning is applied, then the sampled alumni may actually underrepresent the proportion of alumni who live independently.

Trend Analyses

To detect outcome trends over the 17-year period (1967-1984), graduates were clustered into two groups for comparison purposes. One group graduated between the years 1967 and 1978; the other, between 1979 and 1984. It may have been more desirable to cluster the graduates in 5-year intervals, but this was impossible because of the small number of graduates interviewed in the earlier years. The cut-off used was deemed desirable because it broke the sample into two roughly equal sample sizes and it allowed an assessment of the impact of changes in special education as a result of Public Law 94-142, which was in place and fully in effect by 1979.

The two groups were compared on variables relating to employment, education, services received, and severity of disability. The more recent graduates were more likely to be in college and less likely to be employed. Many of the younger graduates had not yet completed their education and therefore were not in the labor force. When they did have jobs they tended to be less skilled than the ones held by the older graduates. These findings suggest that over time these differences will dissipate and outcomes achieved by both groups will be more similar. The more recent graduates were more likely to have received certain services due primarily to curriculum changes in the school's program. These services included general counseling, on-the-job training, independent living, and the peer program. Receipt of any of these services, however, was not related to employment or education outcomes.


Most of the youth with severe physical disabilities in this study continued with college or further training programs. Although the majority who went to college had earned or expected to earn a degree, many felt that they were not prepared adequately for their postsecondary educational experiences. The feeling of many seemed to be that they would have benefited from a less sheltered environment as well as more exposure to peers without disabilities. These findings are of primary concern to special schools that serve only students with disabilities. Other expressed needs, however, most likely apply to all youth with disabilities regardless of educational setting, such as the desire for more intensive guidance counseling, especially in the areas of job placement; additional training or upgrading of job skills; more help with transportation; and more access to social and recreational programs.

A limitation of the present study must be acknowledged here, which is that the actual extent of these perceived needs could not be verified. Since self-report data were relied on to a great extent, results are limited by the accuracy of these reports. Despite this limitation, the kinds of needs expressed by subjects in this study have been identified by other sources (U.S. Department of Education, 1988) confirming their general existence. Furthermore, much of the data were obtained from school records, such as types of services received, course grades, IQ scores, extracurricular activities, and nature of disability.

When all the data were examined, variables related to personal characteristics and services received appeared more important in determining employment status than those related to education and socialization. Availability of transportation was an especially significant factor in many of these graduates' success in finding and maintaining employment, as was personal determination and family support. Many relied on personal networking to find employment. Graduates also did not take advantage of available rehabilitation services, whose use was found to be related to positive employment outcomes. The fact that OVR involvement before high school graduation was related to employment status, while post-secondary contact was not, suggests, in particular, the importance of early OVR involvement. These findings suggest that schools can assist students in seeking employment by teaching them how to build personal networks and use community resources.

Unfortunately, the employment rates cited in most follow-up studies do not report whether unemployed respondents are in the labor force and seeking employment or are not seeking employment because of school or health reasons. In this study, 25% of the sample was out of the labor force. This is much lower than the Harris survey data (1986), which found that 62% of adults with disabilities are outside the labor force. For those who were in the labor force, 16% were unemployed in this sample, which was over twice the rate cited by the U.S. Department of Labor for the population as a whole. The rest of those in the labor force (84%) were employed. This percentage is higher than the 65% reported by Hasazi et al. (1985), one of the few follow-up studies of special education students giving employment rates after excluding those not seeking work.

Teh fact that work experience was not related to employment outcome needs further discussion. The alumni who received high school work experience tended to be the more recent graduates and, therefore, had less time to find a job or to advance into higher paid positions. Type of work experience may also have played a role. Hasazi et al. (1985) found that students who had unsubsidized paid work experience (summer jobs or part-time jobs) while in high school had significantly better work outcomes than those with simulated work experience in the school or subsidized jobs. Because many students in the current sample received subsidized summer employment, mostly in the facility associated with the school, it is possible that type of work experience was a factor.

Finally, the results of this study are based on one special school in an eastern state. Generalizations from this sample to the general population of students with severe disabilities, therefore, should be made cautiously. The findings, however, illustrate the need for educational researchers to gather and report data in terms similar to those used by the Department of Labor if comparisons are to be made between youth with disabilities and youth in general. Youth as a whole have high unemployment, and longitudinal follow-up studies need to include comparison samples of youth without disabilities. Data for distinct subsamples of the population, such as those gathered in this study, need to be reported consistently so that employment outcomes can be better understood in relation to gender, race, educational level, IQ, type and severity of disability, parents' socioeconomic status, and other factors.


Brieland, D. (1967). A follow-up study of orthopedically handicapped high school graduates. Exceptional Children, 33, 555-562.

Donnellan, A. M. (1984). The criterion of the least dangerous assumption. Behavioral Disorders, 9, 141-150.

Edgar, E. (1985). How do special education students fare after they leave school? A response to Hasazi, Gordon, and Roe. Exceptional Children, 51, 470-473.

Edgar, E. (1987). Secondary programs in special education: Are many of them justifiable? Exceptional Children, 53(6), 555-561.

Hasazi, S. B., Gordon, L. R., & Roe, C. A. (1985). Factors associated with the employment status of handicapped youth exiting high school from 1979 to 1983. Exceptional Children, 51, 455-469.

Louis Harris & Associates. (1986). The ICD survey of disabled Americans: Bringing disabled people into the mainstream. New York: Author.

McCarthy, H. (1986). Making it in able-bodied America: Career development in young adults with physical disabilities. Journal of Applied Rehabilitation Counseling, 17, 30-38.

Mithaug, D., Horiuchi, C. N., & Fanning, P. N. (1985). A report on the Colorado statewide follow-up survey of special education students. Exceptional Children, 51, 397-404.

Owings, J., & Stocking, C. (1985). High school and beyond: A national longitudinal study for the 1980's (characteristics of high school students who identify themselves as handicapped). Washington, DC: National Center of Education Statistics.

Schalock, R. L. (1986). Employment outcomes from secondary school programs. Remedial and Special Education, 7(6), 37-39.

U.S. Department of Education. (1988). Tenth annual report of Congress on the implementation of the Education of the Handicapped Act. Washington, DC: Author.

DIANE LIEBERT is the Project Director of the Collaborative Employment Project at the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York. LARRY LUTSKY is a Statistical Consultant at the New York City Board of Education, Brooklyn. AMY GOTTLIEB is the Coordinator of Restricted Grants at the National Center on Employment and Disability, Human Resources Center, in Albertson, New York.

This project was funded in part by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, grant #G0083C0007. We express special thanks to Richard Melia, Ph.D., our NIDRR Project Officer, for his support of this research. We also gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the school administrators, our two advisory councils, and the graduates themselves. Finally, we wish to thank staff members of the Research and Training Institute at Human Resources Center for their support and guidance in the revisions made to this article. Inquiries about the study, including information about how to obtain a copy of the technical report, should be sent to Amy Gottlieb, National Center on Employment and Disability, Human Resources Center, I. U. Willets Road, Albertson, New York, 11507.
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Author:Liebert, Diane; Lutsky, Larry; Gottlieb, Amy
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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