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Six post-school case studies of mildly learning handicapped young adults.

ABSTRACT.- Participant observation was conducted for 1 year with six mildly learning handicapped young adults following their graduation from high school. Close attention was paid to the ways in which they managed the transition out of school and into more adult roles. During this year, all six floundered from job to job, class to class, and school to school. They expressed discontent and frustration with their present situation. They were at a loss to plan for the future and maintained an unrealistic appraisal of their skills. Their sense of self waxed and waned in keeping with their prospects, and the patience and frustration of family members vacillated as well. Little research literature tells us how individuals with mild learning handicaps manage the transition out of school and into more adult roles. The populations of handicapped young adults leaving school today represent the first groups of students to have received extensive mandated special education services during their school career. Further, the provisions of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94-142) allowed for a close link between the school and family and provided families with a firm base upon which to function and feel secure about the immediate future. Once the child comes of age and departs from school, families experience an abrupt cutoff of this long-term resource and support (Johnson, Bruininks, & Thurlow, 1987). The mildly handicapped individual is set loose in the community to test the waters of young adulthood without further mandated guidance or support services.

More severely handicapped young persons, when leaving school, have a number of services to choose from that encourage and support their continued development. They may enter a sheltered workshop, an adult training center, or a supervised community residence (Parmenter, 1986). Those with mild handicaps, who have the potential to become contributing members of mainstream society, have far fewer options available. Some mildly handicapped individuals who demonstrate impaired adaptive behavior and IQ scores below 70 are eligible for some postschool support services such as Supplementary Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid benefits; these services are not available for those with slightly higher lQs and more adaptive social skills. Other services, such as vocational or independence skills training programs, may be attainable through the Department of Rehabilitation and community colleges-although the degree to which such programs assist the mildly handicapped person's adaptation is uncertain. For example, when the training program is completed or once the individual is placed in a job or independent living situation, follow-up is usually time limited; counselors are not available indefinitely to help with on-going problems or intermittent crises (Rusch, 1986).

In addition, some mildly handicapped young adults choose not to seek postschool support services. Many of these youths report a desire to shed what they perceive as a stigmatized association with

special education" and shy away from continued contact with agencies and services for persons with special needs (Zetlin & Turner, 1984). At this point, there are almost no data available describing what the process of community adaptation is for these mildly handicapped young adults upon departure from school.

The following study follows the life course of six mildly learning handicapped young adults for I year following high school graduation. All six were participants in a larger investigation that examined the everyday lives of mildly handicapped and nonhandicapped adolescents. The overall goal of the research was to understand the problems of adolescence from the viewpoint of the adolescents themselves. Because these six members had graduated, we continued to document their experiences as they worked toward more adult status in relation to family and community. METHODS Six mildly learning handicapped students comprised the sample, three males and three females. All had been identified by the school district as sufficiently educationally handicapped to require special education placement and were enrolled in the Learning Resource Class (LRC) at the high school when the study first began (at least 50% of their day was spent in regular education classes and the remainder in the LRC). The mean IQ for the group is 76.2 (range 69-84), and at the time of graduation, their mean age was 18.79 years (range 18.25-19.33); all were Caucasian and from middle-class families. These six, as well as the other learning handicapped adolescents in the broader study, represented the lowest functioning of the mildly learning handicapped population at the high school. Two experienced observers with advanced degrees (one in anthropology, one in psychology) had followed the students for 2 years before graduation, so that close rapport had already been developed; a male worked with the boys and a female with the girls. After graduation, the observers continued to meet regularly with the participants once a month at their homes, at malls, in fast food restaurants and at school. Contact was actually more often, because the new graduates telephoned the observers between meetings. Participants were regularly questioned about the goings on in their life, their schedules, how they were doing in school or at work, and relations with parents and peers. These data formed the basis for the case studies that follow. Case Study 1: Tom Tom is average in height and slightly immature physically. He is relatively low functioning with an attained IQ of 70, second-grade reading skills, and third-grade math skills. His behavior is noticeably inappropriate at times; he is very excitable and difficult to get along with. His speech tends to be disjointed and he often uses cliches (which he generally misstates) to appear more knowledgeable and on top of things. He has only one friend, a slightly higher functioning special education peer, whom he tries to dominate during social interactions. He drives and has his own car. He lives at home with his family and has no plans to move out.

He was adopted at birth; his parents were unaware of his disability until he was referred for testing in kindergarten. As he was growing up, they made every effort to provide a supportive and protective environment for him although Tom thought they babied him too much.

Throughout high school, Tom saw himself as competent and intelligent. He never admitted to having a learning disability and dismissed any conversation suggesting such an idea. He felt he had been incorrectly placed in special classes that were below his ability and was anxious to graduate. He thought a lot about what he should do after graduation, and on one self-description survey indicated "need advice on what to do after high school." He talked about becoming an electrician, a contractor, a welder, and a forest ranger, but mostly he aspired to be a contractor (he had worked part time for a contractor, a family friend since ninth grade). Tom finally decided to enroll in a training program at the junior college to prepare him for a contractor's license. The summer after graduation, he began attending classes but again felt they were below his ability and he had been incorrectly placed (a college counselor had enrolled him in an Independent Living Skills class for disabled students). Tom dropped the course and took a leave of absence from school for a year so he could work full time with the contractor. Shortly afterward, the contractor's company went out of business and Tom lost his job. Tom's family arranged for him to work with an uncle who was also a contractor and welder (two of his cousins worked for Tom's uncle as well). After a few months, Tom lost that job, too.

At this point, no school, no job, Tom confided in the field researcher (whom he had known for over a year) of his fear that he might not have a "normal" future (he had confided in few people before about his learning problem). He acknowledged the extent of his learning disability and his concern about its impact on his future plans for contractor's work. He seemed hopeless and his self-confidence had dropped markedly. He felt tremendous pressure "to decide about something" and asked the field researcher for help. Tom had one last hope, that perhaps he could enroll in a vocationally oriented junior college (i.e., trade technical college), and that maybe his uncle (the contractor) and the field researcher could help him check out the school. Tom seemed to be identifying with his uncle-Tom described him as also learning disabled"-as though his uncle more than anyone could understand Tom's problem. It also seemed to reassure Tom to know he was not alone in the world with his learning disability.

Tom pursued admission to the contractor's program at the trade tech junior college and began attending classes during the spring semester. Within a few weeks of his starting the program, Tom's self-confidence and hopes for the future were restored. He boasted that going to trade tech is the best thing he has ever done. Case Study 2: Kent Kent is average in height and weight. He has a poor complexion and breathes heavily through his mouth. He had been in a bad automobile accident at the age of 10 and suffered brain damage in addition to vision and hearing problems. He wears tinted lenses to cover a droopy eye (the eyelid is mostly closed) and walks with an awkward gait. His poor coordination makes writing very slow and sloppy. His speech is also very slow. He is easily frustrated and often angry; he has no real friends, but shows flashes of a dry sense of humor. He has an attained IQ of 84, sixth-grade math skills and eighth-grade reading skills. He had been in special education classes since seventh grade.

Although his learning difficulties were the direct result of the accident, Kent did not think his placement in special education was a fair one. Throughout high school he had problems with classmates and often got into fights that resulted in occasional suspension. He preferred associations with nonhandicapped peers, but was mostly rejected by the regular education students, which further fueled his sense of frustration.

Kent's parents are divorced, and he lives with his mother and sister. He had become increasingly dependent on his mother since the accident, and she tried to make life easier for Kent in whatever way she could. When he was a senior, his mother initiated a search for part-time work. The job, secured through a vocational training program for disabled students at the high school, was at an auto dealership where he was required to do simple, and what he considered embarrassing, tasks, such as washing cars and cleaning the grounds. He neither enjoyed the work nor his co-workers, most of whom were Hispanic and spoke minimal English.

Kent had no specific goals for after high school. As all special education students are encouraged to do, he thought he would attend the local junior college. He registered for classes the following fall after graduation. He had wished to attend full time, but enrolled part time at his mother's suggestion. Although a number of services were available at the college for learning disabled students (i.e., tutors, help in taking notes, courses to learn how to job search, and live independently), Kent made no attempt to inquire about them.

During his second semester at the college, he registered for a psychology class, which he especially enjoyed. He thought he might like to be a counselor or psychologist some day because someone told him he'd be good at it. He also mentioned the possibility of transferring in 2 years to the 4-year university his sister attends. He enjoys college and regrets not having studied more in high school. He continues to be a loner and has established no satisfying social relationships with schoolmates. Case Study 3: Jeremy Jeremy is very short and walks with a slight gait. He has a wandering left eye and numerous scars on his neck. At age 7, he was hit by a motorcycle and suffered brain damage. He has an attained IQ of 69, fourth-grade math skills, and seventh-grade reading skills. From daily weightlifting, his upper arms and shoulders have become noticeably muscular. He presents himself as a "tough guy," stressing how important it is to be in control of oneself (and not ruled by parents or teachers). His parents are divorced, and he lives with his mother and older brother. He is mostly a loner except for his association with a more severely handicapped peer, whom he teases and dominates.

Jeremy begrudgingly acknowledges his handicap; he realizes how it limits what he can learn (harder and more interesting classes are not options for him) He sees himself as an adventurer ("none of the 9 to 5 stuff for me") and is resentful of those who limit his activities (e.g., he was forced to drop wrestling because he had a shunt). He complains that his mother holds him back from being more independent and wants to show her "in a his way" that he can take care of himself. (He rejects dependency for others as well and he resented his only friend' reluctance to resist his father's dominance.)

Throughout the high school period, he sought increasing autonomy from his mother although many of his plans were unrealistic. He wanted to become a stuntman, or a private investigator, and he planned to lake off for Europe after graduation and burn around indefinitely. Jeremy held one job for a short time during his high school junior year, an aide at daycare center. He hated dealing with the children because they teased him. He was fired for depositing a difficult child in a garbage pail. After graduation he was determined not to go on to college (he h hated high school and saw no reason to continue) bu had no specific career plans. He did not want nothing" job in a fast food place or the like; he wanted a job that would pay well and lead to a career. During the months before and immediately after graduation, he talked about apprenticing with a stuntman and learning stunt techniques before branching out on his own. He had also heard of a Dick' school in Malibu (i.e., private investigator school and thought he would look into that. Construction work was another possibility because it could yield

big bucks.

His mother arranged for him to go on a 3-week tour of Europe as a graduation present. When he returned, he drifted around for a few months, his workout at a nautilus club his only daily routine. Since he liked going to the movies, he sought work as an usher in a movie theater. He worked for a week before being fired; he said there was too much pressure to work quickly. His mother intervened and enrolled him in a vocational rehabilitation program which he found humiliating; he was placed in sheltered workshop alongside severely disabled workers packaging items in bags. He dropped out after a few weeks, so his mother intervened again an persuaded him to enroll at the junior college. He registered for two classes, Independent Living Skill (a class recommended for those with IQs below 80 and English. He hated Independent Living Skills an ended up paying another student to write the paper for his English class. The next semester he took stage construction class which he liked very much and worked hard, although he complained that the teacher barely noticed him.

After his positive experience in stage construction, he began thinking about transferring to a 4-year college. He started investigating colleges that offered

special" programs (programs for learning disabled students, a descriptor he was reluctant to use). He hopes to be in one of those programs next year, pursuing stage construction. Case Study 4: Terry Terry is a very tall, attractive young woman who dresses stylishly. She has no obvious features that lead one to suspect she has a learning handicap. She has an attained IQ of 84, fourth-grade math skills, and fifth-grade reading skills. Terry has very poor expressive abilities and relies on others to supply words and phrases to complete her thoughts or finish her sentences. She is very moody and has a hard time getting along with peers. Classmates describe her as stuck up," and she often gets into squabbles with them. She was placed in special education in fourth grade. Her disability was never discussed with her except in the context of educational goals, and Terry has never questioned what effect it might have on her future.

Terry lives at home and has a close relationship with her parents, although they face rough periods because of Terry's labile moods. Terry has received lots of support and help from her family throughout the years. During Terry's senior year, her mother enrolled her in a modeling program and has encouraged her to pursue this line of work. She has taken Terry for professional photographs and continues to seek modeling opportunities for Terry to pursue.

Terry did not work during high school except for occasional babysitting jobs. The summer after graduation, at her father's suggestion, she sought and obtained work as a mother's helper at a beach club. When fall came she enrolled in the local junior college although she had hated high school and thought school was boring. There were no particular classes she was interested in, but she registered for art and geography. Both turned out to be very difficult, and she dropped geography after tutoring failed to help. At that point she had lots of free time to fill and, at her mother's suggestion, applied for a Christmas" job at a department store. She found the work tedious (she had to return clothes from dressing rooms to the selling floor) and complained it made her dizzy and nauseous. She quit after a month, but told her mother she was laid off. She had lots of free time once again and reported getting more and more depressed. She was bothered by the uncertainty of what was to come and seemed to cling to the suggestions of others-"take different classes in college to find out what interests you. "

With her mother's help, she signed up at a few employment agencies, but claimed that without typing or computer skills there were no jobs for her. She thought if she got back into shape (she'd gained a few pounds) modeling was still an option for her, and her parents gave her money to enroll in a health club. She also thought she might be interested in interior design and registered for an interior design class during the second semester at the college (also geology, her boyfriend's major). The new semester brought new hope to Terry, but within a few weeks she dropped geology (although she concealed it from her boyfriend and pretended to be enrolled in the class). Her father finally took things into his own hands and went with her to a school counselor to talk about the future. The counselor set up an appointment for Terry at the college career center to complete a number of vocational interest batteries. Terry believes that after this meeting she will have a better idea of what courses to take and what kind of career to pursue. Case Study 5: Karen Karen is average in height and weight. Her appearance is always neat and she dresses conservatively. The left side of her face has been paralyzed since birth; when she talks or smiles, only the fight side moves. She has an attained IQ of 75, fifth-grade math skills, and seventh-grade reading skills. She is nonassertive and speaks only when spoken to. She works hard and is conscientious about her work. Although she had always been slow, she was not officially diagnosed as learning disabled and placed in special education until second grade. She felt stigmatized by her enrollment in special classes and was reluctant to associate with her "brain damaged" classmates; she spent much of her time at school alone.

Karen's home situation had been unstable because of her mother's mental condition (her father deserted the family years before), and she was sent to live with an aunt and uncle during her senior year (along with her younger sister). She was uncomfortable living with her relatives because they were Bahais and she was a devout Christian. She felt that a friend's mother, a fellow church member, was her only reliable supporter. This woman provided Karen with advice and counsel and, when the time came, helped Karen find a place of her own to live.

Although Karen felt she learned a great deal by being in high school, she was anxious to graduate and be off on her own. She had one goal during her senior year, to join the Army and move away. She took the armed forces test four times (failing each time) before reconciling herself to the fact that this was not her destiny. Two church friends, who had entered the Marines, were not all that satisfied with their experience; this, too, helped her overcome her disappointment.

She did not want to attend college, but under pressure from teachers and her aunt and uncle, enrolled in two courses during summer school. She begrudgingly took math and aerobics, but when summer school was over, she refused to enroll for the fall semester. She wanted to begin earning money and tried her hand at a number of odd jobs that lasted only a few weeks. Her aunt helped her find work as live-in babysitter, but she became bored with that almost immediately. On her own she found work at one fast food place and then another. She bused tables and wished dishes but found the work degrading and depressing, so she quit. Her aunt suggested she work in a sewing factory (sewing was her favorite subject in high school), but she decided against working alongside all those " illegal aliens. "

Finally her aunt found a federal employment agency, and Karen went there every day for 2 weeks until she found a job on an assembly line. Employment came none too soon, since with the help of her friend's mother she had just moved into her own living quarters, a room in a church member's house. Karen was now on her own, earning a living wage, and saving money to buy a car.

Within a few days she was laid off for "not being fast enough. " She went back to the agency with the hope of finding another job quickly. After a few weeks of unemployment and no job possibilities, her friend's mother intervened once again. She gave Karen the name of an employment agency serving the disabled (Karen identified it as being like the program at the high school") and made Karen promise to follow through. Karen signed up with the agency, and they proceeded to give her a number of "tests." At last contact, she noted that the agency promised to find her a job and was once again hopeful of her prospects. Case Study 6: Tanya Tanya is relatively heavy and is always dieting. She has had an endocrine problem since birth, which is responsible for her rather large and somewhat masculine frame. She was bulemic for a number of years and in her senior year joined Overeater Anonymous (OA). She has recently been diagnose as having Tourette Syndrome, and the tics she displays have been attributed to her condition. She has a great deal of trouble getting along with others both peers and adults. She acts immaturely and is often teased by her peers; she is argumentative with adults. She has an attained IQ of 75, sixth-grade reading skills, and seventh-grade math skills. She was officially diagnosed as having motor skill problems at age 5 and was placed in special education in kindergarten.

Tanya's parents are divorced, and she lives with her mother. She gets along poorly with her father and is often at odds with her mother as well (although he mother is her major supporter). She describes both parents as very dominating; her father much more so than her mother.

Tanya's behavior both in early grades and high school was very inappropriate, and she was frequently mocked and teased by the other students. A graduation neared, Tanya became increasingly nervous over her school performance and whether she would graduate. Her problems with other student and her verbal attacks against teachers increased a well. She finally had a breakdown and was hospitalized for 3 weeks. When she returned, she was heavily medicated and much more subdued.

During Tanya's junior year, she had worked part time in a beauty shop sweeping hair from the floor (her brother's old job). She lasted a few month before being "laid off." She was able to find work in a pet store (she loved animals) through a vocation training program at the high school for disabled students). She complained about the hours not being long enough and the manager not being considerate Her mother intervened and spoke to the manager, but Tanya was laid off shortly afterward, the reason being

it j u st didn't work out. "

After graduation, Tanya registered at the junior college for summer school. She enrolled in the Independent Living Skills class-she enjoyed it so much that she enrolled again in the class the next two semesters. She made friends with some of the students (she found them more mature than her high school peers) and even saw one girl socially outside of school. She was content attending "college" and

did not attempt to find part-time work (although she

had no money and was only given a minimal

allowance, which covered busfare to school). When

questioned about the possibility of part-time work,

she noted she was " working on looking for a job.

When probed, she explained that her mother is going

to telephone someone at voc rehab" about finding

work for her.

She indicated that she had given much thought

to what she wanted to do after college and had

considered bookkeeping. She had even registered for

a bookkeeping class during the spring semester but

dropped it almost immediately because it was too

difficult for her. She was still interested in working

with animals or children, but felt no pressure to

commit herself now; it was a decision she would

make " in the future. " For the time being, she was

not interested in seeking further independence and

appeared content relying on family for financial and

emotional support.


in all the case studies presented, the young adults

were glad to have graduated, but all but one were

less than satisfied with the special education program

and their experiences at the high school. They felt

bored with classes and thought little was learned

which would contribute to their needs in the future.

They also had problems with nonhandicapped peers,

whose friendship they preferred-they were teased

or ignored-which exacerbated their negative feelings

about school.

They had received only minimal vocational skills

training and career counseling throughout high school

to prepare or guide them once on their own. After

graduation, they enrolled in junior colleges, influenced

strongly by high school advisors and because

of limited alternatives. Still without direction, they

took unchallenging courses such as how to budget or

manage money, but told themselves they were

college students."

Only one had a realistic goal-to be a model; the

other five appeared quite unrealistic if they had any

goals at all. All were unwilling to acknowledge their

disabilities and the complications their particular h problems presented toward attaining nonnative achievements.

Further, all shied away from support services d designated for the developmentally disabled as soon as they shed their special education label. Parents, in all but one instance, seemed to participate in a benevolent conspiracy" to maintain the false sense of self their children held. Only in one case (Jeremy), did a parent attempt to orient her child toward more realistic goals-and he actively rejected her efforts. While it is true that many nonhandicapped persons hold unrealistic expectations for themselves and flounder for a while after high school, it is more likely that learning handicapped individuals will have fewer opportunities for achieving their goals.

Still, parents (or benefactors, whichever the case may be) were important supporters for these young people. They helped them find jobs and, in Karen's case, a living situation. One can expect, given the uncertainty of these young adults' future, such support will continue to be required and provided. This is underscored by the fact that in all but one instance no effort or inclination was shown toward the eventuality of a move away from home.

These data caution against more traditional strategies for conducting follow-up research. First, while most such studies rely on a single point in time for follow-up, these data demonstrate that at many points over the course of the year, all six participants were employed or enrolled as students in postsecondary school programs. However, most jobs were held for short periods of time, and many courses were dropped before the semester was completed. As Edgerton (1983) has argued, unless the course of adjustment is monitored continuously over a long period of time, any attempt to assess success or failure risks producing both false negative and false positive findings depending on whether assessment occurs during a peak or a valley.

Second, most follow-up studies tend to rely on objective criteria such as full- or part-time employment and enrollment in postsecondary school programs, to measure positive or negative adjustment (Edgar, 1987). Little is gleaned from such data about more subjective concerns: well-being and quality of life. Working at menial jobs (e.g., busing tables, washing dishes, emptying dressing rooms) did little to enhance the self-esteem of the six participants in our study and usually left them depressed and open to self-doubt. In fact, three young people were reluctant to visit their alma mater because they felt embarrassed about their lack of accomplishments to date. They kept postponing a return visit until such time as they could boast some success to former teachers.

The case histories indicate that these six learning handicapped young adults are anxious and frustrated by the uncertainty of their future. They have no clear course that they are following; rather, they move around from part-time job to part-time job, from class to class, from school to school. When all efforts to establish some sort of status fail, as in Tom's case, their persona crashes. They need help to understand their limitations, to seek more manageable lines of work. A balance must be carefully negotiated which provides for ego maintenance in light of their limitations. Their parents need help, too, to learn how to guide their young adult sons and daughters. Our services, both during and after high school, must be geared to both populations. REFERENCES Edgar, E. (1987). Secondary programs in special education:

Are many of them justifiable? Exceptional Children,

53, 555-561. Edgerton, R. B. (1983). Failure in community adaptation:

The relativity of assessment. In K. T. Keman, M. J.

Begab, & R. B. Edgerton (Eds.), Environments and

behavior: The adaptation of mentally retarded persons.

Baltimore, MD: University Park Press. Johnson, D. R., Bruininks, R. H., & Thurlow, M. L.

(1987). Meeting the challenge of transition service

planning through improved interagency cooperation.

Exceptional Children, 53, 522-530. Parmenter, T. R. (1986). Bridges from school to working

life for handicapped youth: The view from Australia.

New York: International Exchange of Experts and

Information in Rehabilitation, World Rehabilitation

Fund. Rusch, F. (Ed.). (1986). Competitive employment issues

and strategies. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes. Zetlin, A. G., & Turner, J. L. (1984). Self-perspectives

on being handicapped: Stigma and adjustment. In R. B.

Edgerton (Ed.), Lives in process: Mildly retarded adults

in a large city (Monograph No. 6). Washington, DC:

American Association on Mental Deficiency.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Council for Exceptional Children
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Zetlin, Andrea G.; Hosseini, Ashraf
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Feb 1, 1989
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