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Transition and Native American youth: a follow-up study of school leavers on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

There exists an extreme paucity of research regarding the post-school outcomes of disabled Native American youth. In addition, there exists a significant need to assist Native American youth with disabilities to make a smooth transition from school to work and adult living. The importance of this transition is especially significant for Native Americans, since the median age of this population is 21.3 years of age (Arizona State Data Center, 1990). In most Native American communities, a majority of these youth are in school, but many may drop out before completing high school. For example, researchers have noted the school dropout rate is higher among American Indians than for any other ethnic minority group (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1980; 1983). In 1988, the dropout rate was 35.5% among American Indians compared to 28.8% for the U.S. population. In the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, 19% of the American Indians in the 8th grade indicated that they expected they would drop out of high school or that high school graduation would be the terminal point of their education. Furthermore, a very small percentage of American Indian parents expected their children to attend college (National Center for Education Statistics, 1988). A recent survey conducted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs identified 6,816 school-aged students between 5-21 years as disabled (O'Connell, 1987). The most prevalent handicapping conditions included learning disability, speech impairment, and mental retardation. The other less visible types of disabilities found in Native American youth are those associated with psychosocial problems. For example, the suicide rate for Native American youth in some communities is 3 to 10 times the rates for the general population (O'Connell, 1987). Substance abuse, especially alcohol, is also 2 to 3 times the rate for non-Indian youth (O'Connell, 1987). For a variety of reasons, then, Native American youth are at greater risk for educational failure and, ultimately, economic disability.

During the past few years, the U.S. Congress has undertaken a number of legislative initiatives designed specifically to enhance the employment opportunity for persons with disabilities.

First, the 1986 re-authorization of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act (P.L. 99-506), provided specific mandates for the provision of supported employment and rehabilitation engineering services. Second, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (P.L. 101-336) in 1990 provides for specific safeguards and accommodations for persons with disabilities who are seeking entry to the world of work. Third, and perhaps most essential to this project, the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (IDEA) of 1990 provides specific mandates for transition planning and rehabilitation counseling services for students with disabilities. These initiatives, in combination with modifications in the Social Security Administration and other federal programs, have signaled a comprehensive and coordinate effort on the part of the federal government to enhance the employment opportunities for persons with disabilities. Unfortunately, these initiatives have not been fully implemented among Native American reservation communities.

One of the major reasons that transition has not yet been fully adopted among Native American communities may be that the concept is itself based upon the values of an urban, Anglo culture. For example, two of the dominant themes of transition, as defined in federal policy, are gainful, competitive employment and emancipation from the family home. These experiences, however, are not universally valued by Native Americans and, in particular, those Native Americans residing on reservations and maintaining traditional tribal customs. In these communities, the values of cooperation, interdependence and communal responsibility and action often conflict with the values of independence and competition that are often implied by transition services.

Furthermore, the isolated location of most reservations, the lack of post-secondary services and training opportunities, and the near absence of any economic base, significantly impede the opportunities for young adult Native Americans to become productive members of their tribal communities. Finally, the cultural connotations of disability and the resulting societal response to the individual with disability, varies significantly from Anglo culture and as such, impacts upon the opportunities for post-school adjustment. The present study was conducted as a pilot study to begin examination of the transition issues confronting reservation-based Native American youth. In this investigation, a five-year follow-up of school leavers from the Whiteriver community on the White Mountain Apache Reservation was conducted to assess the post-school adjustment of these young adults. In this regard, three primary research questions were addressed: First, what are the post-school educational and employment outcomes for young adult Native American school leavers? Second, how do these post-school outcomes differ among young adults with disabilities and their non-disabled counterparts? Third, what aspects of tribal life do these school leavers encounter, and does the presence of a disability significantly affect participation in the spiritual and cultural aspects of the tribe?



The sample for this study consisted of all regular and special education school leavers who had exited from Alchesay High School during the school years 1987-1991. Alchesay High School is located on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona. A total of 132 school leavers were identified, evenly distributed among special education and regular education leavers. A total of 66 special education school leavers were identified for the study period and a matched proportional sample of regular education leavers were selected. These students were matched to the special education students on the basis of year of exit and sex.

A total of 52 special education students and 54 regular education leavers were interviewed, representing response rates of 79% and 82%, respectively. Seven of the special education and five of the regular education leavers had moved off the reservation, while the remaining students (7 each from both samples) could not be located.

General Procedures

Face-to-face interviews were conducted with the school leavers and/or their families, using a prepared questionnaire consisting of 38 items. All interviews were conducted by one of three Whiteriver residents who were trained by the authors. The interviews lasted approximately one hour each and were modeled after the questionnaire developed by Hasazi, Gordon, Roe, Hull Finck, and Salembier (1985). Specifically, this questionnaire solicited information regarding students' post-school employment and residential experiences, community participation, satisfaction with their high school education, community resource utilization, and tribal participation.

Instrument Development

While replicating, in part, the questionnaire developed by Hasazi, et al., the questionnaire developed was modified to address issues of concern facing Native Americans, and in particular, White Mountain Apaches. Development of these additional survey items was achieved through a series of formal and informal interviews with White Mountain tribal members. These individuals were asked to provide information on the adolescent years of White Mountain Apaches, identifying common patterns of socializing as well as traditional ceremonies held to commemorate adolescence. Additionally, these individuals were asked to identify those characteristics of individuals residing on the reservation who were commonly considered to be well-adjusted and/or holding an esteemed position within the tribal community.

Interviewer Training

Three bilingual residents of the White Mountain community were trained to conduct face-to-face interviews with the students and/or family members. All three of these individuals were females and White Mountain Apaches. This training, covering two days, presented procedures on introducing the interviewers to the students, familiarization with the questionnaire and definition of terms, response-recording procedures, and information regarding reliability and confidentiality. The interviewers conducted three pilot interviews to field-test the questionnaire. Following the field test, the interviewers reviewed the interviewing process with the investigators and identified needed modifications to the instrument. The responses generated from these field tests were used in the final data analysis.

Interview Procedures

Face-to-face interviews were conducted with each of the subjects by one of the trained interviewers. Student-identifying information was obtained from the students' cumulative folders. Upon locating the students, the interviewers would seek their permission for participating in the survey by having the students sign an obtained consent form. If the students refused to participate (none did), the interviewers were instructed to destroy all identifying information associated with the student. Interviewers provided the students with the option of conducting the interviews in English or Apache; all of the interviews were conducted in English, although the interviewers reported frequent crossover to Apache to clarify a question or to provide follow-up to a response. Each interview lasted approximately 40-60 minutes and was conducted in, or near, the student's home.

Data Analysis

All of the data collected from the interviews were recorded on prepared survey response forms. No audiotapes of the interviews were made. The responses from the prepared survey response forms were coded and entered in a computer file established on the University of Arizona's mainframe computer system. Data retrieval and analysis were conducted using SPSSX software.


General Demographics

Table 1 presents a summary of the general demographics of the interviewed school leavers. As these data indicate, the students were evenly mixed with regard to gender and age, with ages ranging from 18 to 25. The majority of both samples of students were between the ages of 18 and 21. Table 1 also reveals significantly higher drop-out rates for the regular education school leavers (31%) as compared to the special education school leavers (17%).
Table 1
General Demographics of School Leavers

 Special Education Regular Education
 n % n %

Male 26 50 22 41
Female 26 50 32 59

Present Age
18 - 21 years 29 56 30 56
22 - 23 years 14 27 16 30
24 years plus 9 17 8 15

Method of Exit
 of completion 43 83 37 69
Dropped out 9 17 17 31

Primary Disability

Learning Disability 24 46
Emotionally Disturbed 13 25
Mental Retardation 9 17
Multiply Disabled 6 12

When questioned about their reasons for dropping out, both groups of students indicated the need for greater academic assistance, better teachers, and more friends as three factors which could have helped them stay in school. For the special education school leavers, primary disability information was obtained from the students' cumulative folders. As these data reveal, the majority of the students were identified as learning-disabled (46.15%), with smaller samples of students with diagnoses of mental retardation (17.31%), emotionally disturbed (25%), and multi-handicapped (11.54%).

Post-School Adjustment Indicators

Students were asked a variety of questions to assess their post-school adjustment, including employment, income, residential status, and future aspirations. These data are summarized in Table 2 and reveal an overall employment rate of 31%. Among the special education school leavers, the employment rate was 29%, compared to 33% for the regular education leavers. These data reflect the general high levels of unemployment which typifies life on the reservation.
Table 2
Post-School Adjustment Indicators

 Special Education Regular Education
 n % n %

Employment Status
Employed 15 29 18 33
Unemployed 37 71 36 67

Reasons for Umployment
No jobs available 16 30 17 32
Health problems 4 8 0 00
Do not want to work 5 10 5 9
Other 12 23 14 26

Job Development Source
Self/Family/Freinds 12 80 12 67
Teachers 2 13 4 22
Employment Agency 0 00 2 11
Other 1 7 0 00

Hours of Employment
Full-time 11 73 15 83
21 - 37 hours 1 7 2 11
Less than 21 3 20 1 6

Wage Rate
Below Minimum wage 6 40 1 6
Above Minimum wage 9 60 17 94


Employment Status
Employed 0.25

Reasons for Umployment
No jobs available 4.17
Health problems
Do not want to work

Job Development Source
Self/Family/Freinds 3.42
Employment Agency

Hours of Employment
Full-time 1.69
21 - 37 hours
Less than 21

Wage Rate
Below Minimum wage 5.81
Above Minimum wage


1. p [is less than] .05

Among those individuals not employed, the predominant reason cited was the lack of available employment opportunities. This finding applied equally to both samples of students. In fact, the only difference observed in unemployment among these students was a more frequent identification of health-related problems as a reason for being unemployed among the special education leavers (14% vs. 0% for regular education leavers). Approximately 13% of the combined samples reported that they did not wish to work, the majority of these respondents being women.

Among those individuals employed, significant differences were observed in wage rates and job development strategies. Special education school leavers more frequently reported below minimum wage rates and also reported greater assistance from the self/family/friend network in locating a job as compared to their regular education peers. Similarly, the regular education school leavers more frequently reported full-time employment (84% vs. 71%), while the special education students more frequently reported employment at less than 20 hours per week (22% vs. 5%). These regular education leavers also reported holding more jobs since leaving school (2.78 vs. 2.17) and more frequently being happy with their present jobs (68% vs. 56%). As to the type of employment, former special education students found work as domestics, laborers, and other low-skilled positions (68%), while the employed regular education leavers more frequently reported being employed in skilled positions (79%).

With regard to residential status' over 75% of all school leavers reported continued residence with their parents. However, 8% of the special education school leavers were residing in group homes. While the Apache culture accepts the extended family as culturally desirable, it is still a question of individual preference. While more of the special education school leavers reported a desire to stay at home (40%) compared to the regular education leavers (26%), these differences were not statistically significant. At least one-quarter of both groups of school leavers indicated that they were not interested in leaving their family home, attesting to the cultural acceptance for extended family homes. Among regular education leavers, however, financial reasons (30%) and the lack of available housing (27%) were the most frequently cited reasons for continuing to live at home. Among the special education leavers, these two reasons were also frequently cited (28% each) as well as parental refusal (26%).

While statistical differences were not observed in residential issues for these school leavers, a number of patterns may be observed. First, the special education leavers were less likely to want to move, or to have parents who would allow them to move. Second, the regular education leavers were more likely to move and more frequently to identify structural issues (lack of housing) rather than personal family reasons as factors for residing with parents.

Leavers were asked to identify what factors could make their life better in the future. As the data in Table 2 indicate, 29% felt that more education would improve their lives, while nearly 10% thought that moving off the reservation could lead to an improved quality of life. Approximately 20% of the students reported factors associated with addressing personal psychological difficulties and making better life choices. Statistically significant differences between the regular education and special education leavers were observed in these data as the special education leavers more frequently identified employment (41% vs. 28%), while regular education leavers more frequently identified post-secondary education (37% vs. 21%) as necessary to improve their quality of life.

Participation in Tribal Community Activities

A series of questions were posed to assess the students' participation in Apache tribal and cultural activities. These questions assessed use of the Apache language and participation in various community activities. Among these students, nearly two-thirds (64%) were found to use and speak Apache most of the time, although minor differences were noted between regular education (68%) and special education (60%) leavers. No differences were noted in students' reported participation in traditional pow-wows, as 57% of all of the students reported attending these events. While 38% of the students reported attending ceremonial dances and sings, sharp differences between the samples were observed, as 50% of the special education students reported attending these events while less than 27% of the regular education students reported such participation. Finally, minor differences were observed in reported participation in tribal elections, as 62% of the special education leavers reported voting in tribal elections compared to 46% of the regular education peers.

General Indicators of Social Adjustment

A final series of questions assessed the school leavers' general social adjustment, with regard to self-esteem, use of alcohol and drugs, criminal behavior, and involvement with law enforcement agencies. With regard to serf-esteem, 59% and 55% of the special education and regular education students, respectively, reported feeling good about themselves. Statistically significant differences were noted when the school leavers were asked to indicate if they had experienced any difficulties fitting into their communities. Seven percent of the regular education leavers reported such difficulties, compared to 28% of the special education leavers. The Apache school leavers reported community maladjustment largely in terms of difficulties in establishing and maintaining intimate relationships and feelings of deviancy without adequate or accessible sources of support.

Two-thirds of the school leavers reported substance abuse, either currently or in the past. Statistically significant differences were observed between the two samples of students (Chi square=4.65, 1, p [is less than] .05) as 78% of the regular education leavers reported substance abuse, compared to 58% of the special education leavers. These results attest to the severe problems encountered on Indian reservations regarding substance abuse, and in particular, alcoholism. This problem is further demonstrated by analyzing the arrest record of these individuals. Among special education leavers, 42% reported being arrested, compared to 46% of the regular education leavers. The predominant charge against these students had been driving while intoxicated, or other controlled substance charges. Ironically, less than one-third of the leavers possessed drivers' licenses, with statistically significant differences observed between the groups of students (Chi square=4.60, 1, [is less than] .05). While 42% of the regular education leavers possessed a driver's license, only 21 of their special education counterparts reported possession of a license.


The purpose of this study was to conduct a follow-up study of school leavers from a high school located on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. In general, the results of this study support findings of other follow-up studies of school leavers, with regard to post-school employment, general adjustment, and indicators of independent living. These data represent the only known assessment of the post-school adjustment of Native American youth, and as such provide a unique perspective into the issues confronting educators and adult agencies in providing effective transition programming for these youth.

Perhaps the most provocative finding of this study was a general lack of differentiation in post-school adjustment indicators between regular education and special education school leavers. Such a finding contrasts with the findings from other follow-up studies which have noted sharp differences between disabled and non-disabled young adults along most common indicators of post-school adjustment (Hasazi et al., 1985; Welunan, Kregel, & Seyfarth, 1985). The lack of such sharp differences in the present study underscores the severe difficulties confronting all Native American young adults and not simply those individuals identified as disabled. Within the reservation communities, poverty, unemployment, disenfranchisement, and lack of opportunity know no boundaries and do not discriminate on the basis of ability. As such, any effort to enhance the transition of young adult Native Americans with disabilities must be structured within a broader framework which addresses general issues of economic development, community development, and educational enhancement for all.

As an example of these elements, Johnson (1992) describes the efforts which were taken to provide a transition program for a young Athabaskan youth with developmental disabilities. Through collaborative planning with the tribal council and Alaska state agencies, a stock clerk job was secured at the village store, which was paired with participation in other traditional activities, including woodcutting/hauling, fishing, trapping, and hunting, to result in 55 hours per month of paid work for the individual. The critical element of this report was the close collaboration and mutual respect which occurred between the state vocational rehabilitation and developmental disabilities agencies and the Athabaskan culture and village council.

For the students participating in this study, and for many Native Americans residing on reservations, economic opportunity is often achieved by leaving the reservation, either permanently, or as a transitory process for completing post-secondary education or vocational training. For the students of Whiteriver, most employment opportunities are those available through a seasonal ski resort or logging. Unfortunately, few opportunities for these employment positions exist; for the majority of these young adults, economic opportunity must come at the cost of leaving the reservation. Such an option is difficult for some who may find themselves abandoning their hopes for economic self-sufficiency upon confrontation with a world for which they are not prepared. Interviews conducted with young adults from Whiteriver, who had left the reservation to secure a college education, revealed that upon their return to the reservation these young people were often faced with no employment opportunities or employment in positions for which they were over-qualified. For many other young adults, economic opportunities off the reservation are achieved in stages as these individuals find themselves moving between two worlds: unwilling to accept the impoverishment of one, unable to cope with the pressures of the other. With limited exposure to life off the reservation, and the nearly total lack of opportunity within the reservation, it is clear that these young adults must be better prepared for dealing with non-reservation life.

Similarly, it is clear that secondary programs must better prepare students to become effective and contributing members within their tribal communities. While many special education secondary programs have adopted the tenets of functionality, age-appropriateness, and community-referenced instruction (Snell, 1992), students are being provided with a curriculum that is referenced to communities that are dissimilar to their own. Teaching a student how to order at a McDonald's is less than, functional when the nearest McDonald's is 45 miles away! Students must be prepared with instruction which is referenced to their specific community and targets skills and activities that are immediately functional and valued within their tribal village or community. Such activities may include partial participation in the spiritual activities of the community, traditional crafts, or engagement in chores around the family compound (wood gathering/chopping, bread- making, herding, etc.).

Clearly, skills such as these do not lead directly to paid employment or further education; they do, however, promote interdependence (Condeluci, 1991) and, as a result, promote inclusion of the individual within the family/community system. As educators continue to grapple with the demands of transition planning and vocational rehabilitation we must continue to come to grips with the cultural adaptations needed to promote these initiatives among Native Americans. What is the goal of transition? Clearly, IDEA and its early proponents (Will, 1984; Wehman, Kregel & Barcus, 1985) have identified employment as the pre-eminent outcome of transition. For Native Americans, however, particularly those residing on reservations, such a goal may be elusive and, in many instances, culturally inappropriate. For these individuals, outcomes and strategies for facilitating transition to adulthood that promote self-esteem, community interdependence, and inclusion must be developed.


Arizona State Data Center (1990). (Summary Tape File 3) 1990 Census of Population and Housing. Phoenix: AZ Department of Economic Security.

Condeluci, A. (1991). Interdependence. The route to community. Paul M. Deutsche Press, Inc.

Hasazi, S.B., Gordon, L.R., Roe, C.A., Hull, M., Finck, K., & Salembier, G. (1985). A statewide follow-up on post high school employment and residential status of students labeled, "Mentally Retarded." Education and Training of the Mentally Retarded, 20, 222-234.

Johnson, D.L., (1992). Subsistence lifestyles and the Developmentally Disabled, Juneau: Alaska Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

National Center for Education Statistics (1988). Postsecondary enrollment, persistence, and attainment for 1972, 1980 and 1982 high school graduates. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement; Washington, DC.

O'Connell, J.C. (Ed.). (1987). A study of the social problems and needs of American Indians with handicaps both on and off the reservation. Vol. 1. Flagstaff: Northern Arizona University.

Snell, M.E. (1993). Instruction of students with severe disabilities. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

U.S. Bureau of Census. (1983). 1980 Census of the population: Characteristics of the population (Vol. 1 series PC80-1-C1) Washington, DC.

U.S. Department of Education. (1991). Washington, DC: (ERIC Number ED 339 587). Indian nations at risk: An educational strategy for action.

Wehman, P., Kregel, J., Seyfarth, J. (1985). Employment outlook for young adults with mental retardation. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin. 90-99.

Will, M. (1984a). OSERS programming for the transition of youth with disabilities: Bridges from school to working life. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services.

Received: August 1993 Revision: June 1994 Acceptance: July 1994
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Author:Rangasamy, Ramasamy
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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