Home » University of Kansas » Quality Lives of Youth with Intellectual Disability: Reforming Transition to Integrated Employment

Quality Lives of Youth with Intellectual Disability: Reforming Transition to Integrated Employment

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Sorcha Hyland
Lara Mann
Deb Griswold
Elizabeth Kozleski

Dr. Mary Morningstar

The purpose of transition services is to support students with disabilities as they exit high school special education programs and move into the next stage of their lives, including to postsecondary employment or educational settings. Transition is both a federal mandate as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as well as an organizational framework for providing high quality planning and services to meet individual student outcomes. For almost 30 years, it has been seen as a bridge between the security of school, and the risks and opportunities of an adult life (Will, 1984). Youth with intellectual disability often have complex support needs, especially when it comes to finding and sustaining integrated employment. Unfortunately, when compared with other students with disabilities, youth with intellectual disability, continue to experience among the least successful adult outcomes (Sanford et al., 2011). Given the prevalence of segregated employment for this group of youth, combined with false assumptions about capabilities and strengths, many youth with intellectual disability find that innovations in the field are beyond their reach, including the transition services and supports necessary to support them in moving from school to a quality adult life inclusive of working in integrated community settings (Braddock et al., 2013; Certo et al., 2006).

The recent settlement of a class action lawsuit disbanding sheltered workshops as the primary option for adults and youth with intellectual disability is the culmination of many years of extended work and effort among a wide range of advocates, including the lead attorneys, self-advocates, community members, schools and families. It is important to consider how such compelling legal decisions shake loose tightly held beliefs of limited expectations. The experience of serving as advisor and litigation expert for the plaintiffs in one recent case has confirmed the importance of confronting injustices from multiple leverage points. We are at a point in time where the constellation of emerging research, effective practices, federal legislative actions and strong legal advocacy is producing strong impetus for change, probably more than I’ve seen in the past two decades of work.

Research and innovation certainly lead to new practices; yet may require an extended arc of time to see such changes implemented within schools. Certainly the same is true of the past decades of focus on transition-related teacher preparation efforts as well as 25 years of federal transition statutes. Don’t get me wrong; class action lawsuits take several years to litigate; yet the immediacy of the impact can be unprecedented. In this case, essentially the front doors of sheltered workshops are now permanently closed in Oregon. No longer will any youth exiting high school or transition services be funneled into segregated employment. Youth with disabilities most vulnerable to meaningless and low paying jobs must now be prepared to make a seamless transition to integrated employment – meaning real work for real wages.

This decision fundamentally alters the provision of transition planning and services, because schools cannot continue to maintain the status quo perpetuating low expectations for sheltered employment. Restricting entrance to sheltered workshops halts youth from entering the pipeline of special education resulting in low paying, and often lifetime segregation. Like closing the front door of large, residential institutions, it is the only practical strategy to reduce segregation over time. It does not deprive youth and their families of the freedom to choose employment services – only from being relegated to segregated ones.

Nationally, several states have established policies affirming that sheltered work is no longer a reasonable or valued option for young adults with intellectual disability. When such bold alterations in services take place, a domino effect occurs, whereby transition expectations and preparation also must change. Schools can and should presume competence and high expectations, and then ensure that youth with intellectual disability are prepared to achieve integrated employment outcomes, including customized and supported employment. This shift in perspective ensures that evidence-based programs and practices known to lead to employment success will be incorporated when previously, not considered. For example, research is clear that utilizing personalized and person-centered approaches such as Discovery (Condon, 2012) targeting the interests and preferences of youth and families is more likely to lead to integrated employment. Models of successful approaches to career development and work experiences specifically for youth with intellectual disability have emerged over the past two decades such as, the systematic provision of work-based learning experiences such as Project SEARCH (Rutkowski, Daston, Van Kuiken, & Riehle, 2006; Wehman, et al., 2014). The importance of intensive paid internships (Carter et al., 2010) and seamless transition models that incorporate high levels of interagency collaboration are emerging as strong predictors of success (Certo & Luecking, 2010; Luecking, Cuozzo, Leedy, & Seleznow, 2008). Schools in collaboration with community agencies must now unilaterally implement such effective models.

More and more doors are opening with passage of federal policies and requirements such as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA, July, 2014). Federal focus is now targeting youth with disabilities and the effective preparation for competitive, integrated employment. For the first time, Rehabilitation services will be offering pre-employment transition services (PETS) that expands employment services to youth with disabilities as young as 14 years old, even if students have not yet applied for VR services. Services include effective and evidence-based practices (i.e., job exploration, work-based learning, counseling, workplace readiness training and self-advocacy) as well as strong expectations for supported employment, among other requirements. While transition planning has always been done best with strong interagency collaboration, the federal initiatives such as WIOA substantially strengthen the foundation and operation of IDEA. Other exciting efforts, such as the transition to postsecondary education programs for students with intellectual disability (TPSID, supported by the Higher Education Act) offer further opportunities to established collaborative and innovative methods for improving quality adult outcomes. The next five years at KU, with support for a new postsecondary education program on campus will pave the way for Kansas youth with intellectual disability to experience inclusive college experiences leading to integrated employment and full community participation.

Indicators of transition and career development for youth with intellectual disability are now well established and multi-dimensional. Models of effective programs leading to postschool employment have been established through research and development. Essential pillars of transition success require a student-driven and self determined approach to career assessment and job development; and access to work-based learning and paid integrated employment. It is only through such directed and explicit experiences will youth with intellectual disability and their families be ready and able to achieve their dreams. It is an exciting time to be engaged with adolescents and youth with intellectual disability!


Luecking, R. G., Cuozzo, L., Leedy, M. J., & Seleznow, E. (2008). Universal one-stop access: Pipedream or possibility? Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 28(3), 181-189.

Sanford, C., Newman, L., Wagner, M., Cameto, R., Knokey, A. M., & Shaver, D. (2011). The Post-High School Outcomes of Young Adults with Disabilities up to 6 Years after High School: Key Findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). NCSER 2011-3004. National Center for Special Education Research.

Wehman, P., Schall, C., Carr, S., Targett, P., West, M., & Cifu, G. (2014). Transition from school to adulthood for youth with autism spectrum disorder: What we know and what we need to know. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 1044207313518071.

Will, M. (1984). Bridges from school to working life. Interchange, 20(5), 2-6.

Condon, 2012. Create a Model Transition Program surrounding the concept of customized employment. Retrieved from http://www.imdetermined.org/files_resources/408/self_determination_and_the_discovery_process.pdf

WIOA Overview, 2014. President Barack Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) into law on July 22, 2014. Retrieved from https://www.doleta.gov/wioa/Overview.cfm


Dr. Mary E. Morningstar is an associate professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas and Director of the Transition Coalition, which offers online transition professional development and resources for secondary special educators and practitioners. Her research agenda includes evaluating secondary teacher quality and professional development, culturally diverse family involvement in transition planning, and interagency collaboration. She is also examining the impact of inclusive secondary experiences for students with significant disabilities on postschool outcomes. Currently, she is developing a multi-dimensional model of adult life engagement for transition.

Dr. Morningstar coordinates an online masters program, focusing on preparing secondary educators across the country to provide transition education and services to youth with disabilities. She has designed and teaches several of the online classes and is currently coordinating the online masters in transition program. She also coordinates the teacher education program for teachers of students with significant disabilities, and in this role, is working with colleagues to transform special education endorsement coursework to support inclusive practices in schools and the community.

Dr. Morningstar has been involved in training, professional development and research regarding transition from school to adult life for over 25 years. Prior to moving to Kansas, she worked as a teacher for students with significant intellectual disabilities. Mary has been an active advocate for all persons with disabilities based on her experiences as a sibling of a brother with disabilities.

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