Beyond Special ED — Disability Legal Rights Center

Circa 2007

Attorney, Teacher, Police officer, Electrician—For too long these dream careers of students with disabilities had remained just a dream. But recently, five teenagers from California stepped forward to file a lawsuit on behalf of over 100,000 students with disabilities, to help them fulfill their vocational goals.

For more than 30 years, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has required public schools to provide special-education services for students, as needed, to help them benefit from public education. These include one-to-one instruction, small-classroom settings, speech therapy or adapted physical education.

However, one IDEA requirement that is frequently overlooked by parents, school administrators and even education advocates, are “transition services” to help students with disabilities create a bridge from the schoolyard to the workplace and on to other aspects of adult life. These services are to begin by the time a child is 16, and are to be individually tailored.

Traditionally, society has had low expectations for students with disabilities. This has led some schools, parents and policymakers to assume that these children’s adult lives will entail staying home, collecting government benefits or going into institutional settings. These reduced expectations have been largely self-fulfilling: If you don’t prepare a student for employment and independence, she probably won’t get there.

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As a result, the employment levels of people with disabilities are far below the rest of the population. Only about 35 percent of working-age people with disabilities are employed, compared to more than about 75 percent of those without disabilities, according to a 2004 NOD/Harris Survey. Further, the poll showed that people with disabilities are nearly three times as likely to be poor as people without disabilities.

Transition services have the power to brighten what otherwise might have been a bleak future. Some families already think ahead to the day when a loved one will graduate from high school. They seek answers to such questions as Where will my child go to college? Where will she live? But in addition to the plans made at home, federal and state laws also have an obligation to help students with disabilities prepare for success.

These services should be flexible and individual, and may include college and vocational counseling, Advanced Placement classes, independent-living skills, as well as internships or job-placement training. All of these services must focus on the particular strengths of the student: What are her interests, skills and abilities? What are his goals? What services will lead to economic and social independence?

The school must support the student by bringing the right team to the table, such as representatives from the Regional Center, Department of Rehabilitation, Independent Living Centers and college and university programs. Organizations that provide job preparation or assistive-technology instruction should also be onboard.

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In December 2005, when attorneys at the Disability Rights Legal Center (DRLC) noticed that several of their teenaged clients did not have transition services in place, they organized a parent meeting. That’s when they discovered the problem was more wide-ranging than they’d initially thought. Worse, the California Department of Education was not providing oversight to ensure that school districts were complying with the law. So in December 2006, the DRLC, Legal Aid Society of San Francisco, Learning Rights Law Center and Latham & Watkins, LLP steped up t to file the lawsuit B.L. v. California Department of Education (CV 06-07630).

The goal is to improve school-to-adult transition services for students with disabilities. Time really is of the essence since, as success demands both planning and hard work. These students are willing to do the work, now schools must develop the plan.

by Maronel Barajas, Paula Pearlman and Eve Hill,

Disability Rights Legal Center

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