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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
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What Disabled Students Face in

Post-Secondary Education

 Copyright 2001 Roger N. Meyer



[A number of parents have assumptions about post-secondary education experiences for their students still on an IDEA IEP.  Others expect the same accommodations to be made for their disabled adult children once their child ages out of the special education process.  While many school districts arrange for students in special education to attend community colleges as a part of their educational plan, there are limits to the kinds of accommodations that can be arranged in the adult education setting.  This essay is extracted from a two-part post to an on-line discussion list.]


      Let me join this discussion about post-secondary education.


     This post will be in two parts.


     The first part will discuss some of the practical issues facing parents and students choosing a post-secondary education path.  For the most part, this discussion assumes that a community college or a junior college or similar institution is being considered.


     The second part will discuss some of the broad legal and historical reasons that disabled students have found post-secondary education tough sledding, and the importance of planning and helping the disabled student become an effective self-advocate.


 Part I - Nuts and Bolts


 The "Accommodation "Thing



     There is no such thing as "special education" in post K-12.  Once your child has aged out of the IDEA-covered system because he's gotten a regular diploma, that's it as far as the formal protections of IDEA.  Please understand that IDEA does NOT cover education beyond the normal 12th grade unless there is a transition IEP in place and the student is attending advanced courses outside of a school district setting.  Once out of that system, you are sailing in Section 504, ADA and state anti discrimination law territory exclusively.


     If a student is attending community college courses while still on an IDEA Transition Plan or a Section 504 plan, the K-12 school district often cannot dictate the terms of instruction or conditions of the student's education in that setting, but it can help the student negotiate individual arrangements with individual teachers.  What those instructors agree to is strictly up to them, outside of what is offered to other disabled adult students by the college.  The school district may make related services available to the student in that setting, but not to the same extent as was possible in the K-12 setting.


     It is safe to say that individual aides are "generally" out of the picture except if there is a traditional visible disability or a traditional "accessibility" issue.  There are exceptions of course, but generally, the one-on-one help the student has received up to that point stops.  It is possible for students to be assigned what amount to "behavioral aides."  These are similar to instructional aides provided in K-12, but here their role is in helping the adult education instructor manage the challenges of a student who may be distractive or disruptive.  The aide is not there as an educational assistant to the instructor.  The instructor in such circumstances is free to refuse to have such an "aide" in the classroom, although many do allow them once they understand the need for such a person.  It isn't uncommon that the student's parent or someone well known to them is allowed to take on that role.  Some parents, knowing the organizational challenges their adult children face, realize that their presence, if allowed by the teacher, is critical to their child's survival in an adult education setting.  Just how long the parent remains in this role is a matter worthy of serious soul-searching, and should be reviewed on a regular basis.


     Ordinarily, talented and gifted students, or students who have gotten their GED's and are still a part of the K-12 system take courses at community colleges and some four year colleges as "enrichment" or to satisfy an academic requirement as high achievers.  They rarely take such courses because, as disabled students, the K-12 system is unable to provide FAPE for them.  In fact, by subsidizing their education at an adult education institution, the special education system is providing FAPE.


     Where "related services" are provided, they are often done so at the community college through a cooperative arrangement with a local educational service district servicing many feeder school districts to that college.  Often, the "course work" available under those arrangements consists of life skills and some pretty low-level adult functioning skills preparation.  These are "skills" that the high school experience should have provided but didn't.  It's safe to say that some of these experiences are NOT academic, but exercises in "advanced warehousemanship."  Some of the courses do teach lower functioning K-12 transition students some survival skills, but by themselves aren't enough to prepare these students for independent adult life.


     By the time the student is involved in this "course work," there is an expectation that the family will be heavily involved in supporting whatever training is conducted at the community college.  It is safe to say that these programs offer widely different levels of real preparation for adult life.  Parents looking at their student's enrollment in them should bear that in mind.  In large metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles, the differences between community colleges are astounding.  So, investigate ALL the post-secondary institutions in your area, not just the one closest to where you live or the one in which the school district makes its usual placements.   Remember, for all practical purposes, once the student is physically off school district owned property, the school district has essentially washed its hands over detailed responsibility for what goes on at the community college.


     This may be unpleasant news for parents who expect the school district to continue to "care for" their child.  Even were life-skills classes and aides and other individual accommodations not provided for regular special education or talented and gifted special education students, there are other factors in operation at community colleges that don't exist in the K-12 system.  That being said, the special skills community college learning specialists and disabled student counselors have that motivate or turn around student expectations of failure and feelings of incompetence are every bit as mature--perhaps more so--than the training of special educators in K-12.  They know what adult failure means.  They see it every day, and their perspective is broader than many educators in the K-12 system for whom life beyond the K-12 system is a true mystery.


Differences between the K-12 system and the community college system are vast


     As students and their parents consider the choice of a post-secondary educational institution, it is important that they look not only at the number of resources available, but their quality and their stability.  Even with all factors being equal, there are systemic differences that should be understood while making the choice.


     For one thing, the student population is much different than that of the high school.  Junior colleges have many students in the general student body in need of remedial or basic level education before they even qualify for entry-level courses.  There is a higher percentage of such "make up" students in these settings...students who aren't disabled. For whatever reason, they simply aren't prepared for the rigor of the course work at the college.  The average student age is often much older than a regular four year college, although some community colleges are virtual transitional "feeder colleges" and may have a predominance of recently graduated high school students enrolled.  Add disabled students to that mix, who in addition to being poorly prepared due to the academic deficiency of the special education experience may not have the social skills and strong self-esteem essential to succeeding in junior college and you have the volatile mix of general, non-disabled student lack of skills, and disabled student lack of preparation caused by institutional indifference to academic excellence in the K-12 system.  This fact partially accounts for the high drop out rate of disabled students from the community college system.  They are in environments with poorly prepared peers.  These peers may be highly motivated but poorly prepared nonetheless, and thus may be positive role models unless the disabled student actively seeks out positive role models, buddies, or a mentor who can make the difference between staying in and dropping out.


     Another factor contributing to the high drop out rate of disabled students in community colleges is that there is a very high burnout rate among tutors and instructors teaching remedial level, adult basic level education (ABLE) in junior colleges.  When a student "loses" a tutor or remedial instructor during the course of a year, this can be traumatic.  For some students for whom change is difficult, this turnover can mean the difference between staying in and dropping out.


     Change is also a feature within the counseling offices for disabled students.  Some disabled student counselors may be graduate students under supervision and training by a smaller number of permanent counselors.  As they complete their practicum or internships, they move on.  Other disabled students offices have permanent, well-trained staff.  Even if the counselors stay, it isn't uncommon for students to be turned over to several counselors throughout their stay in the college.  If the community college system has several campuses, it isn't unusual for counselors to share duties at more than one campus.  They may not be available at a time a disabled student has an urgent need to talk with them.  With more positions in the system, there are increased opportunities for counselors to specialize or move into other related work at the college.


     Another factor at work in advanced education is something the student and parents have experienced already:  the tendency of some professionals to work just with the "easy" cases.  Some professionals can and do cherry pick to get their caseloads to include only the more promising students.  It's human nature to do so.  A well managed disabled student's office or counseling/tutoring office has practices in place to thwart this practice.  Department heads will periodically review the caseloads of their staff, and if the practice of cherry picking is noticeable, there may be reassignment of some students as a result of evening out the workload among all of the counselors and specialists.  This fact gives rise to the appearance of "churning" and may be upsetting to students who need stability in their lives, if only in the one place on campus that they go for counseling assistance.


     The same practice of cherry picking can take place in the classroom.  Some teachers are known as tough teachers, and students who "know this through the grapevine" may either gravitate to them or avoid them.  Some disabled students are unaware of this informal information network about instructor until it is too late:  they have already enrolled in an "impossible" teacher's class.  If there is real discrimination or cherry picking going on, it is often more difficult to stop.  Instructors can find ways of ignoring students with special challenges that just skirt the definition of discrimination and disparate treatment.  Sometimes, however, their response is understandable.  If the student hasn't informed them of his or her special needs--and the student must do this--the instructor may not understand what might make the educational experience a successful one for a challenged student and adjust their teaching accordingly.


     If the college is overcrowded, understaffed and has poor resources, there is a natural "order of selection" that takes place.  Students who "know the ropes" survive.  Others may not.  If a student has particularly complex needs or challenging behaviors, there is a chance that a harried, overworked staff person or instructor may simply be unable (or unwilling) to take extra steps to assure educational success.  Unless the school has an aggressive, receptive disabled students office, it may be a wise decision to avoid enrolling in such an institution.  Even with a proactive disabled student staff, instructional staff still may resist requested accommodations with great tenacity.  A protracted battle to "win" against heavy odds may not be worth it.  However, that being said, young adults with disabilities willing to test the system can also learn how to advocate for themselves successfully if provided strong support to do so.


 Part II

Law, Policy, a Little Bit of History, Planning, and Self-Advocacy


The law


      Disabled students considering post-secondary education should keep two things in mind. First, the student must be "otherwise qualified" to take any course he/she signs up for.  Second, the student and must disclose his/her disability prior to asking for accommodations.  What colleges require for documentation of the disability is related to, but different than that covered under IDEA/504 K-12.  Colleges may ask for more information relating to the student's disability than employers, where there has been disclosure of the disability.  Because there is a federal funding stream connection to community colleges, their obligations are both more carefully outlined and stringently monitored than the average private (or state) employer.  Colleges are not permitted to discriminate against the admission of disabled persons, but that what happens when a student enrolls is another matter.  To put it bluntly, there is "no free ride" from K-12 forward.  Although a disabled student can seek reasonable accommodations, there is no requirement that the system must alter itself to meet all of the student's needs.  With the current state of Supreme Court and US Circuit Court of Appeals law, what educational institutions are obligated to do in accommodating disabled students is undergoing a severe test.  Previous assumptions no longer apply.


Rights of the Parent/Rights of the Student


      Another thing parents must understand is that they cannot act as their child's "educational representative" in any post K-12 educational experience unless the institution is such that it makes express provision for parents' running interference for their child.  Very few schools do that, and the ones that do are "special schools."  Such schools are not considered "mainstream" post-secondary institutions.  Transfer out of them into regular mainstream post secondary institutions isn't a problem, but the students transferring from such schools get no special consideration in admissions unless (1) they ask for it, expressly, in writing and (2) are otherwise qualified for admission and for the classes they wish to take.


     If the student is of legal majority age, the school's primary relationship and obligation is to the student, not the parents.


     Post secondary schools take a very dim view of parents running interference for their children.  The entire operating assumption is that if the student is "old enough" to attend, they are adult enough to take care of their own affairs.  It is inappropriate for parents to think they have any kind of a "special relationship" with any of their child's teachers as a matter of right.  They don't.  While an instructor may be encouraged, even "notified" by the disabled student's office of the college to attend to a parent or guardian's input, the instructor, not the parent, not the student, and not, often, the department head, is in charge of that class when it comes to this matter.  The sooner parents "get this," the better for everyone.  A disabled student may regret the fact that parents aren't "at his elbow" in the short run.  He will be grateful, in the long run, that they weren't.  Disabled young adults are no different than many other young adults.  They want independence, although how they show their need varies.  Having a doting, protective parent around long after society expects it is very hard of everyone, most especially the young adult. For parents and for the student who knows that he isn't quite ready for the complete independence journey demanded by institutions of higher learning, this is "delicate balance" territory.


     The kinds of disability accommodations available to students in college can't really be discussed here.  That is a completely individual matter best left for negotiation between the student--not the parent--and the disabled student office counselor, and individual class instructor.  Individuals wishing to know what kinds of accommodations are possible must determine this for themselves.  The colleges will make some information available as a matter of course, but they are not obligated to "tailor" accommodations in the same way the student and parent are used to seeing them made in high school.  This isn't to say that alternative assignments, different submission dates for papers and test dates, and certain well-worn accommodations such as extended testing time, testing in a different location, note takers, readers, accessibility provisions, allowance for working and companion animals, and certain allowances for assistive technology are out of the picture.  They are in the picture.  Some accommodations are, by their nature, class or subject-specific.  An example of a "no brainer" accommodation is where a student needs large type materials or a note taker.  Cognitive disabilities present an entirely different picture, however.  As an example:  If the student has trouble with basic math, and the course work requires basic math competency as a prerequisite, forget accommodation.  The student isn't "otherwise qualified" to take the course.  No amount of foot stamping and red faces is going to make it otherwise.  Basic physical accessibility issues have been substantially settled.  So have many areas of obvious, visually affirmed disability.  However, it is safe to say that academic issues involving claims of discrimination and disparate treatment have not been settled.


 The Historical Role of  Institutions of Higher Learning


      While some instructors and disabled students offices "are getting it" more, most are not, and if the student had trouble in K-12 because of institutional inertia and pig-headedness, please remember that higher education is the last vestige of a full-blown medieval institution still plunked down "whole" in this 21st century.  If you want to talk about institutionalized resistance to change, you are talking higher education big time.  If you want to discuss institutionalized arrogance (and yes, ignorance parading under the gown of a PhD is still arrogance) you are also talking about higher education.  Colleges are assigned by our culture to be "gate keeping institutions."  They do their job well.


     There's one last difference about prospects for success in the face of adverse conditions, and it's important for parents to keep that in mind.  Nearly all of the disabled higher education struggles won have been settled long after that particular student has aged out or graduated from that college or university. With very few exceptions, changes have come about only as a result of significant, expensive state and federal court action, which takes time and money.  If you are thinking of running your adult child through that kind of a mill just to make a point or a test case, fine.  But be up front about it, and have a back-up Plan B and C, so that he can get his education while you play with the lawyers and he gets on with his life.  Nothing in real life stops just because a student threatens a compliance action with an ADA or 504 complaints or legal action.  If you've been following the spate of ADA and 504 cases involving not just employment but other rights recently (with the exception of Olmstead) decided at intermediate court levels, the record is NOT good with the federal OR the state judiciary in this country.



Planning for the Future and Self-advocacy as a Teachable Topic



     The time to start post-secondary education planning for the disabled student is set by IDEA for the schools at age 14.  Don't believe for a minute that the school folks have any idea of what transition planning is all about.  For the most part, they don't, and haven't ever since transition was included in the law.  Without exception, every OSEP state monitoring report since the mid 1980s has faulted the states and their LEA's for deficiencies in this area.  There's no reason to believe that things are going to change soon.  As a matter of reality, schools are currently tied up with high stakes testing and as a result, have radically changed their curricula to teach to the test, and have begun to sleight subject areas of true, relevant knowledge for adult life.  Even had this recent change not come about, the planning role of the parent and others not involved in the education system is even more critical now than it was in the past.  Even had high stakes testing not come along as a major impediment to improvement in education, the nature of employment has changed so swiftly that planning for the future can't just involve planning for a given job or employment outcome.  So, just as with "doing" the IEP by themselves, and educating the educators, as parents still have the task of doing the transition piece virtually alone.  In addition to every other daily task parents of disabled students undertake, planning for the post-secondary experience, whether work or school or the unknown, should take place just about the time the child starts to walk.  Futures planning for disabled children adults isn't anything that takes well to last minute fixes.  While some disabled students do remarkably well despite everything stacked against them in K-12, this is often not the case with post-secondary schooling.


     Transition studies and research on disabled students in college indicate that disabled kids are at an enormous disadvantage due to the K-12 system's failure to prepare most of them for adult life, let alone advanced education.  What makes the difference is the student's attitude towards the likelihood of their succeeding in college.  A number of recent studies have shown that students with learning disabilities (of all kinds) only succeed through the college experience when the "know" they will make it.  Nothing other than a positive attitude "trumps" every other supposed indicator of potential future success.  Not money.  Not economic class.  Not the quality of their pre-college experience.  Not whether they work or not while in school.  Not whether they live at home or in other arrangements.


     Generally speaking, disabled students on any kind of categorical entitlement assistance do poorer than those without access to the adult community services system.  This may be useful information for those parents looking at SSI or SSDI survivor's benefits as a likely source of support for their child.  Despite the passage of laws with "new policies," low expectation and dependency-fostering institutional attitudes of the entitlement system (including, by the way, vocational rehabilitation) actually work against adult self-determination and true independence.  Generally speaking, disabled students on scholarship do better than those without, and it is unimportant whether the financial aide is related to aptitude, achievement, or other considerations.  One important finding indicated that guaranteed money for education from whatever source (not necessarily parents) provides the student with the confidence that if family financial support is withdrawn, he or she can "still make it."  Disabled students' knowledge and use of the vast network of grants, scholarships, and stipends can spell the difference between finishing school and dropping out.


     In the end, what does make the difference in successful transition to post-secondary schooling and beyond is a positive student attitude towards learning, parents willing to accept their roles as case managers and equally willing to then "fade" from the scene, and development of a strong sense of self-identity and self-advocacy in the child as he or she approaches young adulthood.

Copy Right Issues

    This article is copyright, all rights reserved by the author, Roger N. Meyer.  It may be reproduced in single copy once for personal use, and in no more than ten copies total for educational purposes.  Fair Use is authorized for all purposes and under conditions established by US Statute and the International Copyright Convention, to which the United States is a signatory nation.  No person shall publish, distribute, copy, or by other means make this material available to others for purposes of personal gain or professional self-aggrandizement.  Individuals wishing permission to exercise other than fair use or limited distribution as outlined above must contact the author, in writing, and receive explicit written permission from the author prior to engaging in further use of this material.

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