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Is there life after high school? A primer for teens with learning disorders

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By Linda Broatch, M.A.

Whether your child is in a public or private school, and whether or not your child receives special education services or accommodations under federal law, the quality of transition services varies widely from school to school, affecting how well the school:

  • Assesses your child's career aptitudes and interests
  • Identifies your child's transition needs in areas of higher education, vocational training programs, or employment, as well as daily living skills
  • Helps your child develop transition goals, plans, and skills 

In a 1996 article on transition planning, Dr. Dunn3 reported that models for transition planning for students with LD have lagged behind those for kids with other types of disabilities. Until the early to mid-1990's transition planning was provided principally for students with severe physical, emotional, and cognitive disabilities.  Learning disabilities were regarded as "mild" disabilities that didn't require a young person to have transition support.  Extending transition services to kids with learning disabilities over the past 10 to 12 years has required schools to adopt new approaches, and has increased the demands on staff and resources.  For all of these reasons, you will probably want to play an active role in overseeing your child's transition process.

Legal rights in high school and beyond

If your child is eligible for special education services at a public school under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), the law requires that when he turns 14, his annual IEP meeting will include a discussion about transition service needs. A statement of those needs, based upon his transition assessment and future goals, must then be written into his IEP. By the time the student turns 16, IDEA mandates that the annual IEP meeting focus on more specific planning for the necessary transition services. Factors to be included are: academic preparation, community experience, development of vocational and independent living objectives, and, if applicable, a functional vocational evaluation.

The agreed upon plans must then be documented in the student's IEP. If the IEP team hasn't begun to focus on transition planning, it is important for you, as the parent, to initiate that process. If your child has a 504 Plan, he is entitled to accommodations such as preferential seating and extra time on tests, in order to access to the general education curriculum. However, there are no explicit provisions under Section 504 for transition services. 

Legal protections change drastically after your child graduates from high school. IDEA does not apply to higher education, and there is nothing equivalent to an IEP in college. Two important pieces of federal legislation, Section 504 (of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) protect the education and employment rights of people with disabilities, including those with "specific learning disabilities." In order to qualify for protections under either Section 504 or ADA, the disability must "substantially limit" performance in a "major life activity." In general, these relevant laws, which are anti-discrimination laws, provide equal access to education or employment.

Section 504 made it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in activities funded by federal subsidies or grants, which includes all public elementary and secondary schools, as well as nearly every post-secondary institution in the country. 

The second piece of relevant federal legislation is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ( ADA). Provisions of this law include extending the concepts of Section 504 to all activities of state and local governments, including education and employment. Under Section 504, students must meet the essential qualifications for admission to post-secondary education programs and compete for openings with non-disabled students. However, many schools have adopted special admission policies in regard to otherwise qualified students with disabilities, including those with learning disabilities. (Note: Although AD/HD is not mentioned in the federal laws, there is some legal precedent for affording people with AD/HD protection under both Section 504 and ADA [Latham,19974].)

Linda Broatch has worked for many years in nonprofit organizations that serve the health and education needs of children. She has an M.A. in education, with a focus in child development.

Comments from readers

"What would be the best state to live in for special needs teenage children with learning disabilities that will need future services after house school?"