By Joshua Fields
Far too often, students with disabilities leave high school only to find a world ripe with the unknown outside its walls. As we leave the public school system, we enter a new system with different definitions, terminology, and services to navigate. For many young adults and their families, however, this transition can be incredibly overwhelming, scary, and confusing.
The expectations and outcomes placed on students with disabilities are often vastly different than their peers. For students without disabilities, school systems tend to guide them towards specific paths: college, vocational school, military, or career employment. Yet, commonly, these same pathways are not considered to be expectations or outcomes of students with disabilities graduating from high school. More often than not, students with disabilities are leaving high school without a clear next step of what their lives might look like within reach. This has nothing to do with their ability or desire to find that next opportunity post-high school; rather, it has to do with the limitations currently placed on the disability community by society.
For instance, even with access to funding for services, many students with disabilities still cannot find opportunities for community integration and employment. All people — regardless of ability — will rise to the occasion, so long as they are given an opportunity to do so. Transitioning out of high school should not be as complex as it is. There is so much we can do to support students with disabilities during and after their transition out of high school.
The greater community’s support is essential for true, long-lasting, and meaningful change to occur. We need to recognize the importance of inclusive employment, inclusive education, and inclusive community living to aid families as they enter a whole new world. The reality of our world is that disability does not just impact one person or one community. Factors such as race, gender, religion, and sexuality do not discriminate against disability. By understanding this, we realize that the barriers faced by people with disabilities are ones constructed arbitrarily by humans. These barriers, if solved, would provide accommodations that benefit all employees—not just employees with disabilities. Oftentimes, entry-level positions for people with disabilities are not accessible due to job description language, travel, schedule restrictions, and other accessibility factors. In a workforce that continues to change and challenge traditional work styles, this creates ample opportunities for employers to provide flexibility and customization that works not only for employees with disabilities but for all other employees.
Institutions of higher education and learning can continue leading the way in developing options and pathways towards continued learning for the disability community. As a graduate of PennState University, and an early supporter and student leader of the PennState WorkLink program, I have seen firsthand the positive impact college programs for students with disabilities have on these students as well as their peers without disabilities. Participating in WorkLink and many other programs like this across the country can help teach students without disabilities the true meaning of inclusion and accommodations. It helps make college campuses more reflective of the communities their students will end up living in.
Even if you are not an employer or leader at a higher education institution, there are still ways to make a difference for students with disabilities in the complex process of transitioning from high school. While employment and education are incredibly important to have access to, access to your community is arguably just as important. Community groups, sports programs, and the accessibility to commerce are just a few ways you can support students with disabilities as they transition out of high school. Think inwardly about your daily recreational activities, and consider ways to improve recruitment efforts to those from the disability community. Make that Pickleball tournament inclusive. Ensure your favorite store has ramp accessibility. After all, it’s the little things we do each day that tend to make the biggest, most meaningful difference for others.
Additionally, employers and institutions for learning will have to follow suit by continuing to place greater value on dignity, respect, and diversity. Organizations are only as successful as the people that support them. The more our communities push the places we support to include people with disabilities, and the more we push towards universal accessibility, the closer we get to achieving equity for all.
Now, I want you to think back to your days leaving high school. Whether it was decades ago or more recent, we can remember the excitement and hope that came with that day. We were off to take the next steps of our lives; our next chapter as adults in society. Now, I want you to imagine not merely lacking a pathway forward, but being barred from walking down each one you might find due to nothing more than your disability. Imagine how it might feel not being encouraged to dream or reach for those possibilities. This is the reality many students with disabilities face when they leave high school, and it’s time for us to do more. Let’s get started.
Joshua Fields is the cofounder and CEO of The Next Step Programs and is a veteran of the disability rights movement.