Joyanne V. M. Cobb, MA, CRC, CRP
Transition is the passage from one stage of development to another.
For young adults who have learning disabilities, this transition
stage is critical to the rest of their lives. In this context,
transition refers to the passage of the learning disabled youth
from high school into the adult world of work. The path to work
will take many turns and on the way the learning disabled person
must be prepared for the bumps in the road and the success that
may lie ahead.
As a learning disabled adult who now works with this population,
I know the critical points that should be addressed as a person
prepares for this transition from school to work or to post-secondary
When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) legislation
(PL 101-476) was passed in 1990, the law required that all students
who receive services under IDEA must have transition planning
beginning at the age of fourteen. The transition plan is part
of the Individualized Education Plan (IEP). In a 1998 LDA Newsbrief,
Judith Heumann, then US Department of Education Assistant Secretary,
stated that the law defines transition services for a student
with a disability as a coordinated set of activities in an outcome-oriented
process that promotes movement from school to post-school activities.
Through the IEP process, students, along with other members of
their IEP team, plan their high school experiences to help them
attain the skills they need to succeed in high school and to achieve
post-secondary goals.1 But so many issues never
get addressed in these plans and these issues sometimes are the
barriers preventing this population from moving forward and achieving
advancement in their chosen careers.
These young people are especially vulnerable and need to be guided
carefully through the maze of choices open to them outside of
high school. In fact, research finds that learning disabled students
drop out of high school and get involved in criminal behavior
at a much higher rate than those who are not disabled. They are
also under-employed as young adults and earn a lower wage
than their non-disabled counterparts. Furthermore, a 1999 LDA
Newsbrief predicted that by the year 2000 only 15% of jobs
will use unskilled workers.2 The Department of Labor
made a similar forecast. With this kind of job market in mind,
the learning disabled student or adult must be involved in the
transition planning and understand how to gain the basic knowledge
and skills to meet entry level requirements in the career he or
The process of transition planning should help the learning disabled
youth become an independent and self-affirming adult. With this
process the person should be able to act as a self -advocate and
understand the strengths as well and the challenges he or she
possesses. This ability is critical to a successful entry into
the work force.
The following are some tips on completing that planning process
and filling in the gaps commonly occurring in transition planning.
A first step is to identify strengths and challenges to
enable young persons to determine the skills they already have
and decide on what skills they want to acquire. Success in
the work place will involve being honest about any problems and
creating a plan that will help them to compensate and accommodate.
They can easily discover what they need if they begin to understand
how they learn. How they take in information is the key to understanding
what work environment will best suit them.
For example, getting distracted easily by noise and finding it
difficult to concentrate in a loud, open setting should be noted
when researching careers and evaluating work environments. If
verbal skills are strong but written skills are weaker, then careers
or work settings that make use of verbal skills should be a priority
in planning for the next career move.
If a learning disabled person is headed for a new career, then
he or she should consider training. How much training will be
necessary to move into another field? How much will it cost? The
answers to these questions will factor into any career decision.
For example, I would have to seriously evaluate going back to
school for more training because of the cost as well as the time.
If the person decides to return to school, however, then knowing
one’s learning style and identifying strengths and challenges
can also help with the process of identifying suitable career
One way to begin to identify strengths and challenges is to sit
down and make a list. For example, to identify strengths, the
person could consider these questions: What am I good at? What
do I excel in? The answers to these questions could help the learning
disabled youth begin to see his or her strengths surface. To identify
challenges, one might consider these questions: What do I find
difficult to do? What do I need help with much of the time? From
the answers to these questions, challenges will begin to emerge.
This information will help identify the next key step to successful
employment: identifying accommodation needs.
To ask for what they need, the learning disabled must know
what they need. Accommodating their disability means they should
know which accommodations they will need to succeed. To do that,
they can complete an informal accommodation assessment that will
enable them to talk intelligently about assistive technology and
other types of help they will need to complete work-related tasks.
An informal assessment can include questions like these: What
do I need to make the playing field level? What works for me in
school or at work? What special needs or conditions do I require
to get through my day? This list will help make needs clear and
will enable the learning disabled to visualize their day and what
it takes to get them through various tasks. Knowing their needs
in the workplace by identifying accommodations will also
help the employer understand and provide those accommodations.
Once strengths and challenges and accommodation needs are identified,
the person can come up with an elevator speech about his
or her disability. For example, if someone riding on an elevator
were to ask the question, “What exactly is your learning
disability anyway?” A learning disabled person should be
able to answer that question by the time the elevator gets to
the next stop. This explanation will have to be concise and definitive.
The person must be able to say what it is and what he or she must
do to compensate for it. Armed with this concise and definitive
answer, the learning disabled person can then talk confidently
to an employer about his or her unique abilities as well as needs.
Moving into the world of work, the learning disabled person will
face one of the most common questions related to joining the work
force: What about disclosure? When should an employer be
told about the disability? Disclosure is very important to this
population because at first a learning disability can sometimes
be invisible to the employer. In college, I called this the YLF
or You Look Fine Syndrome. Often other students
would say, “You look fine. Why do you need extra time on
the final.” At work, I’ve also heard things like,
“You look fine. Why do you have to record all of our meetings?”
So disclosing may surprise supervisors and co-workers. Asking
for adaptive equipment or extra administrative help may be hard.
Following these simple rules can make it a little easier:
- Never disclose after making a major mistake at work.
- Ask for an accommodation fortified with the research already
done on the type needed and the cost as well as how it will
affect your current work situation and environment.
- Be able to put your learning disability in a positive light
if you disclose at the interview. For example, you can say that
your learning disability has made you proficient in dictation
and the use of dictation software programs. Or you can say that
you started a support group at college for LD students and facilitated
group discussions on diversity.
- Make it clear that you will ask for help if you need it and
that, based on your challenges, you are willing to have another
employee check and edit all your work.
Learning disabled adults or transitioning youth should know their
challenges and how to accommodate them. They should not be afraid
to ask for help; there are no stupid questions. They should be
involved with their transition planning and build their career
path on a foundation of basic skills, thinking skills and personal
qualities to make suitable choices. Post-secondary goals should
be ones that they dream of--- not the ones that others have decided
1 Heumann, J., (1998). Transition and IDEA 97. LDA
Newsbriefs,33 (6), n.p.
2 LDA Postsecondary Education Subcommittee (1999).
Transition planning: Preparing for postsecondary employment for
students with learning disabilities and/or attention disorders.
LDA Newsbriefs, 34, (2),n.p.
Joyanne Cobb is the author of Learning How To Learn: Getting
Into and Surviving College When you Have a Learning Disability.
She is the Youth Project Manager for The Ticket to Work program
at MAXIMUS, Inc. and can be reached for speaking engagements and
private consultation by contacting her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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