What Happens to Special Needs Students When They Turn 22?

I got to know one special needs girl very well in the two years I taught in Cardinal Hall.

Her class was directly across from my classroom. At the end of the school year, she came to say goodbye. She wouldn’t be returning in the fall.

I had never before considered what happens to special needs students when they become too old for school. I hadn’t considered What Happens to Special Needs Students When They Turn 22.

I had noticed that some students just disappeared at the beginning of a new school year. But seniors graduate and move on, so it didn’t seem unusual, until Misty.

When Misty (not her real name) came to say goodbye, it was different. We shared several common interests. Fashion and our love for bright, bold colors were our two favorite discussion topics. We had become good friends over that two year period of time.

Now it’s all a fond memory.

What Happens to Special Needs Kids After High School in The U.S.?

Every teacher has had students with special needs. These students can do well while they’re in school, but what happens to special ed students after high school?

Special Education in High School

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) became law in 1975. The law requires that all mentally, physically or cognitively disabled students between the ages of 3 and 21 are entitled to public education. Since its enactment, millions of American students have attended school with their nondisabled peers.

Special Ed Students After High School

In the 2017-2018 school year, of all children enrolled in special education:

  • 34% had specific learning disabilities.
  • 19% had speech or language impairments.
  • 14% had physical disabilities or chronic health conditions.
  • 2% had a combination of physical and learning disabilities.

Graduation Rates

Most children in special education classes graduate from high school. According to the National Center on Education Statistics, there are differences in graduation rates according to race and type of disability. Some examples include:

  • Graduation rates were highest for Asian students at 76% and lowest for African American students at 64%.
  • Dropout rates were highest among Native American children at 27% and lowest for Asian students at 8%.
  • Graduation rates were highest for children with speech or language impairments at 86% and lowest for those with intellectual disabilities at 43%.

What Happens to Special Needs Kids After High School?

Special education students do graduate. Across the country, they actually have a higher graduation rate than regular students.

Loss of Structured Support

While they’re in school, special education students receive several layers of support. They get special attention, a structured learning setting and the resources of the state and federal government. Once they leave, there is no similar structure in place to take over.

Melody Musgrove, director of the federal office of special education programs, expressed that frustration in an interview with Education Week.

“The services are seamless, they’re already aligned, the student knows what to expect, the parents know what to expect,” she said. “That’s a great example of how we’d like this to look.”

In reality, students and teachers must find their own way to determine the next step. Some students might be ready for full-time employment right away. Some might want to pursue vocational training, a part-time job, community college or some combination of those. Others might be ready for a four-year college.

What Happens Next?

Many parents have been so focused on getting their children through school that they haven’t had the time or energy to focus on what happens next.

Teachers and school counselors are also frustrated by the fact that their classroom instruction doesn’t include a roadmap for the child’s future.

As one parents’ advocate told Education Week, “I don’t want to leave out how hard so many professionals are working. A lot of the transition teachers have a frustration, too.

They know they’re supposed to prepare these students for this ‘something’ that’s out there, and they can’t get their arms around that ‘something,’ either.”

Difficulty Finding Work

The problems begin when these students decide to pursue a career or a meaningful job.

They have difficulty getting hired and frequently end up in part-time, low-paid positions.

These students often find that the support they received in school is lacking in their post-graduation life.

There is no system in place to monitor what happens to special needs kids after high school. If they are fortunate, they will have supportive parents who help them find their way. Often, however, the parents are equally at a loss.

Planning and Services Are Lacking

In a recent issue of the Hechinger Report, Sarah Butrymowicz and Jackie Mader reported on the results of an investigation into this question. They found that post-graduation life is extremely difficult for these students and their parents.

“Interviews with more than 100 parents, students, advocates and experts across the country painted a picture of a special education landscape where transition planning and services are largely neglected,” they wrote.

“Students with disabilities who could pursue higher education or meaningful employment are instead living at home and working low-wage jobs. Some are unemployed, or, as Pennsylvania mother Chris Bradley described it, ‘graduating to the couch.’”

Frustrated Parents Have to Do Their Own Advocacy Work

Parents have discovered that they must become full-time advocates for their children. They must find their own resources from a combination of the education system, social support programs and nonprofit organizations.

Chris Bradley described the long, detailed maneuvering that it took to help her disabled son realize that he wanted to work in office administration.

After considering and rejecting vocational school, academic colleges and a food-service job he was offered, her son finally mapped out a plan to attend community college and get a clerical office job. He now has a bank account and is saving his money to get his own place.

“It all worked out,” Chris Bradley told the Hechinger Report. “I think it was really successful, but it took a lot of work. It was a full-time job for me to advocate for him.”

Better Ways to Help Special Ed Students After High School

Are there better ways to help these students? Parents are getting help from the following sources.

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) offers the most promise at the federal level. It allocates funds for state-run integrated education and training programs (IET). An IET is a mix of instructional and vocational training for “a specific occupation or occupational cluster.”

The revised law has stronger protections for disabled children and adults. It requires states to offer transition services to all students with disabilities. The transition services must prepare them for jobs here they are fully integrated and earn the prevailing wage.

It also requires states to provide multifaceted services to students with severe disabilities. Some of these students may not be ready for a fully integrated workplace, but they are still entitled to supportive services.

Parent Advocacy Groups

The National Parent Center on Transition and Employment has several resources for parents and students who are struggling with life after special education.

It is run by the PACER Center, a Minneapolis-based organization founded in 1977 to advocate for special needs children.

No Easy Answers

There are no easy answers for graduating special needs children or their families. Greater awareness of the problem is the beginning. The solutions will come from a combination of government regulations and personal advocacy.

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10 thoughts on “What Happens to Special Needs Students When They Turn 22?”

  1. As a student, we had some of these kinds of students leave school after a while. It’s true that sometimes they’re not given as much attention as they might need. I was never really close to any of them and I feel guilty seeing how you and Misty had such a close bond. I hope that the society can accept them as intelligent, and get them good jobs when they go for their interviews. This is a very good topic to treat and it deserves to be shared. You write really well too. Best regards!

    • Thank you for the kind words.  I also hope that one day society will be able to accept everyone, no matter how different they may seem.  

      Thanks for joining the conversation; I appreciate it!

  2. In know of a neighbour who graduated from school and everything went haywire after he turned 22 with no support and care in place to keep up with his living. It was really disheartening how they are thrust into the world without putting in place the help to which they’ve grown accustomed. I will definitely share this article with all the special needs groups you belong to on social media and hopefully, something might stir up so that proper care might be put in place for the special needs students.

    • I’m sorry to hear that things went badly for your neighbor.  It’s one reason I wanted to do something to bring this situation to the attention to a larger group.  I glad that you are going to share the post; I’m sure it will help.

      Thanks for joining the conversation;  I appreciate it!

  3. This is a very special topic and blog post.  It is very compassionate of you to think of the futures of these children.

    I am really not sure what the solution is but these children do need special guidance and they certainly deserve it as well.

    Thank you for opening my eyes to this issue in such a compassionate article.

    • Thanks so much for kind words.  When you spend time with your students, you realize relationships have been created, and they’re “your” kids too.  

      I’m not sure what the solutions is either.  However, I do believe giving people 12+ years of support, and then dropping them cold just before they enter the job world is wrong.  I’m hopeful that as time goes on, this oversight will be addressed.

      Thanks for joining the conversation; I appreciate it!

  4. This is an amazing and informative article! I can’t speak for the US, but I know that in Belgium it’s really hard for the special ed kids to find a job. Which is a shame I have to say. It seems completely pointless to let them work and study hard during high school, just to be abandoned when they are looking for a job. I really think the system needs to rethink some things and maybe even give information sessions for parents with special needs: what to do after high school? They are there for the ‘normal’ students, information about going to college, information about what the next steps are if you want to work, etc.

    • It’s helpful to know how other countries are dealing with the needs of their special ed students.  I agree completely that leaving them to fend for themselves in the job market after graduation doesn’t make much sense.  I hope something can be done world-wide to make sure special ed students get the same types of assistance the regular ed students can count on.

      Thanks for joining the conversation; I appreciate it!

  5. This article mentions nowhere in it for what country this applies to.  One must not always assume that one’s audience is from the U.S.  For those living in the U.S., it is good to know that there are supports in place but that parents really need to be educated themselves on where and how to locate and use them.  Other countries may not be as fortunate.  I have seen many special needs students graduate high school and then have nothing left for them but low paying jobs stocking shelves or in fast food.  We need more supports for these young people or our welfare systems will just end up paying for them out of our tax dollars.

    • You are right about identifying in which country the information pertains to.  I appreciate you bringing it to my attention.  Thanks to your comment, I’ve taken steps to rectify that faux pas.  

      Your observation regarding special needs students filling low paying jobs after graduation was a big reason I wanted to bring this situation to a larger audience.  

      Thanks so much for joining the conversation; I appreciate it!


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