GUEST POST: Postsecondary Transition for Students with Disabilities

GUEST POST: Postsecondary Transition for Students with Disabilities

By Debra G. Holzberg

Debra G. Holzberg, Ph.D. is a visiting professor and research associate at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her research focuses on the self-advocacy and academic skills as they relate to the transition of students with disabilities to postsecondary education. Additional interests and research include the disproportionate representation of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education. Dr. Holzberg is the president of the Council for Exceptional Children’s (CEC) North Carolina Division for Learning Disabilities and serves on the membership committee of the Division for Learning Disabilities (CEC) as well as on the Human Rights and Diversity Committee for the Division on Career Development and Transition (CEC). You can find her on Twitter @DebbieHolzberg. She also has a website that houses the self-advocacy lessons described in this article.

Recent changes in US legislature (1), (2) require improved preparation for postsecondary education and increased access to academic accommodations in postsecondary educational (PSE) settings. As a result, students with hidden disabilities (e.g., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, emotional and behavioral disorders, and learning disabilities) are pursing PSE at increased rates. For example, in 1990, 30% of students with disabilities (SWD) were enrolled any type of PSE (e.g., vocational or technical school, 2-year college, 4-year college); in 2011, that number increased to 66.8% (3). Consequently, institutes of higher education (IHE) have worked to create a more accessible and inclusive environment for students with disabilities (4). Data from the 2011 National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS-2) report indicated although 89.9% of SWD articulated goals to complete a postsecondary program, only 40.7% of students achieved their goal compared to 52.4% of students without disabilities (5). Evidently, SWD continue to experience barriers in PSE that we need to address.

Note: There are many abbreviations used in this post. They are defined the first time they are used, but for your convenience, we also added a glossary at the end of the post.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

How then, do we prepare students who, given appropriate supports, have the potential to be successful in PSE? We know there are strategies and evidence-based practices (EBPs) and other practices that have demonstrated efficacy in improving PSE outcomes for SWD. Amongst them are the following (evidence-based practices are noted with an asterisk):

  • inclusion in general education*
  • understanding of one’s disability, their legal rights, and the accommodations which facilitate access to content
  • effective self-determination skills (including self-advocacy)*
  • ability to use appropriate assistive technology (AT).

Although special education law (i.e., IDEA, (2)) requires PSE goals be included in students’ individualized educational programs (IEPs), often these prerequisite skills are not explicitly taught to students with hidden disabilities. Therefore, it is important for us to find ways to incorporate these practices into the coursework and experiences of SWD preparing to transition to PSE (6), (7). Including SWD in the general education curriculum enables them to participate in college preparatory coursework, facilitating their preparation for the more rigorous demands of PSE (6). However, research demonstrates that often students do not understand the nature of their disability and the ways in which it impedes their academic progress. Further, students may not understand the changes in the law when they transition from secondary to PSE (8), (9) (10), (11). For example, students often do not think their disability is severe enough to necessitate support services (i.e., accommodations) in college (9). According to data from NLTS-2, 63.1% of students enrolled in PSE did not consider themselves to have a disability (5). Additionally, the same report found 87.1% of students reported receiving accommodations in high school; yet, only 10.3% accessed the accommodations to which they were entitled (5).

While in high school, students are provided access to services and accommodations (i.e., teacher’s notes, extended time for testing, assistive technology) through an individualized education program that is required by IDEA. The student’s IEP makes sure that they receive the services and accommodations necessary to facilitate their academic progress. Protections under IDEA end when the student graduates; therefore, the way in which the student receives services changes in college where the student’s accommodations are provided in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA; (12)). In addition to the shift in the law (i.e., from IDEA to ADA), there is a shift in the purpose of the law: IDEA is designed to facilitate success, whereas protections provided under the ADA are designed to provide access. Given the shift in laws and changes in responsibilities, students must not only understand their disability, they must also be aware of their rights and responsibilities for acquiring accommodations if they are to succeed in more challenging educational settings.

And finally, while research has demonstrated that the use of accommodations in PSE results in both increased grade point averages and persistence rates for SWD (13), (14), (15), often SWD are hesitant to utilize academic accommodations. A number of reasons have been identified for students’ reluctance; however, often it lies in the students’ lack of self-determination (i.e., self-advocacy) behaviors (10), (16).

Image by vallgall on Flickr(CC BY-SA 2.0)

Image by vallgall on Flickr(CC BY-SA 2.0)

In order to access academic accommodations in college, students must first register with disability services and then request accommodations from their instructors. Unfortunately, students often lack the knowledge of how to advocate for these accommodations. In a survey of special service coordinators at 74 colleges, one of the most significant transition issues identified for SWD was a lack of self-advocacy skills (10). When asked to list three ways secondary schools could improve transition services, 66.7% of respondents listed the need to improve students’ self-advocacy skills. Furthermore, self-advocacy skills were included in a list of evidence-based predictors of postsecondary success (6). In one study, four students with hidden disabilities were taught self-advocacy and conflict resolution skills (17). Using the Self-Advocacy and Conflict Resolution Training (SACR, (18)), the authors taught 19 self-advocacy and conflict resolution target behaviors in four 30-min lessons. Results indicated an increase in the students’ ability to request and negotiate academic accommodations using the steps in SACR instruction. Several other studies using SACR instruction (19), (20) (21), (22) yielded similar results, demonstrating the efficacy of a powerful and efficient intervention. If SWD are to be successful in PSE, it is imperative they be explicitly taught to advocate for their accommodations.

Image from Anoto AB on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Image from Anoto AB on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Finally, assistive technology (AT) may facilitate learning in areas such as written language (e.g., word prediction, outlining programs), reading comprehension (e.g., screen readers), organizational strategies (e.g., personal data managers), and listening aids (e.g., recording lectures for SWD (23), (24). Some claim that AT has the potential to minimize students’ functional limitations while maximizing their functional abilities (25). However, although these accommodations can be effective, frequently students do not have the necessary skills to use technology to augment their learning. It is better to conduct an assessment of students’ technology needs as well as training in the use of technology prior to transition to the postsecondary setting (23).

Often with students with hidden disabilities lack many of the prerequisite skills that level the playing field and enable them to succeed in PSE. It is critical that students, parents, and educators work to ensure SWD are included in general education classes, are aware of their legal rights and responsibilities, acquire the necessary self-determination/self-advocacy behaviors, and are competent in utilizing AT prior to matriculating to PSE. Together, all stakeholders must work to provide SWD with key skills to better prepare them to achieve their full potential in PSE and beyond.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay


ADA – American with Disabilities Act of 1990
AT – assistive technology
EBP – evidence-based practice
IDEA – Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004
IEP – individualized educational programs
IHE – institutes of higher education
NLTS – National Longitudinal Transition Study
PSE – postsecondary education
SACR - Self-Advocacy and Conflict Resolution Training
SWD – students with disabilities


(1) Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008. P.L. 110-325, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq. (2008).

(2) Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. (2004).

(3) Newman, L., Wagner, M., Cameto, R., & Knokey, A. M. (2009). The post-high school outcomes youth with disabilities up to 4 years after high school. A report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

(4) Association on Higher Education and Disability. (2012). Supporting accommodation requests:   on documentation practices. Huntersville, NC: Author.

(5) Sanford, C., Newman, L., Wagner, M., Cameto, R., Knokey, A.-M., & Shaver, D. (2011). The post-high school outcomes of young adults with disabilities up to 6 years after high school. Key findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) (NCSER 2011-3004). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

(6) Test, D. W., Bartholomew, A., & Bethune, L. (2015). What high school administrators need to know about secondary transition evidence-based practices and predictors for students with disabilities. NAASP Bulletin, 99, 254-273.

(7) Test, D. W., Fowler, C. H., Richter, S. M., White, J., Mazzotti, V., Walker, A. R., ... & Kortering, L. (2009). Evidence-based practices in secondary transition. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 32, 115-128.

(8) Cawthon, S. W., & Cole, E. V. (2010). Postsecondary students who have a learning disability: Student perspectives on accommodations access and obstacles. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 23, 112-128.

(9) Cole, E. V., & Cawthon, S. W. (2015) Self-disclosure decisions of university students with learning disabilities. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 28, 163-179.

(10) Janiga, S. J., & Costenbader, V. (2002). The transition from high school to postsecondary education for students with learning disabilities: A survey of college service coordinators. Journal of Learning Disabilities35, 463-470.

(11) Skinner, M. E., & Lindstrom, B. D. (2003). Bridging the gap between high school and college: Strategies for the successful transition of students with learning disabilities. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth47, 132-137.

(12) Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. PL 101–336. 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.

(13) Kim, W. H., & Lee, J. (2015). The effect of accommodation on academic performance of college students with disabilities. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 1, 1-11. doi: 0034355215605259

(14) Mamiseishvili, K., & Koch, L. (2011). First-to-second-year persistence of students with disabilities in postsecondary institutions in the United States. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 54, 93-105.

(15) Troiano, P. F., Liefeld, J. A., & Trachtenberg, J. V. (2010). Academic support and college success for postsecondary students with learning disabilities. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 40, 35-44.

(16) Field, S., Sarver, M., & Shaw, S. (2003). Self-determination: A key to success in postsecondary education for students with learning disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 24, 339-349.

(17) Holzberg, D. G., Test, D. W., & Rusher, D. E. (in press). Effects of self-advocacy and conflict resolution instruction on the ability of high school seniors with mild disabilities to request and negotiate academic accommodations. Remedial and Special Education.

(18) Rumrill, P., Palmer, C., Roessler, R., & Brown, P. (1999). Self-advocacy & conflict resolution training: Strategies for the classroom accommodation request. University of Arkansas: Project Accommodations Planning Training (APT).

(19) Bethune, L. (2015) The effects of the Self-Advocacy and Conflict Resolution training on ability to request and negotiate academic accommodations with high school students with autism spectrum disorders (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, North Carolina.

(20) Holzberg, D. G., & Test, D. W. (2017). The effects of self-advocacy and conflict resolution instruction on the ability of college students with mild disabilities to request and negotiate academic accommodations. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, North Carolina.

(21) Palmer, C., & Roessler, R. T. (2000). Requesting Classroom Accommodations: Self-Advocay and Conflict Resolution Training for College Students with Disabilities. Journal of Rehabilitation66, 38-43.

(22) Walker, A., & Test, D.W. (2011). Using a self-advocacy strategy intervention on African American college students’ ability to request academic accommodations. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 26, 134-144. doi: 10.1111/1540-5826.2011.00333

(23) Mull, C. A., & Sitlington, P. L. (2003). The role of technology in the transition to postsecondary education of students with learning disabilities: A review of the literature. Journal of Special Education, 37, 26-32.

(24) Raskind, M. H., & Higgins, E. L. (1998). Assistive technology for postsecondary students with learning disabilities: An overview. Journal of Learning Disabilities31, 27-40.

(25) Martínez-Marrero, I., & Estrada-Hernández, N. (2008). Assistive technology: An instructional tool to assist college students with written language disabilities. Techtrends: Linking Research and Practice to Improve Learning, 52, 56-62.

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