Impact Feature Issue on Employment and Women With Disabilities

Transition Years:
An Examination of Outcomes for Girls


Fabricio Balcazar is Professor and Director with the Center on Capacity Building for Minorities with Disabilities Research, Department of Disability and Human Development, University of Illinois at Chicago

"Transition is not a discrete time in life affecting only the individual and one aspect of his or her functioning. Rather, transition is part of a lifelong process that begins at birth, relates to all life roles and affects the individual, family and community."(Szymanski, 1994)

The long-term outcome of effective transition planning for youth with disabilities should be career development leading to competitive and meaningful employment and valued adult roles. In order to achieve this result, it is crucial to provide quality supports to young adults with disabilities who need them as they move from high school to adult life. Career development is necessary to ensure that the jobs attained by these individuals are long-lasting and provide a mechanism for increased self-sufficiency. The road to career development beyond job placement is paved by individuals pursuing postsecondary education options upon graduation from high school.

This is a challenge for low-income minority students with disabilities, and girls in particular. In fact, according to a study by Houtenville, Erickson, and Lee (2007), in the year 2005 the following was true in the United States:  

  • An estimated 30.4% (+/- 0.8 percentage points) of non-institutionalized Black or African American, non-Hispanic, women with a disability, aged 21 to 64 years, with all education levels, were employed. The rate of employment for Black men was 29.8%.
  • The level of employment for Hispanic women with a disability was an estimated 31.7%, while for Hispanic men with a disability it was 45.1%.
  • Employment for White women with a disability was at an estimated 35.9%, while for White men it was 43.8%.
  • Employment for Native American women with a disability was an estimated 31.1%, while for men it was 35.3%.
  • An estimated 36.5% of Asian women with a disability were employed, while the employment rate for Asian men was 46.9%.  

So with the exception of Black men, all women with disabilities had lower employment rates than men with disabilities, and White and Asian women had employment rates higher than African American, Hispanic and Native American women with disabilities. 

Wagner, Newman, Cameto, Garza and Levine, (2005) found that the employment gap between females and males with disabilities is diminishing (previous studies reported a gap as high as 40% in full-time employment and earning differences of as much as 78%). However, Wagner et al. also indicate that although females with disabilities are enrolling in college more often than males - particularly in two-year college programs - girls continue to have a larger high school dropout rate than boys. Alarmingly, the average dropout rate for Hispanics overall is much larger than for any other group (27.8% compared with 6.9% for Whites non-Hispanics and 13.1% for non-Hispanic Blacks). Unfortunately, young people who leave school without a high school diploma are unlikely to be able to secure employment in this increasingly technological workforce. Therefore, those who fail to complete a minimum of a high school education are likely to live in poverty. This is true for youth in general, and especially true for teenage mothers, and youth with disabilities (U.S. General Accountability Office [GAO], 2002). 

National data also indicate that students with disabilities are less likely than students without disabilities to enroll in postsecondary education. Of those that do, most enter community colleges or trade schools (Wagner at al., 2005). Additionally, of the 6% of undergraduate college students reporting a disability, Hispanic and African American individuals made up less than 10% of the total. Of all students enrolled in college programs, there is a much higher graduation rate for individuals without disabilities than for those with disabilities. In addition, federal policies for cash benefits, health insurance, housing, and employment programs provide disincentives for low-income families of young women and men with disabilities to support their attempts to become gainfully employed and independent. Researchers have noted that some families become concerned about the loss of the income derived from Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and other public assistance (Chan et al., 2008). Therefore, there is a need to make young adults and their families aware of the limitations of welfare dependency and the missed opportunities for social mobility and positive long-term outcomes. 

Taken together, these findings suggest there are many challenges that youth with disabilities - and especially teenage girls from minority groups - face in their transition out of high school and into adult life. Hogansen, Gil-Hashiwabara, Greenen, Powers and Powers (2006) identified several important problems with the transition plans of students in special education, particularly regarding the absence of postsecondary education and career development goals, limited emphasis on vocational training, and lack of plans for reaching the goals. The authors made eight recommendations for the successful transition planning for girls that school personnel could follow: 

  • Engage in effective transition practices, like promoting youth involvement in the transition planning process, participation in extracurricular activities, career planning, and development of skills such as self-determination and advocacy, and by offering mentoring.
  • Develop transition plans that matter to the student and her family.
  • Educate and support professionals like vocational rehabilitation counselors - particularly if they do not seem to be familiar with best practices for transition planning (e.g., family involvement, interagency collaboration, and development of academic and life skills) (Kohler, 1996).
  • Respect and listen to the girls' goals and aspirations.
  • Recruit and provide mentors and role models (especially successful women with similar disabilities).
  • Promote high expectations for the girls.
  • Promote self-determination.
  • Attend to the cultural context, including the gender expectations and roles of each student's culture.  

Building greater awareness among educational professionals who serve young adults with disabilities may also help to counter the distrust and lack of knowledge about accommodations that persists in many settings. Family members need to be included in the process and contribute in the support of the career and employment aspirations of their daughter with a disability. In addition, by developing services that increase student empowerment at all levels within high school and in the vocational rehabilitation system, youth will be better able to exert control over their environment and have an effect in the attainment of their postsecondary goals (McDonald, Keys, & Balcazar, 2007).

  • Chan, F., Dutta, A., Kundu, M., Chou, C. C., & Lee, G. K. (2008). Disparities in Vocational Rehabilitation services for African American consumers with Autism. Presented at the Center for International Rehabilitation Information & Exchange Conference, Niagara Falls, NY.

  • Hogansen, J., Gil-Hashiwabara, E., Greenen, S., Powers, L., & Powers, K. (2006). Supporting girls with disabilities as they transition to adulthood: An awareness document for parents, youth, advocates and professionals. Portland, OR: Portland State University, Regional Research Institute for Human Services.

  • Houtenville, A. J., Erickson, W. A., & Lee, C. G. (2007). Disability statistics from the American Community Survey (ACS). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Demographics and Statistics (StatsRRTC).

  • Kohler, P. D. (1996). Taxonomy of transition programming: A model for planning, organizing and evaluating transition education, services and programs. Champaign, IL: Transition Research Institute, University of Illinois.

  • McDonald, K. E., Keys, C. B., & Balcazar, F. E. (2007). Disability, race/ethnicity and gender: Themes of cultural oppression, acts of individual resistance. American Journal of Community Psychology, 39, 145–161.

  • Szymanski, E. M. (1994). Transition: Life-span and life-space considerations for empowerment. Exceptional Children, 60(5), 402–410.

  • U.S. General Accountability Office. (2002). In School dropouts: Education could play a stronger role in identifying and disseminating promising prevention strategies (GAO-02-240). Washington, DC: Author.

  • Wagner, M., Newman, L., Cameto, R., Garza, N., & Levine, P. (2005). After high school: A first look at the post-school experiences of youth with disabilities. A report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.