Impact Feature Issue on Employment and Women With Disabilities

Why is Transition Planning Different for Girls? Five Key Reasons


Jennifer Hogansen

Eleanor Gil-Kashiwabara

Sarah Geenen

Laurie Powers

Kristin Powers

This article is excerpted and reprinted with permission from "Supporting Girls with Disabilities as They Transition to Adulthood" published by the Gender and Transition Project, Regional Research Institute for Human Services, Portland State University, Portland, Oregon.

The Gender and Transition Project conducted a needs assessment to identify key factors that contribute to problems in transition planning for young women in special education. We first utilized discussion groups with female youth, their parents, and the professionals who work with them, such as teachers and school psychologists. Then, the data from these discussions guided and informed development of a survey for identified female and male youth currently in special education. This survey was administered to youth in special education and parents of youth in special education at two large, urban school districts on the West Coast. Based on our discussions and surveys, we identified the following factors.

Reason One: Lack of Role Models and Mentors  

  • Youth need people in their lives who encourage and support their transition goals. Mentors and role models are important for exposing girls to different opportunities, and making their particular goals seem possible.
  • The youth in our studies lacked exposure to appropriate role models and mentors. For instance, female youth lacked female role models and mentors who experienced a similar disability or condition. This finding is especially strong for culturally diverse youth who experience this "triple jeopardy."
  • If youth have role models and mentors, they are likely to be informal relationships, rather than formal. Indeed, many parents and professionals talked about the negative influence of media, which often provides "unrealistic" role models for girls in particular.
  • Youth lack exposure to role models and mentors who are working in their areas of career interest.
  • Male youth may have more opportunities to find role models and mentors than their female peers (for example, coaches). Further, parents reported that males seem to feel more comfortable asking for support from adults in their lives. One father said: "I got mentors throughout my life. You know, 10 years with this older guy and 15 years with this guy that taught me this and that. And my son did the same things, baseball coaches, football coaches, people he's worked for. And for the life of me, I cannot see my daughter doing that, nor can I see many of the girls doing that. I don't see them getting these mentors that teach them these skills."

Reason Two: Different Goals for Transitions 

  • Youth have a variety of goals for their futures. The adults in their lives also have goals for these youth. Unfortunately, these goals often differ dramatically. A majority of youth (58% of the survey sample) felt their family had different ideas about their future than themselves, and 48% of the parents acknowledged they had different ideas about their child's future.
  • The above finding was even stronger when youth and parents were asked about the goals that teachers have for youth. For instance, nearly 70% of youth acknowledged that teachers have had different ideas about their future than themselves.
  • There can be important differences between the goals of culturally diverse families and the mainstream goals that schools deem appropriate for youth. Culturally diverse families and youth may face stereotypes and discrimination as a result. Indeed, some of the discussion groups showed insensitivity on the part of some professionals; for example, some professionals criticized family-oriented goals that many culturally diverse parents have for their children. One commented, "I really had her on track to go to college and she got pregnant because that's what they do. You know, that's what all the little Hispanic girls do in her little group. And you know, you lose them then because then they do drop out of school to have their baby or they disappear."
  • Female youth were significantly more likely than males to report that they keep silent about what they want because other people (parents, teachers) expect them to go along with ideas.
  • Female youth have goals that are often oriented towards relationships. While nearly 40% of girls surveyed indicated that having children was important for their future, only 21% of boys said the same.  

Reason Three: Lack of Match Between Aspirations and Training 

  • The differences in perspectives of goals between youth, parents, and the professionals who work with them often contribute to a lack of match between a youth's vocational goals and the actual job training they receive. For instance, 30% of the surveyed youth indicated that other people want them to be interested in jobs/careers that differ from what they want.
  • As a result, 46% of the youth reported that they received little to no training in work skills that will lead to a successful career. For example, one girl related her vocational training experience in the animal care field in this way: "All I did was get stuck at PetSmart stocking shelves. I thought I was going to be like bathing and feeding animals and having fun."
  • Parents and professionals agreed that vocational training is an important component of the transition to independent living for youth. They noted that youth need opportunities such as job shadowing, informational interviews, and networking.
  • Unfortunately, 60% of surveyed parents reported that their child was not able to find people who can help them get a job.
  • Female youth reported limited exposure to non-gender-stereotypic vocational experiences. These youth were able to find training in childcare positions, such as daycare and elementary schools, but the girls with goals other than childcare encountered more difficulty and barriers when they tried to gain vocational experience.
  • Some youth felt they missed out on certain vocational opportunities because they were in special education.
  • Because of the gender roles and expectations in certain cultures, culturally diverse boys and girls may have quite different experiences in their work/vocational training activities from each other and their non-culturally diverse peers. This lack of understanding and appreciation for the cultural context has negative implications for the way teachers work with their students.  

Reason Four: Low Expectations, High Fears 

  • Transition planning is an important bridge for ensuring young people with disabilities move into productive and successful adult lives. For many, a successful transition involves some level of independence and self-sufficiency.
  • Female youth with disabilities, when compared to males, are often considered more vulnerable, not only because of a disability but also because of their gender. For instance, over 58% of females surveyed reported that their family doesn't want them to do certain things because of concerns for their safety, compared to 49% of male youth with disabilities.
  • Female youth were significantly more likely than males to report that people expect less of them because of their disability, and expect less of them because of their gender.
  • Parents and professionals worried that the transition goals of their daughters were influenced by their relationships with males. Culturally diverse youth, especially, were described by adults as being vulnerable to sexuality issues, such as teen pregnancy.
  • Female youth talked about the difficulty their parents seemed to have in "letting go" and allowing them to become more independent. Safety is a major concern for many parents. Girls may get mixed messages from their families as a result, such as this voiced by one parent: "My desires.for my daughter (are) to be stress free and happy, also to know that there are sexual predators that can harm her."
  • In particular, some female youth felt that their teachers treated them like children, believing them incapable of making decisions for themselves.

Reason Five: Low Self-Perception 

  • Female youth reported that they often feel "different" from their peers because of their disability, and they often experience low self-esteem. Many felt shame and embarrassment. One said: "I had an experience this semester, actually, with a geography teacher. I was asking him about a note taker and finding a solution to somehow keep on the same page with his lecture. He, in front of the entire class, said, 'Oh, note takers. Those are for handicapped people right?' And it was really embarrassing."
  • Experiences in special education can play a large part in the self-perception of youth, and for many, having a disability and being in special education is connected to teasing and a negative self-image.
  • These negative feelings are often compounded by racial discrimination for culturally diverse youth. For example, some parents reported that their daughters experienced additional rejection from their peers because of their skin color and disability.
  • Some girls valued being attractive to males and having a child who loved them. This finding may help describe the finding that female youth with disabilities are more likely than males with disabilities to have parenting responsibilities after exiting high school (Doren & Benz, 2001).
  • Parents and teachers described girls with disabilities as "pleasers."
  • The female youth in our discussion groups often talked about their negative experiences in the transition planning process. Many stated that they don't even like to participate in transition planning meetings because it seems "pointless and embarrassing."
  • Some youth felt that teachers limited their opportunities not only because of their disability, but also because of their culturally diverse background. These youth noted that they were "looked down on" and "teachers didn't help enough" as a result.  

  • Doren, B., & Benz, M. (2001). Gender equity issues in vocational and transition services and employment outcomes experienced by young women with disabilities. In H. Russo & M. Wehmeyer (Eds.), Double jeopardy: Addressing gender equity in special education (pp. 289–312). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.