Impact Feature Issue on Educating K-12 English Language Learners with Disabilities

Planning for the Successful Transition From School to Adulthood for ELLs with Disabilities


Hyejung Kim is a Doctoral Student, Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education, University of Wisconsin, Madison. She may be reached at

The growing number of English language learners (ELLs) with special education needs in American schools is creating an increasing need to prepare these students for the transition from school to adulthood. Legislative efforts addressing the rights of students with special education needs have led to great progress in postsecondary outcomes. However, youth with disabilities, their families, and educators continue to face numerous challenges during the transition process. For ELLs with disabilities there are some additional unique challenges. 

Research has repeatedly found that instruction in a student’s native language assists second language acquisition and academic achievement. However, several states have passed initiatives that limit educational support for bilingual programs. These sorts of initiatives challenge ELLs and their families who seek support for bilingual education in order to increase postsecondary opportunities. Bilingual education needs are further complicated by disability status.

Educators should consider bilingualism as a strength of youth with disabilities, and consider the doing the following during transition planning:

  • Make sure that family members’ communication regarding postsecondary goals for their children is supported through interpreters or community liaisons, avoid using jargon, and provide materials in their home language.

  • Invite other family members, as well as parents, to participate in transition planning for an increased understanding of the student’s bilingualism as it intertwines with special needs.

  • Use in-depth interviewing with the student and their family to understand diverse beliefs and values in relation to the student’s future.

Using disability services in adulthood requires families and youth to understand processes and eligibility requirements that differ from entitlement programs in special education. Postsecondary education can improve adolescents’ quality of life, but attaining this goal requires college preparatory academics, goal setting, understanding of application processes, and so forth (Hart, Grigal, & Weir, 2010). Goals for postsecondary education must be established early. The recommended practices include:

  • Provide language support for adolescent ELLs with disabilities and engage them in inclusive settings.
  • Inform the students and their families about available postsecondary education resources for gaining information about processes and language accommodations.

To make informed decisions about work, ELLs with disabilities and their families need to know eligibility for vocational services. The federal Benefits Planning, Assistance, and Outreach Initiative aims to address barriers along with the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999. These initiatives help youth and families make informed choices regarding gaining and maintaining employment (Brooke et al., 2012). To support movement to postsecondary employment for ELLs with disabilities schools should:

  • Ensure that teachers, transition specialists, youth and their families understand the vocational supports available to ELLs with disabilities.
  • Invite members of the state vocational rehabilitation agency to IEP meetings.

Leaving the school community introduces change. ELLs with special education needs may experience social isolation in new contexts, and this may be compounded by linguistic differences. Isolation negatively impacts obtaining and maintaining postsecondary degrees and jobs. To increase social inclusion for ELLs with disabilities, transition planning teams should:

  • Provide opportunities for the student to gain experience in the community.
  • Provide instruction on using community transportation, recreation, and enrichment resources, coupled with English language use and community bilingual resources.
  • Arrange for mentorship from the adult bilingual community.

Additionally, some ELLs with disabilities confront challenges to accessing postsecondary services because citizenship documentation, in addition to English language fluency, may be necessary preconditions (Trainor, 2010). Acknowledging the potential challenges is the first step in addressing these obstacles.

Although ELLs with disabilities face great challenges in the transition process, the outcomes can be significantly improved through the above efforts. Providing support for this population includes responding to bilingual strengths and needs, sharing information about disability services for adults, planning for the future in culturally responsive ways, and providing social skill interventions.

  • Brooke, V., Revell, W. G., McDonough, J., & Green, H. (2012). Transition planning and community resources: Bringing it all together. In P. Wehman (Ed.), Life beyond the classroom: Transition strategies for young people with disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

  • Hart, D., Grigal, M., & Weir, C. (2010). Expanding the paradigm: Postsecondary education options for individuals with autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disabilities. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 25, 134–150.

  • Trainor, A. A. (2010). Reexamining the promise of parent participation in special education: An analysis of cultural and social capital. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 41, 245–263.