Feature Issue on Transition in a Global Context for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities

Addressing Challenges in Spain


Maria Cristina Cardona Moltó is a professor at the University of Alicante, Alicante, Spain. She may be reached at

Cristina Miralles-Cardona is a school counselor, psychologist, and accredited mental health profesional at the Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. She may be reached at

Esther Chiner is a tenured professor of educational research and assessment at the University of Alicante (Spain) School of Education. She may be reached at

Marcos Gómez-Puerta is an associate professor of instruction and school organization at the University of Alicante, Spain. He may be reached at

An orange oval passport stamp from the country of Spain features an airplane and the outline of the country, faded in the background.

Pre-employment transition services are available in Spain for students with disabilities who are aged 16 to 21 or enrolled in secondary or postsecondary education. These services aim to provide effective secondary school transition programs that prepare them for competitive integrated employment. The transition to adult life is one of the most complex processes faced by people with intellectual disability in Spain. According to the Survey on Disability, Personal Autonomy and Dependence (Instituto Nacional de Estadística, 2020), only 27% of working-age adults with disabilities are employed.

Legislative framework

The enactment in 1982 of the Social Integration of People with Disabilities Act (LISMI, 1982) marks a before and after for people with disabilities. The Act sets down a series of measures designed to integrate them more fully in their communities. It establishes the goal of incorporating people with disabilities into the mainstream employment system and, when not possible, in protected employment. Among those services categorized as protected, the most important are special employment centers and sheltered workshops (occupational centers). These services for adults, whether occupational, work-related, day-care or leisure, are organized mainly by private entities. By contrast with the services provided during school-age years, no common curricula exist in organized postschool services.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, a growing number of initiatives fostering integration in the workplace appear under the name of supported and customized employment as a result of the enactment of the General Organization of the Education System Act (LOGSE, 1990). This Act lays down the inclusion of special education services within the mainstream education system and introduces the concept of ‘special educational needs,’ emphasizing supports rather than disability. Jordán de Urríes and colleagues (2005) at the University of Salamanca and the State Disability Observatory (2020) provide quantitative data in regards supported employment, demonstrating the increase of these initiatives in Spain: Six out of 10 people who participate in supported employment programs are male; have intellectual disability (73.40%); 29% are under 25 years old, and 5.32% have gone to the mainstream employment market. A 2007 legal rule, which was recently modified, regulated supported, customized employment as a measure to promote the employment of people with disabilities in the mainstream labor market, and this is currently in force.

Structure and organization of post-school programs

In Spain, all students attend compulsory basic education until they are 16 or 18 years old, depending on their abilities and their personal progress. From that age, they must develop other learning, skills, and abilities that facilitate their subsequent incorporation into working life through training programs for the transition to adult life. A royal decree regulates these programs and each educational center adapts its curricula to the population it serves.

The training programs for transition to adult life are organized in a two-year cycle, which may be extended for additional education or job-training. They include training in personal autonomy for daily life; social and community integration; and vocations.

Students with disabilities who finish basic education at 16 years of age without having reached the objectives of compulsory secondary education can continue their schooling under three different vocational training-related options:

  • Enrollment in a Basic Vocational Training (BVT) program in mainstream schools (up to 19 years old, extendable up to 21) that adapts to their skills and development.
  • Enrollment in a Special Basic Vocational Training (SBVT) program organized around the following areas: basic training, career guidance, vocational training, complementaty activities, and educational guidance. BVT and SBVT programs are provided in secondary establishments and in special schools.
  • Enrollment in a Transition to Adult Life program. These programs are designed for students with significant disabilities and are generally provided in special schools. The priority is to help students develop independence and support them to undertake occupational activities related to clearly defined jobs.

Main barriers

The main problems faced by students with special needs, their families and professionals in transition from school to employment services are:

  • Access to education and training. Students with disabilities have the same educational options as the rest of their classmates, but in practice they are only offered programs aimed at sheltered or lower-paid jobs.
  • Labor market disconnection. Vocational preparation is often unrelated to labor market demand and students’ interests.
  • Unemployment figures/rates for young people with disabilities are between two and three times higher than for young people without disabilities.
  • Expectations and attitudes. Teachers, parents, employers and the general public underestimate their abilities.
  • Accessibility. There are still problems related to physical accessibility to work, as well as access to personal and technical support.
  • Implementation of existing legislation. The legal frameworks are not fully developed, producing contradictions and paradoxes. For example, having access to employment through disability quotas does not guarantee that the employer adapts the position to the person.
  • The transition period does not have a specific consideration in educational regulations. There are no precise curricular guidelines on which to organize the supports and the actions to be carried out. Decisions are left to the discretion of professionals.

How to address these challenges

Establishing a legal framework that recognizes transition to adulthood and working life as a basic objective of secondary and postsecondary education would require curricular approaches and necessary guidelines so that professionals can develop and make decisions about training options in compulsory and post-school programs.

Professionals must focus transition services on customized employment, despite the challenges it presents to existing service providers. It has been proven to be a more inclusive and effective model than the patchwork of occupational and supported employment centers, which have created discontinuities on the transition path.

Further, they must activate the leadership of multi-professional teams to coordinate the transition processes. Their knowledge and experience in advisory processes places them in an ideal position to play a key role in the transition processes and the articulation of the required actions. Finally, the extent to which educational and social services processes put young people and adults with disabilities at the center of the transition process must be reviewed.

These recommendations point to a new scenario that, although very slowly, is gaining ground (Pallisera, 2011). It requires attitudinal change to an inclusive perspective if we want to improve the transition to employment and adult life of people with disabilities, as suggested by the Action Plan of the European and the Spanish Strategy on Disability 2014-2020 (State Disability Observatory, 2014).


Instituto Nacional de Estadística. (2020). El empleo de las personas con discapacidad [Employment of people with disabilities.] PDF

Jordán de Urríes, B., Verdugo-Alonso, M.A., & Vicent, C. (2005). Análisis de la evolución del empleo con apoyo en España. [Analysis of the evolution of supported employment in Spain.] Real Patronato sobre Discapacidad.

LISMI. (1982). Ley 13/1982, de 7 de abril, de Integración Social de los Minusválidos [Public Law 13/1982, of April 7, on Social Integration of People with Disabilities.] Boletín Oficial del Estado, 103, April 30.

LOGSE. (1990). Ley 1/1990, de 3 de octubre, de Ordenación General del Sistema Educativo [Public Law 1/1990, of October 3, on the General Regulation of the Educational System.] Boletín Oficial del Estado, 238, October 4.

Pallisera, M. (2011). Transition scenarios for young people with learning disabilities in Spain: Relationships and discrepancies. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 26(4), 495-507.

State Disability Observatory. (2014). Plan de Acción de la Estrategia Española sobre Discapacidad: Informe de aplicación de la primera fase del Plan de Acción de la Estrategias Española sobre Discapacidad 2014-2020. [Action Plan of the Spanish Strategy on Disability: Report on the application of the first phase of the Action Plan of the Spanish Strategy on Disability 2014-2020.]

State Disability Observatory. (2020). Realidad, situación, dimensión y tendencias del empleo con apoyo en España en el horizonte del año 2020. [Reality, situation, dimension, and trends of supported employment in Spain in the horizon of the year 2020.]