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

Innovative Approaches to Transition


Satomi Shinde is a professor at University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She may be reached at satomi.shinde@uwrf.edu.

Takeshi Chikurinji is a professor at Hiroshima Cosmopolitan University, Japan. He may be reached at chikurinji@hcu.ac.jp.

Japanese culture is known for its emphasis on people working together for a common goal, rather than each person getting everything they want. This has made a difference in how Japanese schools provide transition services to people with intellectual disability (ID).

The education system for students with ID has been through reforms, but still often segregates students with disabilities from those without disabilities. Japanese law recognizes the importance of transition to adult life and encourages educators to prepare all students with disabilities for careers. Educators in Japan are using some interesting methods to help students learn about employment and adult life. These include dialogue-based and inquiry-based learning. Students learn by talking with their teachers, students, and others, and asking questions. This helps students make their own decisions and take more control over their lives. Students are also taught about the joy of being a part of the local community and helping others through work.

Although most students move onto government-sponsored programs to continue learning skills after they graduate, businesses in Japan are beginning to hire people with ID. Many are doing this because it is required by law, and most ask people with ID to work in“special subsidiaries,” apart from others in the company. Progressive businesses see the value of hiring people with disabilities and go beyond what the government requires. With this and the new education approaches, Japan can become a more inclusive society.

A student wearing a white hat and mask, red apron, and blue gloves works with food in trays.

A student prepares meals at a local catering business in Hiroshima as part of a work-based learning program.

A red passport stamp from the country of Japan features a plane, two red circles, and a faded outline of the country in the background.

Japanese culture traditionally has been known for its collectivism, working as a group, and making the group a priority over individual needs and wants. This has influenced progress in education and a range of industries over the country’s long history. It also has influenced special education and transition services in Japan.

Special education in Japan is similar to the United States, with reforms put in place as a result of an amendment to the School Education Law in 2007. Prior to this, Japanese special schools were categorized by disability (i.e., separate schools for students with intellectual disability, physical disabilities, etc.). After the reforms, services now closely align with those of the United States, but due to the number of students with disabilities, Japan still educates a relatively large number of students in special schools.

Each Japanese prefecture, which is equivalent to a U.S. state, has several special needs education schools, mainly serving students with intellectual disability (ID), vision/hearing impairments, and other disabilities as part of the public education system. Most students with other disabilities, including specific learning disabilities (SLD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), have been served in resource rooms and inclusive/special education classrooms within general education programs. The current School Education Law recognizes the importance of transition services and encourages career development and employment for students with disabilities in special education programs implemented at regular schools and in special needs education schools. Transition services today are often viewed as career education.

With increased support for students with disabilities, more high school graduates (mainly those with SLD, ADHD, and ASD) today are choosing postsecondary education options. Approximately 30% of students with ID (typically special needs education high school graduates) are employed immediately after graduating from high school. The majority, over 60%, attend social welfare programs (funded by the local government) and receive additional transition services, apart from schools that focus on employment, social inclusion, and independent living skills.

The focus of learning for students with disabilities is on contribution to others, the community, and society through their transition to adulthood. Transition services, often equivalent to career education, are considered to be ongoing from elementary to high school for students with disabilities in Japan. Elementary-age students begin to learn about various jobs in their local community, and are encouraged to learn about the importance of being a part of the community. Middle and high school students, especially those at special needs education schools, start to be engaged in work-based learning that is focused on developing skills in craft and manufacturing, sales business, service industries, custodial business, and others, in the local community. Educators teach students the joy of contributing to and being a member of society with a focus on how one can be appreciated by others through work.

Special needs education schools develop networks in the local community by making connections with local small-to-midsize businesses and special subsidiaries. Special subsidiaries are units of large companies that hire employees with disabilities, along with job coaches and administrators without disabilities. These subsidiaries allow businesses to meet disability quotas set by the government. When quotas are not met, businesses must pay fines to the government. It is therefore critical for schools to build strong partnerships with businesses to create field-based learning for students and potential employees.

Dialogue-based and inquiry learning is important for students with special needs to support their engagement in learning and encourage the development of decision-making capacities and a sense of self-efficacy. Educators teach the meaning of work by asking students to examine why it is crucial for them to work and contribute to the community. This approach not only helps support students’ self-determination and self-efficacy, but their independence. Educators have been working to integrate the traditional collective perspective and this recent trend in dialogue- and inquiry-based learning to support students with disabilities through their transition. Dialogue-based learning is a pedagogy that allows students to learn through having dialogues with educators, students, and others. Students explore topics through inquiries and dialogues. Similarly, inquiry-based learning involves educators carefully planning prompts to facilitate learning via asking questions and investigating.

Some companies have made remarkable efforts to meet or exceed the goals, but many have a long way to go to. They pay fines without hiring a sufficient number of individuals with disabilities. Some perceive this quota system as hindering people with disabilities because companies can escape with the fine. Progressive business people recognize the importance of increasing employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. With these newer approaches in education, Japan strives to create an inclusive society beyond the quota.