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GAO: Transition for Students With Disabilities Can, Must Improve

Although a number of federal government programs and services are intended to help students with disabilities after they leave high school, those programs aren't coordinated well, making them difficult for students and their families to navigate, a new report from the Government Accountability Office says.

Services students can apply for include tutoring, vocational training, and assistive technology. These come from the federal departments of Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, and the Social Security Administration. But the different agencies only coordinate their activities to an extent and don't ever reflect on how effectively they work together, the GAO said in the report, released today.

While ideally, students with disabilities get help planning for life after high school—planning for a path that leads to work or additional schooling—once they leave school they are on their own in applying for services and support from various federal government agencies.

Indeed, part of the difficulty for young people, the GAO found, is that because through the end of high school, they are entitled to certain services coordinated by school districts as required by federal disability education laws, once they leave that cocoon, it's easy for these same young people to flounder in a maze of bureaucracy.

Officials in each of the states the GAO looked into—California, Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, and Nevada—suggested case managers to help coordinate students' services and guide them and their families, but those could be expensive.

Disagreements over who should pay for services—the school district or another program—cause delays in services for students, the GAO found, especially for students who are still eligible for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which can provides services through age 21.

The GAO report found that other barriers to productive lives after high school for some students with disabilities include:

• A lack of access to reliable public transportation, especially in rural areas;
• A lack of access for certain groups of people with disabilities to some programs, including people with developmental or cognitive disabilities, mental health disabilities, autism, and learning disabilities;
• Inaccurate information given to some parents, such as that having any paid employment will mean losing all Social Security benefits for people with disabilities;
• High schools fail to working with students on transition plans until it's too late or not at all. (There is fresh emphasis on the importance of this planning for students with disabilities from the Education Department.)
• Low expectations from parents, agencies providing services, and the students themselves. "Consequently," the GAO said, "some officials said students may be directed to apply for Social Security benefits instead of receiving job training, and that students with more serious disabilities who could benefit from competitive employment may be steered instead toward adult day training programs and sheltered workshops."

GAO investigated at the request of Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., in 2010, who became concerned after hearing a number of reports about the low employment rates of people with disabilities.

All four agencies agreed with the GAO about a need for better coordination of efforts, and in the report, you'll see some of the work they are doing to improve those efforts.

"Without effective and efficient transition services, high school students can't take advantage of the help available to them to ensure success in college and the world of work," said James H. Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, in a statement. "I am pleased that agencies have responded to this report by increasing their efforts to coordinate programs."

Still, he said, as IDEA and other disability-related legislation is renewed by Congress, lawmakers must pay more attention to the issue of transition services, he said.

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