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Young Adults With Disabilities: Moving from 'Struggler' to 'Navigator'

When it comes to feeling happy and fulfilled, what really matters to young adults with learning and attention issues? 

It turns out to have little direct correlation with traditional school work, and everything to do with connections—to a supportive and nurturing family, to friends and the community, and even to themselves, in the form of self-confidence and ease at dealing with emotional problems and making friends. Such youth are "navigators" of their lives, as opposed to being just "copers" or even "strugglers." 

Those are the findings of a survey of 1,200 young adults two years out of school, conducted by the National Center for Learning Disabilities with the support of the Oak Foundation. The online survey was administered in August and September of 2014. The center released a variety of materials sharing the results of the "Student Voices" survey; the slide presentation that accompanied a recent webinar on the findings is particularly useful for parents and educators. 

NCLD created the navigator, coper and struggler terminology, to describe youth along a continuum of success. 

The survey intentionally included youth with a variety of disability statuses: those with no diagnosed disability, those who had received some sort of support in school because of a formal diagnosis of a disability such as dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and those youth who had not received any school support, but still felt they had some sort of issue that had a significant impact on their success in school. The students without known disabilities were included because the researchers wanted to tease out what factors may be linked to disability, and what factors could potentially be linked to to the challenges of being a young adult. About 400 youth in the survey had no known disability, while 800 had a disability, either formally or self-diagnosed. 

Supporting Success for Youth With Learning and Attention Issues

Students with learning and attention issues—whether formally or self-diagnosed—were found to be navigators, strugglers and copers. Students with no known disability also fell into all three categories, showing that young adulthood is tough for reasons unrelated to disability status.

But students with learning and attention issues were more likely to be struggling or just coping than students with no known disability. Only 38 percent of the young adults surveyed fell into the navigator group, and of those, less than a third included youth who had been formally diagnosed with a disability. Students with identified learning disabilities were far more likely to be in the coper category—doing fine in some facets of life, but struggling in others. 

In addition to the three factors listed above, the youth who were surveyed also noted some other factors that were tied to their life success, but not as strongly as the connections mentioned above: having an individualized education program in early in their school career was helpful, but more helpful was if they had input in creating that IEP. Other factors included teacher support, mentoring, and involvement in extracurricular activities. 

Sheldon Horowitz, the director of learning disability resources for NCLD, said that the findings offer a wealth of information of families and teachers. Asking youth exactly what they believe led to their success should prompt changes at the school level. IEPs too seldom include an explicit focus on nurturing self-confidence. 

"If these are the things that kids tell us predict their ending up as successful, why are we not, very early on, developing some protocols, practices and opportunities for them to be self-confident about their ability to succeed," Horowitz asked. 


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