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How We Can Change the Grim Employment Outlook for Young Adults With Disabilities

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High school graduation is usually a time to recognize the culmination of a successful four years of hard work. Families, friends, and educators join together to celebrate the graduate with ceremonies and festivities. It is also a time for thinking about a new set of goals. In most cases, these goals are related to the
expectation of attending college, finding a job and living independently.

However, for many students with disabilities and their families, graduation can be a difficult and anxiety-producing time. As the big day approaches, the pressing questions tend to be: What is next after graduation is over? What options are out there for me? Am I going to be able to find a job? Should
I attend a trade school
? Will I someday be able to participate fully in the community as those without disabilities do? Will the workforce welcome me? In too many cases, the answer to these questions is No.

Sadly, this is the situation many people with disabilities and their families face.  The percentage of high school graduates with disabilities who enroll in college and join the work force is dramatically low
compared to their peers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (July 20, 2015):

“People with a disability are less likely to have completed a bachelor’s degree than people with no disability. Among people age 25 and older in 2014, 16.4 percent of people with a disability had completed at least a bachelor’s degree. By comparison, 34.6 percent of people with no disability had completed at least a bachelor’s degree.”

“People who have completed higher levels of education were more likely to be employed than were those with less education. At all levels of education, however, people with a disability were much less likely to work than were people with no disability. For example, 26.1 percent of people with a disability who had completed at least a bachelor’s degree were employed in 2014; among college graduates with no disability, 75.9 percent were employed.”

A couple of months ago, I was invited to talk to a group of 20 high school students with disabilities. Some of them were seniors who would be graduating in less than three months. When I asked the students what plans they had for after graduation, their reactions were disturbing. Just one planned to enroll in college, and just one planned to apply for a job.

It caused me great sadness to witness this defeatist attitude. I don’t blame the students. Many educators, families, employers, etc., believe those with disabilities shouldn’t be part of mainstream society. Many people with a disability internalize this, lose confidence, withdraw, and, as a result, never end up getting a chance to discover their abilities and use their potential.

This tragic situation calls for relentless and outspoken advocacy efforts, including awareness-raising campaigns at the national level. If we do nothing, we are condemning many young people with disabilities to a “life sentence” of unnecessary dependency, lost opportunity, and worst of all, unrealized dreams.

Families, educators and students must work together to develop an education and employment plan for graduating young adults that will focus on their strengths. Everyone is gifted with a talent, and people with disabilities are no exception. We all deserve the opportunity to develop to our full potential.

Juana Ortiz’s book “I Made It” is available at and on Amazon.

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Originally published: July 13, 2016
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