Five Questions for Audrey A. Trainor on Coming of Age with A Disability

Audrey A. Trainor, associate professor of special education in Steinhardt’s Department of Teaching and Learning,  studies equity and diversity in special education.  Her current research includes a secondary analysis of the second National Longitudinal Transition (NLTS2) funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, and qualitative interview studies with parents of children with disabilities.  We spoke to her about her book, Transition by Design: Improving Equity and Outcomes for Adolescents with Disabilities (Teachers College Press, 2017).

What are some of the issues that you see in adolescents who come of age with a disability?

 There are a range issues that all young adults—with and without disabilities—face as they enter adulthood. In emerging adulthood, most everyone is reaching for their personal goals while simultaneously learning how to be self-determining and accountable. For young adults with some disabilities, questions about guardianship can be specific to disability as individuals and families decide who — self or other adult — is best qualified to make decisions and act in the age of majority. Beyond that, young adults with disabilities grapple with the same questions as all of us do: Whether to get a job or go to college, or both? How to become financially independent and secure? How to belong to a community beyond high school? If/When to start a family? How to live in a way that represents one’s values and beliefs?

Are there specific challenges these adolescents face which are different from their peers?

Having a disability does not change the questions one asks as much as it influences the strategies one has and needs to develop for answering them. With effective planning in childhood and adolescence, young adults with disabilities are likely to be more self-aware of their strengths, needs, and desires than those who have had to rely less on this knowledge to accomplish their goals. Without planning, young adults with disabilities—similar to individuals without disabilities—are less prepared to bring their goals to fruition. In terms of going to college, getting a job, or finding independent housing, young adults with disabilities may have to self-advocate for their rights in the face of discrimination (e.g., knowing the Americans with Disabilities Act, locating a campus center for supporting students with disabilities). If teachers and parents have instructed, planned, and practiced with adolescents with disabilities during high school, this is less of an obstacle.

Are there unique issues that adolescents of color with disabilities face in their journey toward independent adulthood?

First, I’d like to start by considering the strengths of communities of color. Racism, ableism, and biases, either individual or institutional, are not new phenomena. Adolescents and young adults of color often have the assets associated with strong communities of both family and unrelated adult mentors who reach out to younger members of their communities and share knowledge, experience, and support. Having said that, it is important to acknowledge that — in a society with a history of race-based biases and marginalization — young adults of color with disabilities face additional discrimination and institutionalized racism when compared to both their peers without disabilities across races and their dominant group (e.g., White) peers with disabilities. In particular, school and community resources, as well as the implementation of school discipline, have been found to disadvantage some groups of students, among them youth experiencing poverty and youth of color.

How do schools help support students with special needs?

 Despite both community support and best transition practices identified in research (e.g., having early work experiences), school systems have struggled to implement an asset-based approach to transition equally for all young adults with disabilities across groups, whether associated with race/ethnicity, specific disability, socioeconomic background, sex, etc. This is evidenced in the postschool outcomes studies that I cite in my book, particularly in the National Longitudinal Transition Study—2 ( Also, school systems are susceptible to the same challenges that other institutions experience including being under-resourced. When schools and teachers are overextended, meeting the needs of all individuals can be difficult, if not impossible.

For example, a young adult with depression is going to have a challenging time finding insurance with adequate mental health benefits, and this problem will be particularly keenly experienced by a young adult who is not employed and has no work-related health insurance or leave benefits. Similarly, an undocumented teen with a disability can find himself ineligible for vocational and other supports upon leaving public school education. Neither of these scenarios is exclusively associated with people of color, however, underemployment and immigration issues disproportionately impact people at the intersections of disability, historical racial minorities, and economic disadvantage. Schools cannot solve these problems for or with students without the support of a strong national education policies, national health care system/benefits plan or immigration reform. This is why the majority of educators and the Council for Exceptional Children (the largest professional organization in special education) has been both closely following Secretary DeVos’s opinions around special education and urging the U.S. Congress to continue the Affordable Care Act. This is also why I, and many of my colleagues, support DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) as first steps to be taken in unison with individualized transition education for all young adults, including those with disabilities.

Can you explain how “strength-based” approaches can shape equitable opportunity for youth with disabilities in transition?

Most people can relate to the frustration of deficit thinking when we or someone we know considered what we do poorly before considering what we do well. Both are important to understand and address, however, considering one’s strengths first is liberating and supports the likelihood of success. Further, strength-based planning is requirement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004. Many parents engage in this type of strategic planning with their children quite naturally. A parent considers, What are my child’s interests? What are her talents? With this knowledge, a parent encourages a child to pursue related fields of study or hobbies or employment opportunities. Teachers are charged with doing the same and some are very good at this type of planning. It requires knowing one’s students well and it requires knowing what resources communities have to offer.

For example, many people with disabilities are quite capable of working and many have a strong desire to do so, yet under- and unemployment is a significant problem among adults with disabilities and contributes to other problems, such as poverty. A strength-based approach relies on ongoing assessment and opportunities to practice and tryout different settings with potential for career development. Teachers face challenges to implementing transition education, however, because many students with disabilities have few free periods during the school day for vocational exploration and career development. This means that individuals and their families have to explore outside of school and this requires support networks and social connections that afford summer work experience, internships, extracurricular clubs and activities, etc. All of this also usually requires money for transportation, appropriate clothing, and so on. Schools and teachers that have a strong commitment to really knowing their students and developing opportunities on their campus and in their community, find ways to make these connections and opportunities more naturally.