RI Global Report: Issues facing young people with disabilities after compulsory education

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RI Global: Office of Communications

Contact: Adrian Brune, +1 347-759-9501

Prepared by: Hashem Taqi, Chair, RI Education Commission

Many economies of the 21st Century rely on a well-qualified young generation of workers who are able to contribute to the workforce and ensure the prosperity of a society. With transformations from agricultural to industrial and from industrial to information societies, a shift towards more qualified work had a direct impact on public education systems. In the information age, countries with the highest level of education are generally the most competitive countries economically. The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has therefore initiated the “Programme for International Student Assessment” (PISA), which since 2000 has looked at the performance of 15-year-olds to establish how well they are prepared for adult life. In other words, PISA highlighted the percentage of youth in participating countries that clearly are not ready for the transition to adult life, and some of them were not even performing at a basic level of literacy.

Whether the next generation is ready for the workforce is a growing policy concern in many countries, especially in post-industrial economies in need of a generally well-educated work force. No longer can these countries afford to focus on educating their elites without worrying about educational failures of entire sub-groups of their population. Besides improving their education systems, improving the services and systems that support failing students to find their way into the workforce has become an important policy concern.

Partially driven by these economic reasons, nations of the 21st century are more concerned with issues around equity. However, there is also a growing awareness that human rights need to be realised for all if there are to be prospering societies. The Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) has reconfirmed that basic human rights also apply to all people with disabilities or chronic health conditions. The transition between education and work is generally a critical period in the lives of young people, but especially for marginalised and disadvantaged groups there an increased risk of exclusion and discrimination.

For many countries, providing support to youth at-risk in this period is challenging. The education sector often does not prepare young people enough for the active role they have to assume after school. In other words, what students are taught in school, often does not help them develop important life skills and cross-curricular competencies. Educational policy mandates and legislation end with school, but work-related laws and policies only apply to people in the workforce or those eligible for compensation if they are unemployed due to a disability or a health problem.  Parents themselves are challenged by their sons and daughters who distance themselves, seek relationships outside the family and request more autonomy as they get older. All in all, it is a challenging time for all youth and a difficult transition to achieve for some.

Situation of young people in transition between education and work

According to the World Report on Disability (WHO, World Bank 2011), children with disabilities are more likely not to receive an education, to drop out of school or leave school without a certificate.

People with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed, and global data shows that employment rates are lower for disabled men (53%) and disabled women (20%) than for non-disabled men (65%) and non-disabled women (30%). In OECD countries, the employment rate of people with disabilities (44%) was slightly over half that for people without disabilities (75%). Even when attending secondary education and receiving a certificate, many youth with disabilities are not well prepared for work. This applies even more so for children attending special schools, since special schools generally are less likely to access available services in the mainstream system (e.g. career planning and transitions support) which is provided in many countries for non-disabled children. Special schools are generally protected environments that do not encourage the development of necessary life skills, personal skills and social skills needed to be successful in mainstream work settings. Often, they do not follow the regular curriculum even if students would be able to learn at the same level. Students themselves often hold unrealistic views of what they are capable of or what employment opportunities there may be for them – both in terms of fantasies around career perspectives that are most unlikely and in terms of expecting failure and having too low expectations.

Mental health of youth and young adults is an increasing worry in many countries (OECD 2015), as mental health problems are often associated with early school leaving, problems in accessing higher education or vocational training.

As indicated above, many policy and service systems are not well prepared to provide support during the transition between education and work. Available services and financial responsibilities are fragmented across different policy domains and service providers. Even within the sector responsible for providing services for people with disabilities, there are generally different service providing for adults and children. Therefore, even if services are available, they are not flexible enough to meet the specific needs of young people with difficulties in transition between education and work.

Approaches to promote participation in higher education and employment

Generally, in countries where most children with disabilities go to regular schools, transition outcomes are better. If young people with disabilities complete high school in regular settings, they are more likely to enter employment or enroll in post secondary education and training. Generally, they also have higher earnings. Therefore, inclusive education is a priority – not only to fulfill the requirements of the CRPD, but also for economic reasons.

Many education systems that in the past focused almost exclusively on academic knowledge in their curricula seek to introduce a stronger focus on life skills and the learners’ capabilities, especially in the upper grades of secondary schooling. In some countries, there is a formalized process starting about a year before the end of compulsory education to prepare for the transition. To facilitate the transition, schools seek partnerships with local employers or companies where students can go for a taster week to learn first-hand about demands that a certain work place may entail. Compulsory education, vocational education and companies that provide practical work opportunities during vocational training create networks together with special educators, social workers and other professionals. Some countries have created specialized transition services and require schools to develop a formalized transition plan for students with disabilities. Such services help lowering the risk of dropout and help bridge the gaps between compulsory education, vocational education and the work place (European Agency 2013).

An important factor for successful transition is a trans-disciplinary vocational assessment (academic skills, personal and social skills, daily living skills, occupational and vocational skills) as part of the career guidance process. Higher education institution have introduced services of students with disabilities with the aim to prevent discrimination and provide support, but also to sensitize academic staff, ensure accessibility of buildings and infrastructure, and decide about disability compensation during exams.

At school and the work place, a good basic knowledge about the use of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) is most important. Regular schools and even more so companies and employers are often unaware of adaptations and facilitations possible with ICT.

Finally yet importantly, it is most important that the family of the young person with disabilities is fully involved. Often parents are unsure how much they should get involved and how to best support the transition process. Transition coaches that are able to provide feedback and ensure that next steps are taken at adequate times may support families.

The way forward

Countries, schools or companies wishing to do more for the transition from education to work of young people with disabilities need to ensure that all relevant partners are willing to work together and to create a network of support. Person-centered approaches should be used to strengthen the young persons with disabilities and tailor the services to their specific needs.

Attention needs to be given to transition in legislation, policies and in service provision, especially with view to bridge existing gaps and create inclusive services that are able to support the students when transitioning between school, vocational training institutions and the work place. Education systems have to expand their understanding of education to make it more inclusive and more relevant for young people. Legislation may be needed to facilitate this process. Depending on the situation in a specific country, policies may need to be developed to support youth employment and avoid dropout. Effective assessment in transition phases is focusing on the capacity of individuals and the competences and skills needed to gain employment; including transition goals in educational planning.


European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education (2013). European Patterns of Successful Practice in Vocational Education and Training. Participation of Learners with SEN/Disabilies in VET. Odense: European Agency.

OECD (2015): Fit Mind, Fit Job: From Evidence to Practice in Mental Health and Work, Mental Health and Work. Paris: OECD.

WHO, World Bank (2011): World Report on Disability. Geneva: World Health Organisation.


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