What Happens After Graduation?

A parent’s guide for planning life for their special needs child after graduation

Congratulations! Your teenager is about to finish high school and embark on a most wonderful journey. As parents, we can’t help but wonder about the exciting people they will meet and new places they will go.

The future holds more options for students with disabilities than ever before. Whether it involves college or vocational school, employment, or group or independent housing, helping your child make plans for the future is an ongoing process that requires attention, direction and patience.

From my own experiences as the parent of a young adult who learns differently, I understand there are many questions to ask and decisions to make. What seems like an enormous undertaking can actually be a positive experience for both parents and children. For that reason, now is the time to consider being even more proactive than you have ever been before.


Choosing a Degree Program

If your student plans to attend a two- or four-year college or vocational training program, it is a good idea to meet with a representative from the school’s disability department before beginning the application process, as policies are different in a post-secondary setting than in a high school setting. Students with a disability are generally expected to meet the same requirements as their typical peers in order to successfully complete the program. 

Sherry Bethea, chair of Wakefield High School’s special education department, thinks it is very important that parents of special needs children realize the differences between high school and college academic processes, as the goals and accommodations spelled out in the individualized education program (IEP) do not transfer to college.

“Parents should understand there is no actual IEP anymore in college,” she says.

Some educational supports, such as assistive technology, are available and should be discussed with a disability representative when touring colleges. For example, textbooks can be converted onto a disc, and laptops and recording devices can be used in the classroom to help with teachers’ notes. Students can also schedule tests in advance to be taken in another setting. These supports may vary depending on which college the student chooses.

“Wake Tech does not modify curriculum, but we provide accommodations for accessing the material,” says Regina Willis, director of disability services at Wake Tech Community College. She recommends that parents bring their student’s current IEP evaluation to the meeting for optimum clarification of supports.

For students who may not be able to meet college-level expectations, alternatives include non-degree programs designed to engage and support students with a range of intellectual abilities.


Mission: Possible

If your student plans to go immediately into the work force, it is possible to secure outside employment suited to his or her interests and abilities. Students who pursued the Occupational Course of Study in high school are prepared for a variety of community-based jobs once they graduate. Future applicants can gain experience by pursuing job shadowing or internship opportunities with local businesses such as restaurants and retail stores.

For students with physical and/or intellectual disabilities that require a more supported work environment, the North Carolina Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services assists with job placement. According to the division’s website, placement is based on a referral process. This is good news because the referrals can originate from parents, teachers or counselors. Olivia James, communications officer at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, notes that the state provides additional services, such as guidance and counseling, rehabilitation technology, training and mental health assistance, for individuals with disabilities who seek employment.


A Daily Approach

Another choice for students with disabilities is a transitional day program. Day programs enroll adults with a range of abilities and who are usually taught in smaller groups. Transitions Day Program in Raleigh, for example, continues education in such areas as healthy living, social skills, independent living, vocational and technical training, and enrichment experiences in the arts.

“Our recipients learn about their rights — privacy, voting, et cetera — and quarterly we have self-governance meetings at the program in which they can talk about anything they want about the program,” says Transitions Day Program Manager Wendy Singleton.

If parents like the idea of a day program, they might want to explore as many options as possible with their child before making a decision.

Students with significant disabilities might consider independent living programs, which provide help with life skills management; or group housing, which can provide assistance in a more structured residential facility. Parents can contact their school’s transition coordinator to learn about services available to them.


Plan for Success

Whatever direction you decide is best for your child, preparation and planning are essential. One important step is to assess your child’s emotions and behaviors and ask yourself how much he or she is capable of handling alone. Students should begin advocating for themselves as soon as developmentally appropriate. Willis and Bethea both emphasize the importance of self-advocacy, speaking up and solving problems independently.

Parents may find they need to initiate conversations about the future with their high-schooler. Motivation is always a factor, because many students with disabilities who struggle in school just want to be finished and don’t see beyond that goal. Wakefield’s Bethea advises that parents and students “really start to think about the transition goals” during the student’s junior year. While the plan might change before graduation, having conversations about the future is a step in the right direction.

Another way parents can be proactive is to start collecting resources and networking with other parents who may be in the same situation. Transitions’ Singleton says, “Parents should trust their instinct on what they think is best.” Setting tour appointments and gathering as many ideas as possible opens the door for even greater possibilities.

There are many county and statewide agencies that offer help and information. Luckily, most of their services can be found online, but this task can seem overwhelming for some parents. One Wake Forest High School parent, Sarah S., says, “It seems daunting to figure everything out, but talk to as many people as you can.” She also has had success with checking community-based resources on her own.


Moving Forward

Deciding what happens after graduation is a challenge for all exceptional learners. Unfortunately for parents, we don’t know what we don’t know. Ask questions and get all the information you can. The pomp and circumstance won’t change who our children are inside, but it will change who they could become.


C.C. Malloy is a freelance journalist, blogger and disability advocate. She lives in Greensboro with her family. Please visit her website, Bizigal's Exceptional Blooms.


More Resources

Visit these websites for more information about planning for your child’s future after graduation. Also see our Special Needs Resources beginning on page XX, including the categories of Independent Living Resources and Disability Support and Advocacy. Visit carolinaparent.com/directories/ec.php for additional resources for parents of teens with disabilities.

Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center

College Foundation of NC

North Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Services


Note: Depending on individual eligibility, some services for individuals with disabilities can be paid for by Medicaid, private care or other funding sources. Check with your child’s special education teacher, care coordinator or other qualified professional for more specific information.


Categories: Exceptional Child, Special Needs