The number of students with registered disabilities enrolling in colleges and universities across the United States is continuing to increase, speaking to the myriad of improvements and advancements in technology, legislation, and treatment over the past few decades. Such advances have resulted in the creation of more inclusive learning environments for individuals with disabilities and have improved overall access to higher education. However, students with disabilities continue to face barriers when it comes to integrating in postsecondary institutions. Campus counseling centers have been suggested as a positive way to provide support for students with disabilities who are experiencing academic and/or psychological distress, yet little is known about the use or effectiveness of these services. O’Shea et al.’s (2021) study serves to close this research gap by determining the effectiveness of campus-based individual counseling for students with disabilities.

To disclose disabilities, or not?

While there is an overall hesitation for students to disclose their disability to their college/university, the impact of social and structural stigmatization on students’ reluctance to disclose may be more pronounced for students with certain types of disabilities. On U.S. campuses, psychiatric disabilities (commonly including disorders such as depression, bipolar, anxiety, or schizophrenia) continue to be the largest and fastest growing sub-category of disability amongst college students (Americans With Disabilities Act, 2018), and yet are also often surrounded by the most stigma. 

Research indicates that “students with disabilities are at a higher risk in comparison to their peers of experiencing mental health issues on campus, including increased rates of anxiety, academic distress, suicidality, and self-injury (Coduti et al., 2016).” Such statistics further emphasize the need for accessible and high-quality support services on campus.

The effect of therapy on students with disabilities

This academic study was conducted over the span of three years (2016 – 2019) using data gathered from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) — a practice-research network involving multiple stakeholders across more than 600 college and university counseling centers (UCCs) in the United States. Participants were grouped into one of three categories based on a Standardized Data Set (SDS) — students with only psychiatric disabilities, students with disabilities other than only psychiatric disorders, and students with no disability, with the average age being 21.88 years old at the time of their first counseling session. Participants completed a multidimensional self-report questionnaire known as the Counseling Center Assessment of Psychological Symptoms (CCAPS-62) over the course of their treatment to assess any changes in symptoms.

The authors of the article hypothesized that “clients with disabilities would demonstrate significantly lower levels of improvement over the course of therapy than clients without disabilities.” Based on the results of the study, such a hypothesis was correct in that “while students across groups saw a reduction in psychological and academic distress over the course of treatment, students with disabilities experienced less reduction in psychological and academic distress than their non-disabled peers.”

Different levels of academic distress in the student body

According to the gathered data, students with and without disabilities present to counselors with similar levels of psychological distress during their time at college. With that said, levels of academic distress are much higher amongst students with disabilities in comparison to those without. Although reasons for higher levels of academic distress cannot be certain and are largely based on the individual, research has pointed to factors such as negative past experiences with academic tasks and/or instructors serving to reduce self-efficacy (Brockelman, 2009; Gorges et al., 2018; Hartley, 2010) and holding negative beliefs about personal agency in learning thus impeding engagement and motivation (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). In the discussion, it was noted that students with psychiatric disabilities present higher levels of distress than students with other disabilities and those without disabilities. This information emphasizes the importance of understanding the source of distress for students in order to provide appropriate support and ultimately work towards improving mental health and postsecondary outcomes for these individuals. 

Ways forward

O’Shea et al’s. research helps to inform best practices when it comes to counseling practitioners who work with students with disabilities. Therapists should do their best to research and be aware of the various issues and complex challenges that students with disabilities may face, including the social, academic, and personal factors that are involved in the transition to college and adulthood. As students experiment with their newfound independence and begin to navigate their sense of identity, “counselors should include in their approach a consideration of the challenge students with disabilities may be facing in terms of navigating complex issues surrounding disability disclosure, the negotiation of intersectional identities, and use of services. As the number of students with disabilities on college campuses continues to grow, postsecondary institutions may also consider providing additional training to counselors to “improve familiarity and effectiveness in working with students with disabilities.” In particular, additional training for supporting students with psychiatric disabilities is recommended given the higher risk for self-injurious and suicidal behavior (Coduti et al., 2016). 

Additional research is needed to further explore and understand the various lived experiences, concerns, and barriers to postsecondary education for students with disabilities in order to appropriately inform targeted interventions and approaches to treatment. It is also important to note that the current study categorized participants’ disability type and status based on whether or not their disability was registered with the university office of disability services. Therefore, the academic study is limited in that it does not capture students who do not disclose or register their disability with their university, and may underrepresent or miscategorize those students with disabilities as a result.

Notable quotes:

1. According to research, “less than one-quarter of students with disabilities in college choose to disclose their disability and make use of disability support services” (Newman et al., 2009), and “fewer than 10% of students with psychiatric disabilities choose to disclose their disability to the university and register with the ODS (Megivern et al., 2003) as the stigma surrounding psychiatric disabilities continues to be pervasive within and outside of academia (Collins, 2000; Stuart et al., 2020).”                        

2. “Prior research has suggested that students with disabilities are more likely to experience increased pressure in college as students navigate issues surrounding disability, identity, and disclosure in the context of new challenges in the academic and social domains (Cawthon & Cole, 2010).” 

3. “Additional research is needed that further explores therapist perceptions of clients’ disabilities among those with visible and non-visible disabilities. Understanding therapists’ perceptions of students with disabilities and various types of disabilities (i.e., visible vs. non-visible) will help to inform training and treatment approaches. There is some evidence to suggest that counselors may be less comfortable or have less confidence working with clients with whom they perceive as having a disability (i.e., the disability is more obvious or visible; Parritt, & O’Callaghan, 2000). Therapists’ perceptions of clients’ disability status may impact treatment goals and expectations, in-session decision-making, and therapist self-efficacy and confidence (Barrett et al., 2013).”

Personal Takeaway

Providing increased access to counselling and treatment services on college and university campuses is a step in the right direction in terms of delivering appropriate support and creating an inclusive learning environment for students with disabilities. However, it is also important to recognize that students must be willing to take the first step to access such services. Part of helping our students become self-directed learners is supporting their self-advocacy and help-seeking skills. Providing opportunities for students to advocate for themselves and their needs throughout their elementary, middle and secondary school years, serves as a positive way to reinforce the value and importance of asking for help when you need it—an essential skill when making the transition into college life, newfound independence, and adulthood. Thus, as a special education teacher, I will continue to seek out ways in which I can empower students to take ownership of their learning and model help-seeking behaviors as a way to support the transition to postsecondary education.

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Taryn McBrayne

Summarized Article:

O’Shea, A., Kilcullen, J. R., Hayes, J., & Scofield, B. (2021). Examining the effectiveness of campus counselling for college students with disabilities. Rehabilitation Psychology, 66(3), 300–310. https://doi.org/10.1037/rep0000349

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Key Takeaway
The success of transitions to postsecondary life is significantly affected by the size of transition networks within and beyond the school system, which includes the range of professional roles and services offered, and the effectiveness of the collaborations within these networks. A sequential mixed method study explains the nature of these collaborative relationships and goes in depth on the many diverse factors and barriers that limit transition programming.
https://marioframework.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/Adrian.pngKey Ingredient of High-Quality Transition Programming for Youth with Disabilities
Adrian Pasos

Quality of Transition Partnership Networks

Transition-aged students with disabilities make a huge shift from an entitlement-based high school education system to an eligibility-based system, the difference being having to seek out and secure services on their own. However, families frequently report that information on these services is fragmented and unavailable.1 The absence of connections negatively impact postschool outcomes, such as employment, postsecondary education and community participation.2,3

This article by Jennifer L. Bumble (University of Kansas), Erik W. Carter (Vanderbilt University) and Emily M. Kuntz (the University of Oklahoma) (2022), emphasizes how collaborations between secondary special educators and partners from the school system, service system and community—making up the “transition network”—provides access to a greater array of resources that support the transition process. 

Mixing Qualitative and Quantitative Data

Bumble, Carter and Kuntz created a sequential explanatory mixed-method design, using quantitative data from an online survey and qualitative interviews, that examines the vulnerability of current transition partnerships that primarily hinder high-quality transitions. Their research focused on three areas: 

  1. characteristics of the transition networks of secondary special educators
  2. variables associated with larger transition networks
  3. educator perspectives on these variables

Both quantitative and qualitative data were collected from 509 study participants in Tennessee, approximately 10% of the state’s 5,095 special educators, from which 25 respondents were selected for the interview. 

The data achieved the purpose of the research: “Understanding the composition of transition networks, and how networks might grow and change in response to student caseloads, is an important next step in (a) identifying the ‘key ingredients’ of effective collaboration and (b) developing interventions aimed at increasing collaboration.”

Major Influencers: Network Size and Educator Characteristics

The size of transition networks is influenced by the knowledge, background and experiences of the special educator in establishing partnerships, as well as knowledge of the locale, school roles and responsibilities, and the transition goals of their students.5,6

The research identified three major variables affecting ‘larger’ networks: high school teachers who are supporting students with moderate/severe disabilities in high school, number of years of experience, and higher levels of knowledge in establishing collaborative partnerships. 

Participants interpreted that smaller networks were due to (a) larger caseloads of students with mild disabilities, (b) a lack of services specific to students with mild disabilities, and (c) a focus on academic instruction and meeting graduation requirements that left little time for transition planning.

Barriers that limit collaborative practices include multiple responsibilities of educators, limited support and service partners in the community, limited involvement of outside agencies in transition planning, little to no formal training in collaborations, and lack of familiarity with local resources.

Suggested Actions to Boost Network

The social resource theory highlights the benefit of a higher social capital, basically, collaborating with more partners means gaining more access to novel and diverse resources.4 “Educators can leverage the resources housed within their own network and mobilize their networks to connect students and families to critical postschool supports.”

According to Carter and Bumble, these new insights should guide the development of “out-of-the-box” interventions to improve collaborations and increase its scope beyond the school system, such as transition fairs, community engagement events, and practicum placements with local agencies and providers. 

Other suggested actions include colleagues and families creating a list of existing services and supports, reaching out to potential mentors with expertise in collaboration, beginning discussions with administrators, and interagency collaboration for federal legislation.

Summarized Article:

Bumble, J. L., Carter, E. W., & Kuntz, E. M. (2022). Examining the Transition Networks of Secondary Special Educators: An Explanatory Sequential Mixed Methods Study. Remedial and Special Education. https://doi.org/10.1177/07419325211063485

Summary by: Adrian Pasos — Adrian describes himself as a creative and strategic educator. Likewise, he believes that the MARIO Framework embraces the creative and strategic roles of both the educator and the individual learner in the teaching-learning process.

Additional References:

  1. Gilson, C. B., Bethune, L., Carter, E. W., McMillan, E. (2017). Informing and equipping parents of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 55(5), 347–360. https://doi.org/10.1352/1934-9556-55.5.347
  2. Prince, A. M. T., Hodge, J., Bridges, W. C., Katsiyannis, A. (2017). Predictors of postschool education/training and employment outcomes for youth with disabilities. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 41(2), 77–87. https://doi.org/10.1177/2165143417698122
  3. Sanford, C., Newman, L., Wagner, M., Cameto, R., Knokey, A., Shaver, D. (2011). The post-high school outcomes of young adults with disabilities up to 6 years after high school. Key findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) (NCSER 2011—3004). U. S. Department of Education. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED523539.pdf
  4. Lin, N. (2001). Building a network theory of social capital. In Lin, N., Cook, K., Burt, R. S. (Eds.), Social capital: Theory and research (pp. 3–30). Aldine de Gruyter.
  5. Trach, J. S. (2012). Degree of collaboration for successful transition outcomes. Journal of Rehabilitation, 78(2), 39–48.

Taylor, D. L., Morgan, R. L., Callow-Heusser, C. A. (2016). A survey of vocational rehabilitation counselors and special education teachers on collaboration in transition planning. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 44(2), 163–173. https://doi.org/10.3233/JVR-150788

Key Takeaway: 

As most education programs focus on short-run learning outcomes, special education (SE) helps prepare students for adult life goals. A study on the long-run benefits of SE examines sudden declines in educational attainment after a debated policy change in Texas that pressured school districts to reduce SE caseloads. Over 10 years of exposure to the controversial policy, drawbacks, largely experienced by less-advantaged youth, prove how SE programs significantly alter students’ learning environments, influence adult life success, and suggest later life labor market outcomes. —Adrian Pasos

Special Education Spending

The lack of evidence on the long-run trajectories of SE programs and placements, along with inconsistencies in its selection criteria, made it difficult to measure the effectiveness of SE spending. This, however, did not inhibit the growing rate of SE participants in the U.S., currently at an annual cost of $40 billion.1 Despite the ambiguity of its benefits, SE increased by 40 percent between 1975 and 2018. 

In 2005, the state of Texas introduced a major policy change that restricted school districts to an 8.5 percent ‘cap’ in SE enrollments. Although it was eventually reversed for violating federal disability law,2 it was responsible for a massive statewide decline in educational attainment rates. 

Special Education Access and Removal Effects

Research conducted by Ballis and Heath (2021) exploited this unique policy change to extract statistical data that produced evidence of the long-run success of SE programs. “Credibly estimating the long-run impacts of SE programs is difficult due to data limitations and the empirical challenges. The few studies that have examined SE placement have largely focused on short-run outcomes.”

On the other hand, their research design identifies the direct impacts of SE programs by using strategies that analyze differences in SE access and removal in varying exposures to the policy. Results show the negative effects of SE removal in a high-impact sample group—students whose disabilities are less severe. This explains the sharp decline in educational attainment, as evidenced by a 51.9% drop in high school completion and a 37.9% drop in college enrollment, which are strong predictors of later life labor market outcomes. 

Data also presented advantages of SE placements on general education (GE), showing how its removal can alter the way teachers allocate resources, thereby also negatively affecting GE students. A comparative study supports that additional educational resources to students with mild disabilities offer returns that are significantly larger than reducing classroom sizes or increasing school spending, but similar to highly effective interventions.3,4,5

Adulthood Outcomes

To establish its long standing impact, Ballis and Heath leveraged administrative data that followed public school students into adulthood, linking student-level school records to post-secondary schooling.  As explained by Ballis and Heath, “our results suggest large returns to investing in specialized educational support when overall improvements in school quality are not possible.” 

While Ballis and Heath have shown “robust evidence on the impacts of SE placement on educational attainment decisions, the limited time after the policy does not yet allow us to fully follow students into the labor market. Understanding the longer-run labor market effects will be the focus of future research.”

Summarized Article:

Ballis, B. & Heath, K. (2021). The Long-Run Impacts of Special Education. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 13(4): 72-111.

Summary by: Adrian Pasos — Adrian believes that the MARIO Framework embraces the individual learner, who plays a dynamic role in the process of teaching and learning, as well as the educator who can turn the unfamiliar into creative learning opportunities.

Academic researchers Katelyn Heath and Briana Ballis participated in the final version of this summary.

Additional References:

  1. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). 2015. “The Condition of Education at a Glance.” NCES. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2015/2015144.pdf.
  2. US Department of Education. 2018. “U.S. Department of Education Issues Findings in Texas Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Monitoring.” US Department of Education Press Release, January 11. https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-issues-findings-texas-individuals-disabilities-education-act-monitoring.
  3. Dynarski, Susan, Joshua Hyman, and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach. 2013. “Experimental Evidence on the Effect of Childhood Investments on Postsecondary Attainment and Degree Completion.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 32 (4): 692–717.
  4. Jackson, C. Kirabo, Rucker C. Johnson, and Claudia Persico. 2015. “The Effects of School Spending on Educational and Economic Outcomes: Evidence from School Finance Reforms.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 131 (1): 157–218.
  5. Levin, Henry M., Clive Belfield, Peter Muennig, and Cecilia Rouse. 2007. “The Public Returns to Public Educational Investments in African-American Males.” Economics of Education Review 26 (6): 699–708.