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The EDge newsletter—a publication of the California Department of Education, Special Education Division—informs and supports California’s parents, policymakers, educators, and other service providers on special education topics, focusing on research-based practices, legislation, technical support, and current resources.

Summer 2015 Volume 28 Number 3


Student Involvement and Transition

Download Summer 2015
Volume 28



Successful Transition to Adult Life: Communication Is Key


The ability to communicate is arguably the most important skill a student can learn; it is certainly central to a successful transition from high school to employment, continuous learning, independent living, and adulthood. Not surprisingly, communication is featured first in the National Center and State Collaborative’s list of the most important functional skills in the 21st century.1

While we all struggle in some way to learn how to express ourselves well and for different purposes, children who are blind or visually impaired, children who are deaf or hard of hearing, and children with significant cognitive disabilities all face communication challenges beyond what most of us can begin to imagine.

Communication as a Right

“Everyone communicates,” says Amy Haggardy, assistant professor of special education at CalState Northridge. “If we’re alert or asleep, pinching someone or screaming—intentionally or unintentionally we’re communicating. What we all need to learn, however, is to communicate competently. Our goal [as educators] is to help students become better communicators. For students with disabilities, access to typical peers and typical settings is so important in developing this competence, because students need models of behavior and of communication if they are going to develop the level of competence they need in order to succeed.”

Haggardy points to the Communication Bill of  Rights, written in 1992 by the National Joint Committee for the Communicative Needs of Persons with Severe Disabilities. This document remains a radical—and profoundly important—set of guidelines for students as they prepare for adult life and for their teachers and parents as they seek to provide the most effective education, guidance, and support to students. These rights include “the right to request desired objects, actions, events, and people; the right to express personal preferences and feelings; the right to reject offered choices; the right to be in environments that promote one’s communication as a full partner with other people, including peers.”2

As fundamental and important as these rights are, securing them for every student remains a daunting challenge—in part because there exists no clear formula. Communication needs vary widely from student to student, both individually and across disabilities. Children who experience significant cognitive challenges need vastly different learning and technological supports than those needed by children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Needs and requirements differ even within a single disability category. A child who is blind from birth requires a different set of supports and educational options than those needed by a child who lost his sight at age three, for example. Complicating the process, as children grow and change, the goals and challenges of communication change as well.

Where to Begin?

Elena Gomez’s parents were living in Cuba after the revolution of the 1950s. They were planning a move to Spain when her mother contracted Rubella—and then discovered she was pregnant. Gomez was subsequently born with significant hearing loss.

Now a deputy director at the California Department of Rehabilitation, Gomez learned from her experiences growing up in Southern California, and from her work as a professional, the importance of the following for parents and teachers of students who face communication challenges:

Intervene Early

The ability to communicate and use language competently and effectively is acquired, and that acquisition begins even before a child is born. Nancy Sager, consultant at the California Department of Education, Special Education Division, writes, “If we want to improve adult outcomes for individuals who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing (DHH), then we must focus on improving services to DHH infants and toddlers and their families.” She applies this principle to any child with a disability. “We know from research that when children [with disabilities], including those who have intellectual or developmental disabilities, are identified and enrolled in appropriate Early Start services by six months of age, they can develop language and communication skills at the same rate as their peers, and commensurate with their cognitive abilities.” Adding perhaps the most compelling argument for “starting early,” Sager continues, “Children who are identified after six months of age tend to have language delays that impact their language development, and their academic, vocational, and social success later in life.”3

Inform and Involve Families

The more families know about their child’s disability and the more involved they are in the child’s schooling, the better the child’s post-school outcomes. However, for parents of children who have communication delays or challenges, this knowledge and involvement takes its own unique path. Anne Linville, director of transition at the California School for the Blind, counsels parents to first “accept their child’s disability. They even need to accept what they can’t imagine. There are things that students can achieve that [parents] can’t even begin to contemplate.” Fears, she says, can easily cloud an awareness of the possibilities. “It’s not easy to face our fears for our kids, but parents need to do it as much as possible.”

Gomez also advises parents to “be open.” She has seen some families insist that their child learn one “language modality” and be equally insistent that the child not learn another. From her experience, “what’s most important is that the child acquires language and the ability to communicate—in the manner that best suits
the child. In any modality.”4 The more tools that are introduced to children, the more choices they have. And no one would argue in favor of limiting the choices of children with disabilities.

Few parents enter family life prepared to provide, find, and secure the best services and supports for a child with a communication delay or challenge. One of the most helpful supports for them and for their children can come from meeting parents who have raised children with the same disability. Through these encounters, parents learn some of the things they can expect their children to accomplish and can begin to imagine promising and fulfilling futures for them.5 Research shows that most parents are much more confident and optimistic about
the future for their child when they connect with other parents who have had similar experiences.6

Model What Is Possible

When a child is born with or develops a disability, Linville says that the “parent’s dreams for the child have to change. That’s why it’s so important for both parents and students to see models of successful adults who have the same disability as their child.”

Gomez advises, “Don’t make exceptions” just because a child has a disability. “Patterns of dependence get habitual, and you want children to be able to encounter barriers and challenges on their own. This develops problem-solving and self-determination skills.” She encourages parents and teachers to require of children with disabilities the kinds of things they would require of any child. All children can and must learn to handle responsibilities and challenges in order to feel capable; responding to struggle is an important part of growing and learning.

Linville points to one of the teachers at the School for the Blind who is completely blind and who graduated from San Francisco State. “She teaches our daily living skills,” says Linville. “When one of her students says ‘I can’t do this because I’m blind,’ she responds with ‘And your point is?’ She believes—and shows her students how—they can take care of themselves, go to college, live independent lives—in short do everything they would be able to do if they weren’t blind. Parents don’t always know the full potential of their children. Having adult models helps them begin to imagine that potential.”

Consider Options

Linville and Gomez both talk about the importance of parents and teachers also being open to the continuum of services available to students—and to providing those that best serve the child. Some students may learn to communicate best in general education classrooms alongside their general education peers; others may need a special school in order to reach their IEP goals.7 And others may need something else entirely.

Self-confidence and self-esteem often depend upon school climate. When growing up, Gomez attended a junior high school that had no climate of support for students who were deaf or hard of hearing, and her stellar academic performance plummeted until her mother moved her to a school that was simply more accepting of students with hearing loss. Available adult and peer support and acceptance must be considered alongside educational opportunities.8

The Future

The ability to communicate effectively is central to nearly every part of life. Nurturing and fostering this skill fundamentally benefits all students as they grow and become adults.  

Notes and Resources


Transition to Adult Life

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California Services for Technical Assistance and Training (CalSTAT)
is a California Department of Education, Special Education Division project supported through the Napa County Office of Education
1450 Technology Lane, Suite 200 Petaluma, CA 94954
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Napa County Office of Education

Last updated: 02/10/2017