Goals and Experiences of Females with Disabilities
Youth, Parents and Professionals
The impact of feeling ‘different’ and ‘not
normal’ and the disapproval and negative messages
women in special education receive are ‘especially
influential in their ability to achieve future goals’
at the Regional Research Institute (RSI) at Portland State
University studied the influence of gender
in the setting of goals and planning of transition services
for young women with disabilities. Despite a more positive
trend in outcomes for youth with disabilities in the past
twenty years, high school graduation rates, percent of students
attending 4 year colleges and wages for women all remain
lower that those for men. These differences have persisted
over time and were identified in the early 1980’s as
the “double handicap” of both disability and
gender inequality (Kutza, E.A.,1985).
are only a few studies that have examined gender differences
in transition. What is known is that the experiences
of female students are very different from those of their
young women in special education have career goals
that may lead them only to lower paying female-typical
education encourages these limited aspirations by steering
young women students into occupations
such as child care and food services while young
opportunities have broadened considerably.
Plans for young women tend to set goals that conform
to and reinforce outdated stereotypes
roles in the workplace.
Information was gathered through a series of interviews
and focus groups with 146 youth, parents and education professionals.
Activities and participants were located in two major urban
school districts located in the western U.S. and through
the student services office serving disabled students at
a Western public university. Ten focus group interviews were
held with young women still in high school, one focus group
was comprised of college students, six group interviews were
held with the parents or care givers of the young women students
and seven were held with special education professionals.
The initial questions presented were developed by two independent
advisory committees consisting of students, parents of young
women with disabilities and education professionals and included
general questions about transition experiences as well as
experiences specific to young women in special education.
goals. The young women in the study generally identified
concrete goals related to specific careers. Most
tended to “want it all” and often spoke of marriage,
family, work and good jobs. They frequently acknowledged
that their education—finishing school and attending
college—as a valuable goal and all mentioned family
and relationships as extremely important in terms of their
also identified education, family and relationship goals
for their children. Where the goals of the parents
and their children diverged was often related to whether
the parents or caregivers felt that the goals were realistic
and congruent with the skills and current situation of their
daughters. For example, one parent commented that attending
college was a shared goal but that currently “We’re
having problems with her even to finish high school. She
wants to drop out.”
education professionals, in contrast to the students and
parents, held views that the RSI researchers characterized
as “striking” in that they were mostly much more
general goals such as “contributing” or “having
choices”. A number of educators consistently identified
student and parent goals as unrealistic in terms of what
they believed the student could do or would do in the future
and some saw their role in transition planning as “shaping” realistic
goals and “bursting bubbles” for families.
that Shape Transition Goals. RSI researchers were particularly
interested in identifying the factors that influences
the transition goals and planning of young women with disabilities.
The data they collected indicated that mentors, peers, family,
teachers and exposure to opportunities were the influential
factors in the setting of goals.
A number of the study participants considered role models
and mentors as very important in both setting an example
and in opening up opportunities for broader experiences.
Parents identified coaches, bosses and other influential
adults in the lives of their nondisabled children as making
positive contributions and teaching important life skills.
Professionals as well expressed concern that young women
from minority or cultural and language diverse communities
lacked role models in the area of work but at the same time
few professionals identified the positive role of culture
in other areas of adult life such as relationships, family
and community involvement.
young women in the study identified their friends as very
in the development of their goals. Confidence
and “courage” were often mentioned as the outcomes
of the loyalty and encouragement of their friends.
Parents and professionals were much more concerned about
the influence of friends in terms of dating, pressure for
sexual activity and on family planning. These are very real
concerns for the health and safety of female students and
women expressed frustration with what they often see as
their family’s failure to “let go” because
of their fears and sometimes low expectations. Professional
participants as well discussed the positive influence of
families, acknowledging that they are often “amazing” but
at the same time feel that the fears of families prevent
young women from having the experiences they need for successful
transition to adulthood.
some of the student participants spoke of the positive
influence of their teachers in helping to formulate their
transition goals, many others had the experience of being
hurt by the low expectations and constant reminder that “you
can’t do that”or that they might never be able
to do the things they wanted to do in the future. Researchers
commented that these reports by the young women were consistent
with the “bubble bursting” role teachers often
terms of their exposure to opportunities that would
them to reach their transition goals, female students
felt that male students had more opportunities to get a job
or a scholarship. Even in terms of vocational rehabilitation
services, young women found that the low expectations for
them often resulted in assignment to routine and uninteresting
tasks—stocking shelves, for example—rather than
the more challenging and enjoyable higher level tasks. Here
to, gender bias was quite evident, with young women reporting
that getting a job such as caring for children was much easier
than trying to gain experience in fields that matched other
and professionals also identified lack of options and gender
bias as significant obstacles to young women benefiting
from school-based work experience programs and vocational
training. “They’ll put the boys in work programs
a lot faster than women,” commented one parent.
of Support and Impediments to Transition to Adulthood. What helps young women with disabilities in setting goals
and planning a successful transition to adulthood?
female students reported that special education classes
had not helped them much in working toward their goals, that
they were not “real education”. Some felt that
special education had actually resulted in their missing
opportunities and only a small number of the students knew
the purpose and intent of the IEP/TP meeting. Students often
reported that they were discouraged from being in those meetings
and one student even commented that “I’m not
allowed to sit in those meetings. ” Those who did attend
sometimes thought they were pointless or that the meetings
were frustrating and embarrassing.
The difference in behavior between male and female students
in special education classes was also identified by students
and teachers as slanted towards the male students, who often
need and get more attention and services. This was acknowledged
as a disadvantage for their daughters by parents as well.
Teachers also expressed some concern that gender bias in
certain cultures serves as a barrier to young women learning
the self-advocacy and work skills they will need in adulthood,
particularly in dealing with men in the work and training
perhaps the most dominant theme throughout the focus group
was the critical importance and impact
of each young woman’s views regarding her disability
and how that view shapes her self-perception. Researchers
concluded that the impact of feeling “different” and “not
normal” and the disapproval and negative messages young
women in special education receive are, in their words, “especially
influential in their ability to achieve their future goals”.
Parents also understand the value of self-esteem and some
discussed the issues of low self-esteem for their children.
Teachers as well as students made the connection between
special education and low self-esteem. Others discussed their
concern that often the young women they serve seem to be
searching for something that they can do well and that this
could result in their identifying finding someone to love
them and having children early as transition goals.
the single focus group of college age women expressed their
successful efforts at overcoming negative comments
and treatments. They reported an increased awareness of their
strengths and weaknesses and the positive outcomes for them
as they identified their passions and niches—where “that’s
where you realize what you’re good at.”
All participants agreed that young women in special education
needed to receive more exposure to job training, paid work
experiences and job shadowing (mentoring). Exposure to adults
with disabilities who are working and some understanding
of the tools they use and the accommodations that have made
them successful were identified as especially important by
the professional participants. Teachers also expressed the
need to help parents from other cultures understand the relationship
between job experiences and the acquisition of those skills
and school success.
Social support from parents, friends and family members
was discussed by a number of the female students and parents
as important to their feeling confident and, beyond the emotional
support and encouragement, providing real opportunities to
network with individuals who share similar interests over
researchers commented that parents and teachers often “blamed” each
other for some of the failures that occurred in setting goals
and transition planning for their female students. Parents
particularly felt a lack of support from teachers. Some teachers
acknowledged that the goal setting and transition planning
was frustrating for them as well, due to lack of resources,
big case loads of students and time constraints.
focus groups, agreement was significant in terms of the
importance of self-determination, or “the opportunity
and capacity for young women to determine and direct their
own lives to the greatest extent possible.” The young
women in particular felt that at least becoming a full “partner” in
making the decisions that impact their lives would assist
them in determining what they can do.
Still, parents reported a continual push and pull of high
expectations and support for self determination and the very
real need to keep young women safe and healthy.
Issues and Barriers for Cultural or Linguistically Diverse
(CLD) Parents and Young Women. Young women from different
cultures and language communities felt keenly that perhaps
the limited expectations held for them had as much to do
with stereotypes about their culture as with their disability.
RSI researchers did report several significant findings in
this area that indicate young women from Cultural or Linguistically
Diverse backgrounds do experience:
• Stereotyping and discrimination toward racial and ethnic
• Different cultural definitions and ideas about disability
between parents and professionals
• Professionals rarely reflecting the population that they
women from other countries and particularly young women
of color and their parents commented on their sense
that they were not “accepted” in any group.
Researchers found that comments made by the professionals
in the studies did in fact reflect negative stereotypes about
the cultures of their students. Stereotypes about Latina
students were particularly prevalent, with perhaps the most
damaging being the notion that Latinos are uneducated or
do not necessarily understand or value the ongoing education
and training of their daughters as they transition into adulthood.
Further, professionals identified lack of knowledge or understanding
on the part of parents from CLD backgrounds as a barrier
while rarely acknowledging the difficulty of the professional
environment or the complex process or their own lack of familiarity
or tolerance with the language and culture of others as a
significant component of that barrier.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The findings of this research indicate that gender does
play an important role in setting transition goals for young
women with disabilities.
Many young women realize that their school and vocational
experiences are not preparing them for life after school.
And, there is evidence to suggest that the low expectations
reflected in the activities and resources provided to young
women with disabilities is sometimes a result of teacher
bias and stereotyping rather than a realistic response to
the actual limitations of the students themselves.
It is also troubling that so many of the young women in
this study reported significant issues, frustration and embarrassment
with the fact of their having a disability and with their
lack of understanding of and ability to influence their own
education and transition planning.
academic and transition planning requirements of IDEA are
in the assumption that it is important for all
young people with disabilities to be prepared for successful
lives after school. In fact, all Federal disability policy
supports the premise that employment and earning a living
is just as important for women as it is for men. The degree
to which gender is influencing lowered academic and vocational
opportunities for women students with disabilities is not
acceptable and must be addressed early in each young woman’s
Parents and special education advocates need to consider:
special education services and supports reflect both academic
and occupationally specific vocational training?
• Are young women in the special education program encouraged
to aspire to competitive employment and are they provided
access to vigorous training programs?
• Are students provided examples and social supports that model
and celebrate success stories of women with disabilities?
• Are teachers and other education staff prepared to encourage
the highest aspirations of their students and have they eliminated
lowlevel, sex-role specific materials and activities from
secondary school curriculums?
• Are young women specifically taught to advocate effectively
for themselves and encouraged to understand and speak up
for the supports and services they need?
• Males make up two-thirds of the student population in special
education. Given this, are adequate resources being provided
to meet the unique needs of female students?
• Are cultural and linguistic differences among students and
parents respected and valued or are decisions made based
on stereotypes and biases about particular groups or minority
All of these considerations are important in making sure
the school infrastructure is designed to maximize opportunities
for young women and should form the foundation for developing
good goals and effective programs and supports that lead
to positive outcomes.
Parents and special education advocates can draw on this
research to evaluate both their own assumptions about transition
goals and IEP content for young women with disabilities and
to assist them in doing more powerful planning. Over twenty
years of inquiry informs us that we are still not setting
high expectations for young women with disabilities.
defines transition as a “results oriented process” that
supports both academic and functional achievement for young
women. This research indicates that schools may be providing “just
enough” rather than the vigorous education interventions
needed to prepare young women for education, career and their
Further, these findings caution advocates to consider and
monitor transition planning for gender biases that might
serve to limit or discourage young women from pursuing interesting
or challenging coursework and training/work opportunities.
the impact of self esteem and the importance of social
and familial relationships in supporting young women’s
aspirations and the building of their confidence are highlighted.
Each of these has implications for how advocates and parents
view the education and social supports and examples provided
to and valued by young women as they assist them in setting
and achieving goals for their futures.
Research: Transition Goals and Experiences of Females
With disabilities: Youth, Parents and Professionals. Jennifer
M. Hogansen, Portland State University, Kristin Powers, California
State University at Long Beach, Sarah Geenen, Eleanor Gil-Kashiwabara
and Laurie Powers, Portland State University. Published in
Exceptional Children, Vol. 74, No. 2, pp.215-234.
References and Resources
E. A. (1985). Benefits for the disabled: How beneficial
for women? In M. J. Deegan & N. A. Brooks (Eds.), Women
and disability: The double handicap. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction
TO EQUALITY: The Double Discrimination of Women with Disabilities.
Overview Article by Rannveig Traustadottir,
Center on Human Policy, July 1990. To order, please write
to Rachael Zubal, Center on Human Policy, 805 S. Crouse Avenue,
Syracuse, NY 13244-2380.