Erik Carter2Erik W. Carter, Ph.D., Vanderbilt University

Eric Carter presented research on transition outcomes for students with severe disabilities. He pointed out that individuals who have a severe disability want the same things from life as everyone else: a satisfying job, close relationships, a comfortable and safe place to live, a college degree and involvement in their community. However, a gap exists between aspirations like these and outcomes. This, Carter says, is where the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) funded research is making strides. Specifically, he highlighted a study funded by IES’s National Center for Special Education Research that focused on connecting high school students with severe disabilities to early work experiences in order to improve employment outcomes after high school.

Why was employment of particular interest in this study?

Employment is one area where the gap between aspirations and outcomes has remained quite large. In fact, the rate of employment has hardly changed for students with severe disabilities in the 25 years since we began federally mandated transition education. To address this, we completed a three year project focused on developing a set of strategies schools and communities could use to close this gap. To begin, we looked at prevailing employment outcomes for young adults with severe disabilities and found only 26 percent were working for pay in the first two years after leaving high school. This means three out of four young adults were unemployed.

What makes the difference for those individuals with disabilities who do manage to find meaningful employment after high school?

That’s what we set out to discover. We found that having a number of different factors in place while still in high school contributed significantly to the likelihood a student would work after high school. Those factors include paid employment, high parent expectations for paid employment and the development of strong social and independence skills. If these things were in place during high school, then a student was twice as likely to hold a job after graduation.

Can we turn those things into a set of strategies?

Yes! The good news is all of these factors are things the school can influence. But not all special educators will know how to do things like raise parent expectations or connect students with early work experience. To develop an intervention strategy for teachers, we worked with high schools to create a set of five strategies aimed at increasing summer employment and community involvement. Those strategies include: host a community event to foster dialogue around ways to increase employment opportunities; create a community resource map; allocate planning time identify specific opportunities for students in the upcoming summer; identify individuals who can serve as a liaison among parents, school staff and employers; and last, identify individuals from the business community who can expand networking opportunities.

Did these strategies make a big difference in outcomes for the schools that participated in the study?

Yes. We saw significant improvements. Sixty-six percent of youth with severe disabilities obtained paid, inclusive jobs as opposed to 19 percent of youth who did not receive the intervention. But the benefits go beyond statistics. The students who obtained work held a range of jobs typical of teenagers and made more than minimum wage. Also, each job was individually matched to the student’s strengths and needs. To further enhance the experience, students received job-related support during the school year.

What is your big take-away from this study?

We showed that this group of young people, for whom society has had very low expectations, can make meaningful contributions in the community when schools and communities implement a set of simple strategies. We also showed that communities have the capacity to support the employment of youth with severe disabilities.

Are there next steps for this research?

Further research is needed on ways to bridge the gap between aspirations and outcomes on a variety of fronts. In the meantime, however, we want to spread the word about what we do know. These findings have been incorporated into statewide employment systems change grants across the country, and we now teach these strategies in our teacher preparation programs at Vanderbilt University so that new teachers will be better prepared to help students with disabilities live rich, enviable lives.


Dr. Erik Carter, Ph.D., FAIDD, is a Professor in the Department of Special Education at Vanderbilt University and a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Investigator. Dr. Carter’s research and teaching focuses on evidence-based strategies for supporting access to the general curriculum and promoting valued roles in school, work, and community settings for children and adults with intellectual disability, autism, and multiple disabilities. Prior to receiving his doctorate, he worked as a high school teacher and transition specialist. He has published more than 125 articles, chapters, and books in the areas of educational and transition services for children and youth with severe disabilities. He was the recipient of the Distinguished Early Career Research Award from the Council for Exceptional Children, the Early Career Award from the American Association for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, the Patricia L. Sitlington Research in Transition Award from the Division on Career Development and Transition, and the Young Professional Award from the Association of University Centers on Disabilities. He has been an investigator on three IES-funded projects, including Peer Support and Peer Network Interventions to Improve Peer Relationships and School EngagementImproving Summer Employment and Community Inclusion Outcomes for Transition-Age Youth with Disabilities, and the Center on Secondary Education for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders.