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8. Effective transition from school to work and post-secondary education for people with intellectual disability

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What is transition from school to work and post secondary education?

Understanding ‘transition’ is critical to developing an effective approach. Transition can be understood narrowly, as the movement from secondary school to a post-school option, or more comprehensively, as a longer period of development that involves the emerging adult identity of the child and longer term consideration of, and planning for, post-school options (Redgrove et al., 2016).

‘School to work’ transition refers to the critical socio-economic life changing period between approximately 15 to 24 years of age – a period when young individuals develop and build skills, based on their initial education and training that helps them become productive members of the society (World Bank, 2009 cited by Wakeford & Waugh, 2014, p.5).

Transition planning in the Australian context does not tend to adopt this longer term view of transition from school to work for young people with intellectual disability. Nor does an understanding of transition to adulthood for young people with intellectual disability encompass an understanding of a longer period of development over seven to twelve years in which young people develop capacities and skills necessary for employment and adult life (Redgrove et al., 2016). Instead, there is evidence that for young people with intellectual disability the transition from school to adulthood is assumed to occur immediately upon leaving school and entering adult services, without the extended period of discovery and broadened experience that accompanies their same-age peers without disability (Redgrove et al., 2016).

The period of transition is a complex and challenging time (Leonard et al., 2016). It is a time of heightened opportunities and new risks (Blacher, 2001) which challenge the individual, the family and the service system (Davies & Beamish, 2009).

The problem

Australia does not have a nationally consistent transition model for young people with intellectual disability leaving school and data is not collected at the national level to provide evidence of outcomes (Beamish, Meadows, & Davies, 2012). 

People with intellectual disability typically experience poor quality, or a lack of, transition planning in moving from school into post school options which frequently results in uptake of segregated options such as day programs and Australian Disability Enterprises (or sheltered workshops in international contexts) (Wakeford & Waugh, 2014; Baer, Daviso, Flexer, McMahan Queen, & Meindl, 2011; Bouck, 2012; Foley et al., 2013).

Research in overseas settings suggests that despite ‘Employment first’ policies in some countries, such as the US, transition plans can lack a focus on employment.

…research indicates that individualized transition plans for students with I/DD [intellectual and developmental disability] focus more on functional skills for independence and building social relationships than on gaining employment or pursuing post-secondary education (Southward and Kyzar, 2017, p. 26).

The common experience of transition, especially in Australia, is one of a short term process accompanied by narrowly focused transition supports, frequently targeting transitioning into adult support services, with little consideration of the individual needs and aspirations of the person (Davies & Beamish, 2009; Redgrove, Jewell, & Ellison, 2016).

Families have reported that commencing a transition focus in the last year of school is too late given the complexity of barriers young people with disability face when leaving school (Foley et al., 2013). Parents describe the time of finishing school as a ‘cliff’ (Davies & Beamish, 2009, p.255), with little information provided about the options available to the young person which leads to short term decision making.

In Australia, the transition process is highly fragmented and siloed, with lack of – and barriers to – funding operating to discourage collaboration across services (ARTD Consultants, 2019; Davies & Beamish, 2009).

The solution (what are the ingredients of effective transition?)

Fortunately, transition has been the subject of a large amount of research, especially in the United States, and more recently in Australia (ARTD Consultants, 2019; Ashburner, Bobir, & van Dooren, 2018; Baer et al., 2011; Davies & Beamish, 2009; Kohler, 2016; Kohler & Field, 2003; Smith, Atmatzidis, et al., 2017). This research has established an evidence base of what works in transition. This research, now over three decades in longevity, shifts attention from short term ‘planning’ to a broader perspective referred to as ‘transition-focused education’ (Kohler & Field, 2003) which views transition planning not as an add-on activity’ (p. 176) but underpinning education programs and extra curricula activities across multiple years.

Ingredients of an effective transition approach:

Self determinationA focus on self-determination, ‘i.e. engaging in goal-directed, self-regulated, autonomous behaviour or the involvement of students in transition goal-setting activities’ (Davies & Beamish, 2009, p.255) is critical (Papay & Bambra, 2014). Within a transition context, this might include teaching self-determination skills and behaviours as part of transition (Davies & Beamish, 2009).
Clear expectationsA core element of an effective transition approach is the expectation that young people people can work (ARTD Consultants, 2019)
Family centredFamily involvement in transition planning is considered best practice (Papay & Bambra, 2014). Family-centred transition planning processes help to increase student and parent expectations for the future, self-determination, and vocational decision making amongst young people with disability (Sheppard, Harrington, & Howard, 2017). Parent engagement should include:
  • engagement in training opportunities and information sessions at school about post-school and community-based services
  • introductions to employment services
  • family visits to adult service agencies
  • exploring role models who can provide a vision to the young person and their family of what adult life might be like
  • being part of family support groups focused on transition to adulthood issues, including seeking and finding employment
  • actively building networks in the community
  • actively supporting the young person’s growing independence over time
  • engagement in supporting students in domains of life beyond work such as recreation and leisure, continued education and community participation (Sheppard, Harrington, & Howard, 2017).

Young people with intellectual disability whose parents and families expect them to be employed upon completing school are significantly more likely to be employed, with one study finding this to be 58 times more likely (Southward & Kyzar, 2017).Family-centred transition planning also listens to families’ concerns, such as concern for safety in the workplace or impact of wage on income support payments, that might be impacting their expectations and preferences (Southward & Kyzar, 2017).

IndividualisedIndividualized transition planning is considered best practice (Papay & Bambra, 2014). Individualised transition plans should be based on the young person’s strengths, preferences, needs and interests (Kohler & Field, 2003). Transition can be linked to Individual Education or Learning Plans (IEP/ILP) within schools, with research showing that where plans included individualized goals related to gaining paid employment, this increased employment outcomes (Southward & Kyzar, 2017).

Early transition planning or focus for young people with disability leads to improved employment outcomes (Baer, Daviso, Flexer, McMahan Queen, & Meindl, 2011; Luecking & Luecking, 2013; Test, Fowler, & Kohler, 2013; Cimera, Wehman, West, & Burgess, 2011; Andersén et al., 2018; ARTD Consultants, 2019; Bouck, 2012; Kohler & Field, 2003; Sheppard, Harrington, & Howard, 2017; Cimera, Burgess, Bedesem, 2014). Transition planning should commence by the age of 14 (for instance, this is the mandated age for transition planning for people with disability in the United States) which aligns with career development planning programs for students without disability which usually commence at working age. There is strong evidence from large scale studies of people with intellectual disability in the United States, that commencing transition planning at 14 yrs, compared to 16yrs, results in significantly increased employment outcomes (Cimera, Burgess, Bedesem, 2014). When interviewed about transition experiences, US parents and young adults with intellectual and other disabilities advised: ‘”start … successful transition [planning] … earlier’, even as early as “elementary school” or “preschool, where the presumption still is that everyone can learn anything” (Francis et al. 2018, p.285-6). Australian research supports the suggestion that transition should commence by age 14:

early planning allows students to familiarise themselves with the post-school environment, set goals for the future, learn the skills that will assist towards meeting those goals, and make adjustments if goals or desires change (Wakeford & Waugh, 2014, p. 21 quoting Meadows, 2012).

Collaborative and including active involvement of person with intellectual disabilityTransition planning needs to be highly collaborative between the school, the person with disability, family members and key services (Kirby et al., 2019; Papay & Bambara, 2014). Several studies show that where the student with intellectual disability actively took part in transition planning, they were four times more likely to experience employment outcomes.  This is linked to evidence that goal setting is motivational for young people with intellectual disability and builds independence (Southward & Kyzar, 2017).
Systematic and structured

Transition planning must be a systematic and structured process in which stakeholders and agencies collaborate to provide a continuum of services individualized to the person (Kohler & Field, 2003).

Transition-oriented schools focus also on systematic community involve-ment in the development of educational options, community-based learning opportunities, systematic inclusion of students in the social life of the school, and increased expectations related to skills, values, and outcomes for all students (Kohler & Field, 2003, p.179).

Career development AND skills training

Transition requires provision of high-quality career development coupled with skills training (and work experience) to enable people with disability to explore their interests and develop workplace skills. As described by Fields & Demchak (2019):

To successfully respond to the challenges associated with transitioning a student with an intellectual disability (ID) into employment, secondary schools must devise and implement an effective school-to-work curriculum that provides vocational skill instruction (Carter, Trainor, Cakiroglu, Swedeen, & Owens, 2010) and that seeks to engage the employment opportunities available within the local community (Brooke, Revell, & Wehman, 2009). Hart, Barnett, and Crippen (2014) suggest that an appropriate transition curriculum for students with ID should incorporate real-world, community-based vocational training experiences (p.128 emphasis added).

The Transition to Work program in Australia, argues that it is particularly successful with transition to work outcomes because the employment pathway is often activated, via a school based apprenticeship model, while the student is still at school (Wakeford and Waugh, 2014).

Ticket to Work connects young people with disability to training and employment opportunities in their community whilst they are still in school; making the likelihood of a seamless transition from school and into employment more attainable for these young people (Wakeford & Waugh, 2014, p.20).

Work experienceWork experience has been found to be the strongest predictor of gaining open employment for people with intellectual disability and is a critical part of any transition process. It both builds skills and knowledge of the young person, as well as builds expectations of parents and families (Southward & Kyzar, 2017).
Long term perspectiveCareer planning should have a long-term perspective that aims to support the person as their needs and aspirations change over time and they mature.  

Transition programs/activities that work

There are a number of examples of innovative transition programs that have demonstrated effectiveness in improving pathways for young people with disability to good quality vocationally oriented post school options. These include

  • Ticket to Work
  • Project Search

Ticket to Work

Ticket to Work is a national program of the National Disability Services, Australia, that supports networks of partners in local regions who work to provide opportunities for young people with disability to build employability while they are at school (mainstream or special schools) (ARTD Consultants, 2019). Partners include schools, Disability Employment Services, TAFE/RTOs, employers, disability services and others, who

work together to provide young people with access to career development, workplace preparation, work experience, vocational skills and Australian School Based Apprenticeships and Traineeships (ASbATs). Essentially each Local Network supports young people with disability to participate in the same ‘typical’ transition to employment activities that their non-disabled peers generally partake in (Wakeford & Waugh, 2014, p. 6).

Ticket to Work includes a range of career and employment development activities conducted in school:

  • Vocational Education and Training at secondary school
  • Australian School based Apprenticeships and Traineeships (ASbAT)
  • Work experience/placement
  • Career development through customised employment techniques
  • After school work
  • Self-employment during secondary school (microbusiness) (ARTD Consultants, 2019, p. 8).

Ticket to Work participants (around 53% of those being young people with intellectual disability) have been supported to undertake the majority of their vocational training ‘on the job’ as much as possible ‘demonstrating competency by actually undertaking tasks in the workplace setting’ which leads to better employment outcomes for young people with intellectual disability (Wakeford & Waugh, 2014, p.23).

Two evaluations of Ticket to Work have evidenced that it is a successful transition model, with  participants being more likely to be employed (64%) than the comparison group (33%), as well as be more likely to complete year 12, undertake post secondary education, be more socially active and more independent (ARTD Consultants, 2019).

Project Search 

The Project SEARCH Transition-to-Work Program originated in the United States with a primary target of assisting young people with intellectual disability. It is a ‘business-led, one-year employment preparation program that takes place entirely at the workplace’ ( combining classroom-based training (onsite in the workplace), career exploration, and a range of work experience through worksite rotations. In the original model in the US, students in the last year of secondary school rotate through three different internships of 10-12 weeks each. The focus is on intensive on-the-job training supplemented by classroom learning (Wehman et al. 2018). Project Search has been widely evaluated and achieves on average employment rates of 83% (Christensen et al, 2017). The model has been extended to multiple countries including the UK, where it is part of a ‘supported internship’ approach. These programs are ‘based mainly on employers’ premises, with some time in college or a classroom in the workplace. Support throughout the study programme is provided to both the young person and the employer through a Job Coach’ ( Project Search or ‘supported internships’ for young people with intellectual disability have been running in the UK for approximately 8 years with significant employment results (

Integrated Practical Placement (IPP) program

A similar program, adapting the Project Search model, has been run in Australia. The Integrated Practical Placement (IPP) program has been run twice by the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne and Holmseglen (TAFE) in 2018 and 2019 for 10-12 students with ‘learning disability’ undertaking Certificate 1 in Work Education (  Students completed three nine-week placements within the hospital during the year including in the areas of human resources, medical records, allied health, volunteer and family services, the early learning centre, kitchen, mailroom and equipment departments ( An independent evaluation found that 80% of students of IPP attained paid employment or paid traineeships compared to 35% who completed the Certificate in the usual TAFE setting without being part of the IPP program.  IPP participants also experienced other outcomes such as increased confidence, independence and maturity (White et al., 2018). Recommendations of the evaluation suggest that this ‘gold standard’ program is suited to large scale employers of 3000 of more which afford a variety of placement opportunities for students (White et al., 2018).


Andersén, Å., Larsson, K., Pingel, R., Kristiansson, P., & Anderzén, I. (2018). The relationship between self-efficacy and transition to work or studies in young adults with disabilities. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 46(2), 272-278. doi: 10.1177/1403494817717556

ARTD Consultants. (2019). Ticket to Work Post School Outcomes. Report for National Disability Services, Final Report, Sydney, Author,

Ashburner, J. K., Bobir, N. I., & van Dooren, K. (2018). Evaluation of an Innovative Interest-Based Post-School Transition Programme for Young People with Autism Spectrum Disorder. International Journal of Disability, Development & Education, 65(3), 262-285. doi: 10.1080/1034912X.2017.1403012

Baer, R. M., Daviso, A. W., Flexer, R. W., McMahan Queen, R., & Meindl, R. S. (2011). Students With Intellectual Disabilities: Predictors of Transition Outcomes. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 34(3), 132-141. doi: 10.1177/0885728811399090

Beamish, W., Meadows, D., & Davies, M. D. (2012). Benchmarking Teacher Practice in Queensland Transiton Programs for Youth with Intellectual Disability and Autism. The Journal of Special Education, 45(4), 227-241.

Blacher, J. (2001). Transition to Adulthood: Mental Retardation, Families, and Culture. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 106(2), 173-188.

Bouck, E. C. (2012). Secondary students with moderate/severe intellectual disability: considerations of curriculum and post-school outcomes from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 56(12), 1175-1186. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2788.2011.01517.x

Christensen, J.J. & Richardson K. (2017) Project SEARCH workshop to work: participant reflections on the journey through career discovery. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 46(3):341–54.

Cimera, R.; Burgess, S. & Bedesem, P. (2014). Does Providing Transition Services by Age 14 Produce Better Vocational Outcomes for Students With Intellectual Disability? Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, Vol. 39(1) 47–54

Cimera, R. E., Wehman, P., West, M., & Burgess, S. (2011). Do sheltered workshops enhance employment outcomes for adults with autism spectrum disorder? Autism, 16(1), 87-94. doi:10.1177/1362361311408129

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Foley, K. R., Jacoby, P., Girdler, S., Bourke, J., Pikora, T., Lennox, N., . . . Leonard, H. (2013). Functioning and post-school transition outcomes for young people with Down syndrome. Child: Care, Health And Development, 39(6), 789-800. doi: 10.1111/cch.12019

Francis, G., Stride, A., & Reed, S. (2018). Transition strategies and recommendations: perspectives of parents of young adults with disabilities. British Journal of Special Education, 45(3), 277.

Fields, C.J. & Demchak, M. (2019) Integrated Visual Supports in a School-Based Microenterprise for Students With Intellectual Disabilities, Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals Vol. 42(2) 128–134.

Kirby, A. V., Dell’Armo, K., & Persch, A. C. (2019). Differences in youth and parent postsecondary expectations for youth with disabilities. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 51(1), 77.

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Luecking, D. M., & Luecking, R. G. (2013). Translating Research Into a Seamless Transition Model. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 38(1), 4-13. doi: 10.1177/2165143413508978

Papay, C. K., & Bambara, L. M. (2014). Best Practices in Transition to Adult Life for Youth With Intellectual Disabilities, Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 37(3), 136-148.

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Sheppard, L., Harrington, R., & Howard, K. (2017). Leaving School and Getting a Job. Research to Action Guide, A guide for young people with disability who want to work., from

Smith, D., Atmatzidis, K., Capogreco, M., Lloyd-Randolfi, D., & Seman, V. (2017). Evidence-Based Interventions for Increasing Work Participation for Persons With Various Disabilities. OTJR: Occupation, Participation & Health, 37, 3S-13S.

Southward, J. &  Kyzar, K. (2017). Predictors of Competitive Employment for Students with Intellectual and/or Developmental Disabilities, Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, Vol.52(1), pp.26-37.

Test, D. W., Fowler, C. H., Richter, S. M., Mazzotti, V., White, J., Walker, A. R., . . . Kortering, L. (2009). Evidence-based practices in secondary transition. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 32, 115-128. doi: 10.1177/0885728809336859

Wakeford, M. & Waugh, F. (2014). Transition to employment of Australian young people with disability and the ‘Ticket to Work’ initiative, National Ticket to Work Network,

Wehman, P., Taylor, J., Brooke, V., Avellone, L., Whittenburg, H., Ham, W., . . . Carr, S. (2018). Toward Competitive Employment for Persons with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: What Progress Have We Made and Where Do We Need to Go. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 43(3), 131-144. doi: 10.1177/1540796918777730

White, G.; Kiegaldie, D. & Hunter, S. (2018). The integrated practical placement program: a program of social inclusion in the workplace for young people with disability, Melbourne, The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne and Holmseglen.

The authors would like to acknowledge the usefulness of Crosbie, J.: Murfitt, K.; Hayward, S. & Wilson, E. (2019), NDIS Participant Employment Taskforce. Literature review: Employment and economic participation of people with disability, Burwood, Deakin University, as a review of similar literature that provided initial guidance.

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