Transitioning Students from High School to Adulthood Takes Training and Teamwork

For people who are blind or low vision, nearly anything is possible – provided no one tells them it isn’t.

One high school student had always dreamed of being a ballerina. But because she had cerebral palsy, being a dancer wasn’t truly realistic, but no one ever told her that. Instead, they said, “Let’s go visit the ballet and learn what it’s all about.” During a backstage tour, the young woman noticed there were costumes strewn everywhere. In the middle of a performance, dancers often have to change costumes quickly, tossing them aside to put on the next. Without anyone asking, the young woman began hanging up costumes. This ultimately landed her a job working for the ballet company’s costume team.

“She found a job within the discipline of her dream,” says Neva Fairchild. “It’s important to talk to kids early about the world of work, what they want to do, and help them find their passion – we need more people on the planet with a passion.”

Fairchild is the National Aging & Vision Loss specialist at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB).

Fairchild tells the story of a ballerina who is blind or has low vision to highlight a key point. Always encourage these children to follow their dreams. It’s important for parents, siblings, Teachers of the Visually Impaired (TVIs), and other specialists to support them. They should help children believe they can have a career and maybe even go to college to prepare for it.

“We hope that those are the two choices: going to school or going to work,” Fairchild says. “The choice we try to avoid is on the couch, which unfortunately is a trend with a lot of students, even if they’re getting good services.”

Teaching the teachers and counselors

AER is an organization for people who help those with vision loss. This includes Teachers of the Visually Impaired (TVIs), Orientation & Mobility (O&M) specialists, and Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) counselors. These experts, along with a student’s family, play a big part in getting K-12 students ready for college or work after they graduate. Before 2014, when the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was passed, these professionals often worked separately. The Act has helped them work together more.

“Although that cooperation has always been encouraged, now VR agencies are required to set aside 15% of the budget the federal government gives them for pre-employment transition services,” Fairchild explains. “Part of that is providing this platform and space for collaboration across the field to prepare young people to go on and be successful.”

WIOA and AER’s Partnership

Although WIOA was passed in 2014, it took until 2017 before all of the regulations were sorted out. So professionals are still learning some of the ropes. Thanks to AER’s new eLearning Center, professionals can easily access a wide range of training programs. This include specific sessions on helping students transition to college or work.

“There are lots and lots of aspects to being successful as a young person, and that’s what the AER training tries to address,” Fairchild says. “It’s not just academics or learning how to get around a college campus. It address recreation and leisure activities, sports and fitness – everything that goes into being a well-rounded person. College may not be for everyone, but students need to be exposed to all of the options available to them.”

Fairchild believes that transition counselors and TVIs have a crucial job: teaching students to speak up for themselves. She says that students need to know what they need and what’s being done for them now that they’ll have to do on their own later. Her advice is to set high standards and expect a lot from these students. This prepares them for an independent life where they can take care of themselves.

Inspiring dreams at an early age

Fairchild says transition services typically start at age 14 or 16, depending on each state’s choice. But she believes that’s not early enough. Making it even more important for everyone in a young person’s life to start talking to them about the world of work as early as possible.

“Sighted kids see people performing jobs every day, but kids who are blind or low vision don’t,” she says. “So someone needs to explain it to them. I’ve been shocked to learn some high school students don’t even know what their parents do for work. Parents and teachers need to figure out how they can start setting the expectation early that a child is going to work – and if they say they want to be a firefighter play firefighter with them, even if that really isn’t a realistic career choice.”

The aspiring ballerina is a perfect example of a young person finding a way to work in a field they’re passionate about. Even if it isn’t the job they initially imagined.

“The point of all education and rehabilitation is to help people reach their highest potential,” Fairchild says. “We have to make sure it’s not their blindness or low vision holding them back. We have to work as a team to make sure everyone reaches their highest potential,. Whatever that potential is going to be.”