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NLTS2 Data Brief

Reports from the National Longitudinal Transition Study

June 2003 • Vol. 2, Issue 1

National Longitudinal Transition Study logo


Who Are Secondary Students in Special Education Today?

By Mary Wagner, Renée Cameto, and Anne-Marie Guzmán

Although the disability of a student who receives special education can be a powerful influence on his or her experiences, other characteristics of youth also affect their lives in important ways. For example, gender has both obvious and subtle influences on the ways they develop. Racial/ethnic background can involve rich cultural traditions and patterns of relationships within families and communities that can generate important differences in values, perspectives, expectations, and practices. The households where youth grow up, the resources available in them, and the characteristics of the parents who head them can have implications for students’ economic security and emotional support.

Understanding the complex set of characteristics that youth with disabilities bring to their experiences at school and in the community is a foundation for serving them well. The following brief on the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2)1 provides information on those characteristics.


Individual Characteristics of Youth

Disabilities

Youth who received special education were almost 13% of all youth age 13 through 16 who were enrolled in school in the 2000-01 school year. More than six in 10 students (62%) in this age group who were receiving special education were classified as having a learning disability. Those with mental retardation comprised 12% of students receiving special education, and those with emotional disturbances comprised 11%. Youth with other health impairments comprised 5%, and those with speech/language impairments comprised 4% of students receiving special education. The remaining disability categories comprised 6% of secondary-school-age students receiving special education. More than half (55%) of all youth with disabilities were reported to have more than one kind of disability. Besides those classified as having multiple disabilities or deaf-blindness, secondary disabilities were particularly common for youth with mental retardation (81%) or emotional disturbances (76%) and least common for those with hearing or visual impairments (38%).

Age

When NLTS2 interviews were conducted with parents, youth spanned the age range of 13 through 17, with an average age of 15.2. Youth with speech impairments were younger (14.9 years on average), whereas those with visual impairments, traumatic brain injuries, or multiple disabilities were older (15.4 on average).

Gender

Two-thirds (67%) of youth with disabilities were boys. OSEP longitudinal studies of infants and toddlers (Hebbeler et al., 2001) and of elementary and middle school students (Wagner et al., 2002) with disabilities show that boys are a similarly large proportion of children and youth with disabilities across the age range. Among adolescents, boys comprised particularly large percentages of those with autism (85%), emotional disturbances (76%), or other health impairments (73%). In contrast, the proportion of boys among youth with hearing or visual impairments was very close to that of the general population.2

Racial/ethnic background

Although white youth were about the same percentage of youth with disabilities as of the general population, African Americans were 21% of youth with disabilities, compared with 16% of the general student population (see chart). In contrast, there were somewhat fewer Hispanics among youth with disabilities than among youth as a whole (14% vs. 16%), and fewer of those of mixed or other racial/ethnic backgrounds (3% vs. 5%). Similar differences in the distributions of the various races/ethnicities occur across the age range. For example, in 1998 among infants and toddlers with disabilities, 21% were African American, compared with 15% in the general population of young children (Hebbeler et al., 2001).

Adolescents in most disability categories were very like the general population in their racial/ethnic makeup. However, African Americans were a larger proportion of youth with mental retardation (33%) and a smaller proportion of those with other health impairments (13%). There were particularly few Hispanic youth with other health impairments (8%).

Racial/Ethnic Backgrounds of Youth with Disabilities and Youth in the General Population

Youth With Disabilities General Population
White 62% 63%
African American 21% 16% (Statistically significant difference: **p<.01)
Hispanic 14% 16%
Other 3% 5%


Household Characteristics

Household income

Youth with disabilities were more likely to be poor than youth in general. More than one-third (37%) of youth with disabilities came from households with incomes of $25,000 or less, compared with 20% of the general population. Similar to the general population, students of color were more likely than white youth to come from low-income households. More than half of African American and Hispanic youth with disabilities came from households with incomes of $25,000 or less, compared with 25% of white youth.

Living arrangements

Almost one-third (31%) of youth with disabilities lived in single-parent households, similar to the general population. Single-parent households were much more common among low-income youth with disabilities (55%) than among their wealthier peers (9%). Youth with disabilities were more likely to be living in households without a parent than were youth in the general population (8% vs. 5%). More than one-third of adolescents with disabilities (36%) lived in households in which another child also had a disability.

Parents’ characteristics

Compared with the general population, youth with disabilities were twice as likely to have a head of household who had not graduated from high school (21% vs. 10%). Their heads of household also were much more likely to be unemployed (17% vs. 11%). Heads of household who were high school dropouts were more common among low-income households than among higher-income households (39% vs. 7%), as were heads of household who were unemployed (35% vs. 5%).3

 

Disability Category Differences in Household Characteristics

Youth with different disabilities had very different household environments (see table). For example, youth with mental retardation were much more likely than most others to have a cluster of household characteristics that could be risk factors for poor outcomes. More than half of youth with mental retardation (55%) came from low-income households, and 34% were living with a single parent. The heads of household of one-third of such youth were high school dropouts, and 28% were not working. Youth with emotional disturbances also were more likely than most others to experience several of these risk factors.

In contrast, these characteristics were least common for youth with autism or other health impairments. One-fourth came from low-income households or lived with one parent. Their heads of household also were among the least likely to be high school dropouts or unemployed.

NLTS2 data suggest that youth with disabilities differ in important ways from the general population. The differences between disability categories in many of the individual and household characteristics presented here are even more striking. Understanding these variations in the characteristics of youth with disabilities provides an important context for interpreting differences in their experiences and achievements in school and in early adulthood. As NLTS2 unfolds throughout this decade, analyses will highlight key aspects of those experiences and achievements and identify factors that contribute to more successful outcomes for youth with disabilities.

Household Characteristics, by Disability Category

Percentage of youth from households with:

Percentage of youth with a head of household who was:

Low income (<=$25,000)
A single parent
Another child with a disability
A high school dropout
Unemployed
Learning Disability
34
31
35
20
14
Speech/ Language Impairment
29
25
34
20
15
Mental Retardation
55
34
39
32
28
Emotional Disturbance
44
38
39
20
24
Hearing Impairment
29
26
26
18
14
Visual Impairment
32
31
32
15
18
Orthopedic Impairment
31
27
26
15
16
Other Health Impairment
24
22
40
13
12
Autism
23
27
29
11
16
Traumatic Brain Injury
32
30
26
15
17
Multiple Disabilities
35
25
35
14
20
Deaf-Blindness
35
36
23
18
19


References

Hebbeler, K., Wagner, M., Spiker, D., Scarborough, A., Simeonsson, R., & Collier, M. (2001). A first look at the characteristics of children and families entering early intervention services. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Wagner, M., Marder, C., Blackorby, J., & Cardoso, D. (2002). The children we serve: The demographic characteristics of elementary and middle school students with disabilities and their households. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.


NLTS2 Welcomes Feedback!

Contact us —
NLTS2, 333 Ravenswood Ave., BS-136, Menlo Park, CA 94025
Phone: 866.269.7274; E-mail: nlts2@sri.com; Web: www.nlts2.org


The authors are part of the NLTS2 research team at the Center for Education and Human Services, SRI International.

1 NLTS2 has a nationally representative sample of more than 11,000 youth who on December 1, 2000, were ages 13 through 16, receiving special education, and in at least 7th grade. Information from NLTS2 is weighted to represent youth with disabilities nationally as a group, as well as youth in each federal special education disability category. The information reported here was gathered from parents/guardians of NLTS2 youth in telephone interviews or through mail questionnaires in the summer and fall of 2001.

2 Data for the general population are from the U.S. Census unless otherwise noted.

3 Computed by using data from the National Household Education Survey, 1999.

The NLTS2 Data Brief is produced by the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET), in partnership with the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2).


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There are no copyright restrictions on this document. However, please cite and credit the source when copying all or part of this material.

This report was supported in whole or in part by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, (Cooperative Agreement No. H326J000005). The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, and no official endorsement by the Department should be inferred.

This publication is available in an alternate format upon request. To request an alternate format or additional copies, contact NCSET at 612.624.2097.

 

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