Sheryl Burgstahler

Transition to College: Preliminary Findings of Four Case Studies

Burgstahler, S., & Orvis, M. (1995). Transition to college: Preliminary findings of four case studies. In E. Makas, H. Beth, & D. Tanis (1995). Accessing the Issues: Current Research in Disability Studies (pp. 297-301). Lewiston, ME: Society for Disability Studies.

Sheryl E. Burgstahler, Ph.D.
University of Washington

Martha E. Orvis, M. A.
University of Washington

Many individuals with disabilities are unsuccessful in completing transitions from high school to college and employment (Henderson, 1992; Wagner, Newman, D’Amico, Jay, Butler-Nalin, Marder & Cox, 1991). This paper explores issues that can have an impact on youth in the process of making these transitions. The following research question guided the study: How do first-year post-high school transition processes among four youth who have disabilities compare with each other and with current transition research? Youth in the study graduated from high school the same year and participated in the DO-IT Scholars program. The DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Scholars program at the University of Washington is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation. It uses computers, adaptive technology, and the Internet network to promote independent and efficient access to information, to other students, and to mentors. DO-IT helps students with disabilities develop skills for the transition into postsecondary activities. Participants in this study are described below.

Sex Disability H.S.
Productive Engagement
First Year Post-H.S.
Chris F Visually Impaired 3.75 V 610
M 600
Full-time enrollment: university
Focus: molecular biology
Pat M Hearing Impaired 3.03 V 400
M 520
Full-time enrollment: two year college
Focus: electronics
Leslie M Orthoped. Impaired 2.79 no record Part-time employment:
university computer lab
Focus: computers/networks
Terry M Orthoped. Impaired 3.33 V 640
M 500
Part-time enrollment: two year college
Focus: general studies

This study was a sub-study of a larger work. Data were collected from semi-structured interviews, observations, informal conversations, and high school records. Interview protocols incorporated open-ended probes related to four themes that emerged from the interviews: Disability Management, Transition Preparation, Non-Familial Relationships, and Computer Technology. Analysis involved comparing data from participants with each other and with current research in the area of transition.

Results and Discussion

Disability Management

Factors that may have an impact on transition processes include the perception of disability, the ability to manage assistive technology and various tasks associated with a specific disability, and personal resiliency (Gortmaker, Perrin, Weitzman, Homer, & Sobol, 1993; Resnick & Hutton, 1987; Wagner et al., 1991). All participants demonstrated good understandings of and high degrees of comfort in discussing their disabilities. Negative, positive, and neutral aspects of having a disability emerged from their reflections. Their explanations reveal personal resiliency as they identified and dealt with disability-related impacts.

Chris: I’m blind. What else do you call it? [I see] nothing, zero, zilch. Completely, totally, absolutely…I am, however, a visual thinker. …Well, you have to get a new pair [of artificial eyes] like every, I think it’s like three or four years. Um, and they like dump, you know, that stuff that they use to take molds of your teeth?…Basically all you do is rinse them off, you dry them off with like, with like a paper towel or something….I might say that I would have had more…friends, if I hadn’t been blind….Or would I have just been in the in crowd?…Looking back on it now, I’m really glad that I didn’t end up in the middle of that group of people.

Pat: Umm, I have severe nerve damage in my ears and that. I was born that way….I usually get new hearing aids every five or six years…My classes [in high school] were difficult because of my hearing loss…I hear male teachers better than I do females, so my grades changed all the time…I had to gain a lot of friends that adapted to my impairment.

Leslie: Arthrogryposis…means that I was gonna be a normal baby, you now, until about the second trimester, and then my mom caught this virus or something, and it caused my muscles to…to stop growing. And my joints to freeze in the position that they were in. [Leslie now uses an electric wheelchair.] I have enough problems that aren’t even related to my disability…I’m kind of stuck. I kind of depend on people for things that I need, you know…Mostly my disability kept me from getting some of those roles [in high school plays].

Terry: Oh, OK, um, I, yeah, I have Duchenne’s dystrophy. It’s a genetic disease muscle disease. So I mean like when I was real young I was normal and then, as I got to a certain age, I just started getting weaker and weaker until I couldn’t stand up anymore….I had a manual chair for a couple years…then I started using an electric wheelchair…I think it’s probably helped me a little bit actually, more than it’s hurt me…I think I had to look to other things in order to stay sane, you know. I think it helped me to develop my mind somewhat.

Transition Preparation

Academic skills, an understanding of specific accommodations needed, and knowledge about rights to reasonable accommodations may affect decisions and success in pursuing postsecondary education (Wagner, Blackorby, Cameto, & Newman, 1993). Specific transition planning can be helpful. To gain insight into the nature of high school transition preparation, school records (transcripts, IEPs, psychological evaluations, and recommendations) of participants were reviewed. Chris’s school record included an elaborate transition plan. The records of the other three participants documented minimal transition planning. Conversations with participants confirmed these differences in transition preparation.

Non-Familial Relationships

Non-familial relationships include friends, counselors, teachers, and other mentors. The reciprocity implicit in a relationship between peers helps each person succeed and progress (Shapiro, Haseltine, & Rowe, 1978). Mentors also enhance academic and career success by providing counseling, confirmation, friendship, and a sense of identity (Kram & Isabella, 1985; MacLeod-Gallinger, 1992). Comments about friends constituted a substantial portion of participant interviews, as indicated by the following excerpts:

Chris: I didn’t really have that many friends.

Pat: I was very lucky to have the friends I got…a lot of my classmates understood my disability. And cause of that they did stuff like speak up when I am around.

Leslie: Umm, I [was] just lonely a lot [in high school]. Just going through really, you know, sort of emotional, really trying times.

Terry: Socially, high school was kind of a zero for me most of the time. Mostly, I don’t know. I had…a lot of acquaintances…but I didn’t, I didn’t have a lot of real close friends in high school.

Experiences of loneliness and isolation were especially prevalent in the conversations with Chris, Leslie, and Terry. They commented on the lack of reciprocity in past attempts at forming friendships and questioned the authenticity of friendships.

Mentors in high school played important roles, including role-modeling and friendship. Each participant told of at least one favorite teacher in high school who provided unique counseling, guidance, and/or confirmation. For Chris, the biology teacher opened up this field by being at ease and not becoming “worried about having a blind person in his class.” For Pat, math and computer teachers presented challenging work and allowed Pat to “learn it before they taught me ’cause I always jumped ahead.” For Leslie, the debate teacher coached and nurtured her team, “She just sort of treated everyone like they were, you know, her children.” For Terry, the football coach offered encouragement and support though Terry was not on the team: “I really liked the coach…he was like a P.E. teacher at the middle school that I’d known before, too.”

Participants reported that attending college and participating in the DO-IT program have increased opportunities to develop friendships and to diminish feelings of isolation. Chris reported, “I think that the DO-IT program time, especially the first year, was really cool because, um, I came here and I made a lot of friends, which was something that’s really hard for me to do. Um, and I made them quickly, and I feel I got to spend two weeks together, and it was really, really fun.”

Computer Technology

Computers help students who have disabilities participate more fully and independently in postsecondary educational activities (Burgstahler, 1993). Participants in this study made significant use of computer technology for information access and communication. All have access to computers and the Internet in their homes, most made available through the DO-IT Scholars program. Participants used computers to take notes, prepare class assignments, access information and interact with peers and adults over the Internet. The benefits of using computers do not come without cost, however; participants reported that new skills must be developed to maximize the full potential of computer and network technologies.

Conclusions and Implications for Future Research

This sub-study explored the first year of post-high school transition of four individuals who had disabilities and who participated in the DO-IT Scholars program. The experiences shared by the participants concerning their transition processes were compared with each other and with current transition literature. Preliminary results of the case studies suggest that transition preparation, friends and mentors, and technology had an impact on the lives of participants. Additionally, participants projected candidness regarding descriptions of their disabilities and resiliency in dealing with the impacts of their disabilities. The preliminary findings of this sub-study elicited the following questions that might be addressed in future research:

  • How do candidness and resiliency regarding disability relate to success in postsecondary activities? How do these characteristics affect a person’s ability to self-advocate and manage the diverse aspects of having a disability?
  • How does specific high school transition preparation affect success in postsecondary activities?
  • How do peer and mentor relationships influence the lives of people with disabilities after high school?
  • How can technology best be utilized to promote success in the postsecondary activities of people with disabilities?


Burgstahler, S. (1993). Computing services for disabled students in institutions of higher education. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Washington, 1992). Dissertation Abstracts International54, 102A.

Gortmaker, S. L., Perrin, J. M., Weitzman, M., Homer, C. J., & Sobol, A. M. (1993). An unexpected success story: Transition to adulthood in youth with chronic physical health conditions. Journal of Research on Adolescence3(3), 317-336.

Henderson, C. (1992). College freshmen with disabilities: A statistical profile. Washington, DC: HEATH Resource Center.

Kram, K., & Isabella, L. (1985). Alternatives to mentoring: The role of peer relationships in career development. Academy of Management Journal28(1), 110-132.

MacLeod-Gallinger, J. (1992). The career status of deaf women. American Annals of the Deaf137(4), 315-325.

Resnick, M. D., & Hutton, L. (1987). Resiliency among physically disabled adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health Care17(12), 215-225.

Shapiro, E., Haseltine, F., & Rowe, M. (1978). Moving up: Role models, mentors, and the “patron system”. Sloan Management Review19(3), 51-58.

Wagner, M., Blackorby, J., Cameto, R., & Newman, L. (1993). What makes a difference? Influences on postschool outcomes of youth with disabilities. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Wagner, M., Newman, L., D’Amico, R., Jay, E. D., Butler-Nalin, P., Marder, C., & Cox, R. (1991). Youth with disabilities : How are they doing? Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Author Notes

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D., University of Washington, Box 354842, Seattle, WA 98195; phone: 206/543-0622; FAX: 206/685-4045; email:

Martha E. Orvis, M.A., University of Washington, Box 354842, Seattle, WA 98195; phone: 206/685-DOIT; FAX: 206/685-4045: email:

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Sheryl Burgstahler
Last modified: Wed Mar 20 09:23:26 2002