Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Global Inclusion and Social Development

First Advisor

Gillian MacNaughton

Second Advisor

Maria Paiewonsky

Third Advisor

Heather L. Ball


Students with disabilities who receive special education services are entitled under federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that includes measurable postsecondary goals and identifies the transition services that are needed in order for the student to reach those goals. Transition planning for students with disabilities in rural areas can be uniquely challenging due to lack of access to transportation, service providers, and accessible programs. Failure to prepare for postsecondary education or employment is correlated with life-long challenges, including poverty, un/under-employment, and limited educational attainment. Natural supports, in the form of family members, friends, or community members, could be a resource to assist transition planning for students with disabilities but they may not be invited into the transition planning process. The purpose of this study was to investigate the barriers to transition planning in rural Maine today, the role that natural supports have played in transition and postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities living in rural Maine as well as any barriers that may prevent more fully accessing and integrating these natural supports into transition planning.

This study used qualitative methods to first review the legal and policy context, second draw out the voices of youth with disabilities and third take a retrospective appraisal of the lived experiences of these stakeholders as they supported the transition of students with disabilities to adulthood. Data collected in this study included the voice of youth with disabilities (from multiple sources) and interviews with parents of students with disabilities and special educators who are both responsible for overseeing development and implementation of the Individualized Education Program and serve as gatekeepers to “seats at the table” at transition planning meetings. Key findings in this study confirmed that many barriers to transition planning exist for students in rural Maine – particularly related obstacles to accessing the IEP process, overwhelming responsibilities of parents and educators, lack of knowledge about transition resources, paid services that do not meet students’ needs and divergent beliefs about what is possible for students with disabilities as they enter adulthood. The study also found that rural “Yankee ingenuity” result in creative use of natural supports to meet transition needs – including through the use of family, friends, community members and interestingly educators who stepped outside their classroom role. These natural supports, however, rarely were physically present at the IEP meeting or explicitly named in transition planning, and special education law and practices failed to promote their inclusion. The voice of youth with disabilities also highlighted that they do not perceive the support of caring adults and that they wanted to be part of the solution through education and support of other youth coming up behind them.

Applying a transdisciplinary approach, these experiences inform recommendations for sustainable ways to promote inclusion of natural supports as a means to strengthen transition planning and postsecondary outcomes for young people living in rural communities in Maine.