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Facts From NLTS2: Substance Use Among Young Adults With Disabilities
NCSER 2008-3009
March 2008


Substance use in the United States has been linked to a number of health and social consequences. For example, approximately 40 million occurrences of debilitating illnesses or injuries are associated with the use of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs each year (National Institute on Drug Abuse 2007). Behavioral and social problems associated with problematic substance use include crime, violence, sexual risk-taking, and suicidality (National Institute on Drug Abuse 2007; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 2007).

Empirical evidence regarding the prevalence of substance use among people with disabilities has been mixed, with some findings suggesting that substance use is similar or lower among individuals with disabilities than among the general population (Katims, Zapata, and Yin 1996; McCrystal, Percy, and Higgins 2007; McGillicuddy 2006; Moore and Siegal 1989; Rurangirwa et al. 2006), while other studies indicate a higher prevalence of alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drug use among individuals with disabilities (Blum, Kelly, and Ireland 2001; Gilson, Chilcoat, and Stapleton 1996; Hogan, McLellan, and Bauman 2000; Milberger et al. 1997). Such mixed findings may be due to the limited number of disabilities considered in these studies, the fact that most studies considered only one or a few substances, and the use of small cohort studies, all of which limited the generalizability of the findings (Barrett and Paschos 2006).

This fact sheet, based on data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2)1, addresses the limitations of some of these previous studies by providing a national picture of the prevalence rates of smoking, alcohol, and illegal drug use in young adults, ages 18 through 212, with disabilities. This fact sheet also considers demographic characteristics of young adults with disabilities and the associations between such characteristics and tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drug use. Further, analyses of other nationally representative datasets provide comparisons of substance use between young adults with disabilities and those in the general U.S. population.3

1 The National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) has a nationally representative sample of more than 11,000 students who were in at least seventh grade and receiving special education services in the 2000–01 school year. This sample represents a national total of 1,838,848 youth with disabilities, according to federal child count figures (U.S. Department of Education 2002). Substance use data were collected from 2,640 young adults with disabilities who were at least 18 years old during Wave 3 of NLTS2. Telephone interviews and mail surveys (for those who could not be reached by phone) were conducted with young adults from spring through fall 2005, with a response rate of 67 percent. Weighting on disability category, age, race/ethnicity of young adults with disabilities reduced differences between Wave 3 eligible population and Wave 3 respondents to below 2 percent. NLTS2 was designed to provide a national picture of the characteristics, experiences, and achievements of youth with disabilities in the NLTS2 age range as they transition to young adulthood. Therefore, all the statistics presented in this fact sheet are weighted estimates of the national population of youth in the age group included here who had received special education in 2000–01 and of those in each disability category individually who satisfied the study's eligibility requirement. See for more information about the study.
2 Substance use typically peaks during young adulthood, often identified as any age from 18 to 25 (Park et al. 2006).
3 Young adults with disabilities are included in the general population comparison sample because excluding them would require using self-reported disability data, which frequently are not an accurate indicator of disability, resulting in both over- and under-estimations of disability.