What will your child do after “aging out” of special education? While the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has helped ensure that children with disabilities enjoy access to appropriate educational programs through age 21 (or a bit longer in some states), families often find themselves on their own once children reach adulthood. Funding for skills development and job training programs can be limited, while waiting lists for such programs may extend for years. Without a clear plan for the future, special education “grads” can end up transitioning from an environment rich in educational and social opportunities to a limited lifestyle in the confines of the family home.

For many young adults with special needs, the goal is achieving some degree of independence through work. Given the potential obstacles to reaching this goal, it’s critical for parents to get involved early and seek advice from professionals, including an attorney whose practice focuses on special needs and a local disability advocate. It’s also helpful to gain some understanding of the disability employment “landscape”, and what it may mean for your child.

The Employment Picture

The National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability found that only 26 percent of working-age adults with disabilities are employed either in a job or their own business. While a combination of federal initiatives, private endeavors and technological advancements have made a difference, many individuals with disabilities continue to face obstacles to employment. Several laws have addressed this issue, most notably the groundbreaking Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. (These laws will be discussed in a future article.)

How Your Child Can Prepare

If your child hopes to join the workforce, even part time, planning will be key. According to the PACER Center, a Minneapolis-based national organization that assists families with transition issues, parents should begin planning five to 12 years before the child’s graduation.

The transition process is formalized under IDEA, which requires special education programs to provide students with transition planning at age 14. Specifically, a written transition plan must be incorporated into the child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The plan should reflect the vocational interests of the child and draw on the perspectives of transition team members, including parents, teachers, disability advocates, vocational rehabilitation (VR) specialists and adult service providers. The IEP team must provide expert assessment of the child’s skills and, no later than age 16, direct the student to the appropriate, district-funded skills development programs. The team also must ensure that the student’s progress is measured on a regular basis to determine whether additional services are required.

Throughout the transition process, parents need to take an active role. Parents are responsible for registering their children with local disability service agencies that serve adults. Parents also may need to take the lead in seeking out employment opportunities during the high school years, so their children can gain a “real life” perspective on the world of work.

After graduation, young adults who qualify for Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) may be eligible for additional skills development programs as well as “customized” or “supported” employment programs. Offered both through VRs and private agencies, customized employment helps connect qualified applicants with employers and ensure that employees have all the resources necessary to succeed in the workplace. Parents should be aware that once a child is employed, earnings will have an impact on disability benefits.

Getting Started

Your child’s transition from school to employment may take some time and effort. But, with early planning and professional advice, you can make a meaningful difference in your child’s ability to forge a fulfilling adult lifestyle.

Your special needs planner can help point you in the right direction.