Transition to Employment for Young Adults with Disabilities: What We (as Parents and Community Supporters) Can Do to Ensure Success

Lead Consultant with 21 and Able.

Mary Hartley, Lead Consultant with 21 and Able.

By: Mary Hartley on May 28, 2015

What can we do? As parents, we’ve learned there are no guarantees and no magic solutions that work for everyone. However, we’ve also learned that certain factors in the process, like becoming well educated in IEPs, advocacy and connecting with the right parents, administrators and teachers, finding the right insurances, doctors, medications, therapists, social experiences and summer camps, make our children’s odds better. As our children head into the next phase of their lives, young adulthood, many of us are asking how can we best help them to beat the odds? Also, what can we do to ensure success in employment to help them experience the joy and empowerment of independence?

Letting Go. One of the great challenges of our lives is the transition years from ages 14 through 25. Where services are available, teachers tell me that young adults are not getting out into the community and are not accessing employment and community transportation supports because their parents’ fear is holding them back. Getting to ‘letting go’ is not always easy (it may take supports and services), but like any teenager, they will learn by doing. They will make mistakes. They may get hurt or not always handle situations in the best way possible. However, in order to effectively begin the transition process, parents and families need to start at home and at school by supporting independent activities and stepping back as much as possible. As a parent, I like to look to adults with disabilities as role models, namely those who have a similar disability to my son, and learn how that person achieved success.

Inclusion. Inclusion. Inclusion. If you want your child to work, they must get out into the world – school, outside activities, and the community at large. One of the best preparations for adult success is inclusion. Letting go from perceived safe environments, and moving to the regular flow of the school or community is challenging. If our sons and daughters are to build capacity to live and work in the world with typical adults, they need to be with their typical peers.

Knowledge is power. You became expert in Special Education law (and hopefully transition goals with your son or daughter), 504 plans, along with many other things. Now, in order to help your son or daughter begin to enter the ‘real world,’ you’ll both need to learn everything there is to know about adult systems. I recognize this is not an easy thing. For many of us, this involves some combination of Vocational Rehabilitation Services, Waiver (Home and Community Based) Funding, Social Security, and Medicaid (for adults—which is different from EPSDT). It is helpful to learn from benefits counseling how all of this works. While there are still significant challenges in those systems, your adult child may have greater capacity to work and live independently if you start with the right information. Don’t limit your son or daughter based on something you heard from other parents. Together, research for the right answers, and get the information firsthand. 21 and Able, an initiative of United Way of Allegheny County, along with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and statewide stakeholders, has developed a Planning for the Future checklist being distributed statewide to make sure families can get all the information they need to ‘start critical conversations’ in their IEP and community professional/agency meetings. In our region, this checklist is directly connected to United Way’s PA 2-1-1 Southwest human services helpline, where resource navigators can answer any question on the checklist 24/7.

Make Sure Your High School Student has at least one (paid) Job. At 21 and Able, we developed an innovative model that was started with Giant Eagle, a leading regional multi-format food, fuel and pharmacy retailer, called Career Transition Project. The Career Transition Project uses embedded professionals within companies to help high school students and young adults with disabilities get part and full time jobs. Through funding from the Kessler Foundation, we are expanding the pilot to 3-5 more employers over two years. High school students who have paid, competitive employment while still in high school (like any other high school student) are 2.5 times more likely to work after high school. Some tips for helping your child get started on the road to employment include getting started early with regular chores, getting paid around the house and neighborhood for helping with extra jobs, participating in volunteer projects, and securing internships with real responsibilities. Paid employment is the key to lifelong employment. Most adults are motivated by money for things we want to buy, but we also require an income to meet basic needs such as food and shelter.

Advocate. Advocate. Advocate. Sometimes, getting the job isn’t enough. Your high school student may need a job coach or other supports to get started. While your son or daughter should learn to advocate on their own behalf to get what they need from schools, an employer and from local and state agencies, sometimes solutions are just not available. It often takes everyone to change the system. Systemic change involves building a coalition to start the momentum, like the #IWantToWork Campaign. In the #IWantToWork Campaign, young adults with disabilities are paid professionals working alongside and learning with their colleagues how to change the law. Pennsylvania House Bill 400 and Senate Bill 200, if enacted, will fully fund our state Vocational Rehabilitation specialists to do more to help students get the supports and services they need to achieve success, like job coaching during night, weekend and summer jobs. In April, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted 198-0 in favor of a bill that will do just that. We are awaiting a vote from the Senate and are hopeful that Pennsylvania will adopt this law and make transition to work in competitive, integrated employment a priority for all individuals.

To learn more about 21 and Able,

To learn more about #IWantToWork

Mary Anderson Hartley is the lead consultant for 21 and Able at United Way of Allegheny County working on strategic policy and concrete solutions that will support young adults with disabilities to transition to adulthood more effectively to employment, housing, further education, resources, information, referral and support. 21 and Able is working with individuals with disabilities and their families and over fifty partner agencies and private businesses in Allegheny County and across Pennsylvania to build a better roadmap for youth with disabilities as they transition to adulthood. Mary is the mother of two children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum.

21 and Able, an initiative of United Way of Allegheny County is working to create a roadmap for youth with disabilities who are transitioning out of the education and supportive services system to continue their education, work, live independently and participate actively in their communities. 21 and Able is working toward this goal via three strategies: the development of a public policy agenda and coordination of advocacy efforts; the creation of a public awareness campaign to draw attention to the urgency of issues related to youth transitioning to adulthood; and the design and launch of pilot projects that address the transition needs of youth with disabilities and their families.

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