This is the question many, including myself in the disability field, are starting to ask.
Historically, transition programs of most school districts have been geared toward students with disabilities staying on the high school campus, not graduating with a high school diploma and instead getting a certificate of attendance. Such a certificate is practically worthless when it comes to employers or college admissions, but these certificates were and still are, offered as an easier track for those who cannot complete the requirements to obtain a diploma.
Students with disabilities who are in transition programs for 18-22 year olds receive training in basic job skills, life skills, and very simple academic skills. Most of the time, the careers and job skills these programs focus on include occupations such as grocery baggers, thrift store workers, retail stock clerks, cashiers, greeters, fast food workers, coffee cart workers, hotel maids, and janitors. These programs were intended for an individual with a disability to obtain an entry-level job. The transition model was built on the assumption that individuals with disabilities would live at a poverty level while relying on public benefits for health care and social security and live a simple, but very controlled life.
And for some with severe disabilities, the above arrangement may still make sense, but for most individuals with disabilities, this expectation is becoming the exception instead of the rule. Today, many individuals with disabilities are choosing to go on to a very different transition pathway today after high school. Many are choosing to become part of mainstream society such as living in the community with their non-disabled peers, earning a living wage in the career path of their choice, getting the chance to attend college, the chance to date and fall in love, and experience the American dream.
Additionally, today we face so ever-changing times in our job market, which we have not seen before. The number of entry-level jobs in the United States have been declining at a rapid rate in recent years. Numerous retailers are downsizing or closing shop entirely, and many shopping malls across the US are going vacant or are being repurposed, as a significant portion of people are now shopping online. Robots and self-checkout machines are replacing cashiers in many stores and fast food restaurants. These changes are significantly reducing the number of entry-level jobs. There really are not very many jobs available in today’s economy for those without high school diplomas, as many decent jobs require college degrees.
Next, in many cities the average monthly cost of an apartment or monthly mortgage payment is increasing rapidly. In most cities, the average monthly cost of living is well above the $2000 Medicaid asset cap, making it harder for those who receive Medicaid services to afford housing. The Section 8 housing assistance program is experiencing longer and longer waiting lists in many cities as the result.
Many people with disabilities today are preferring community life over group homes. Some of them are even getting married and having their own children. In addition, the regional centers in California are starting a new pilot model called “self-determination” which will allow greater choice in programs, vendors, and the enable the freedom for a person with a disability to do their own hiring of support workers to meet their needs. Many people with disabilities are being given more say in terms of their adult decisions today, which include financial, medical, legal, social, and sexual, while others have less voice and are being fully conserved.
With this change in perspective and direction, the whole model of post-high school transition should be demolished and rebuilt from the ground up. To accommodate these new times, school districts, departments of rehabilitation, regional centers, and others will have to make major changes to their support model and curriculum. People with disabilities and their parents will also need to be given very different advice in terms of planning for when their child with a disability reaches high school age and becomes a young adult.
To all the parents out there, preparing your son or daughter with a disability for transition is going to likely put you outside of your comfort zone. Parents are likely to have to take an empathetic view of their child with a disability advancing in normal life skills. Parents also need to be willing to gradually let go of their control over their son/daughter’s decision making as their son/daughter with a disability enters adulthood and gradually turn adult decision making over to their child. It will mean allowing your child or young adult with a disability to make some adult decisions, take a few risks and experience new things. These may include things like being independent, cooking one’s own meals, having access to their own money and learning to spend it wisely, driving, going places on their own, living alone, getting the chance to date and fall in love with someone, and letting them be legally responsible for the risks and consequences of their own choices, among many others.
Recommendations for Parents, Students with Disabilities, Transition Programs, and Service Coordinators in this field to accommodate life after high school transition in these new times:
*Never place limits or assumptions on a child or young adult’s potential career path when they are young. Instead, allow the child or young adult to expand on every talent he/she has. Use the persons strengths to guide them towards a career by seeing where those talents can be used in the workforce. School workers should no longer tell a child or a parent that they will only hold an entry-level job when the child grows up. Instead of seeing an odd talent as a social outcast, encourage them to expand their knowledge in the area as that talent can likely be used in the workforce down the road. Often by reaching out to potential employers in the fields that can use the person’s strengths and talents, the person may land a job in the field rather quickly. Careers with living wage salaries should be encouraged, not discouraged by career and transition staff.
* High schools should encourage special education students to take as many academic classes for credit as possible. Always allow a student to try academic subjects for credit before presuming they are not capable of doing the work. The decision to go for a diploma or certificate of attendance should be made at the 11th grade, not the 9th grade, as this will give the child a chance to try high school classes and evaluate their progress in them better. Special education students capable of a diploma should not be placed in functional skills only program. This is especially true if the child has a goal to attend college after high school.
* Parents of high school students with disabilities should be advised that going to college is a viable option for their child after high school. One should also advise parents and students of transition age how disability support systems at the college level typically work and the accommodations they can provide, which is different from the K-12 system. Community colleges are usually easier to get accepted to, but individuals with disabilities can apply to four-year colleges if they obtain a high school diploma. Usually the rule when it comes to admissions is “otherwise qualified” meaning that the same admission and degree requirements apply to those with disabilities as those without disabilities. However, one can get some supports in college such as note takers, extra time on tests, use of assistive technology, sign language interpreters, and others.
* Transition programs need to begin to start training people with disabilities to work in a wide range of career paths, not just entry-level jobs, especially in industries that market trends predict are going to stay around or expand in the upcoming years.
* Schools and adult service system staff should stop giving parents advice to go out and immediately obtain guardianship when their child with a disability turns 18. Doing so takes all the person’s adult rights away. Instead, schools and adult service system staff should give balanced advice for parents to seriously consider the circumstances of a child’s disability and evaluate which types of adult decisions he/she can make on their own, both now and in the future. Turning 18 years empowers a person with a lot of adult rights and responsibilities including being able to make one’s own decisions in the realms of finance, medical, legal, sexual, consent, physical risks, parenting, ability to stand trial, and others. Parents should be advised on the benefits of allowing their son or daughter with a disability to make as many adult decisions as possible. Keeping as many rights intact the person can responsibly manage, and handle should be paramount for a successful transition in the 21st century. Only obtain limited conservatorship when it is last resort and only take away as few rights as the person cannot handle. It is a lot harder to get one’s rights re-instated. One needs to think twice and really evaluate if guardianship is really needed before approaching the court.
* People with disabilities should think twice about refusing jobs that pay above the SSI/Medicaid limits. Too often people with disabilities get caught up in the belief that staying on public benefits such as Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, and Section 8 Housing to retain eligibility for some support services is always the right thing to do. However, one should never pass up a job offer or the chance to own an asset simply for this reason. Instead one needs to evaluate if going the higher income route could be worth a better quality of life to them, even if it means having to pay for health insurance, certain Medicaid services, or pay market rate rent for housing. If needed, evaluate special needs trusts and other methods around this if retaining benefits is absolutely needed and one can get a better job at the same time.
* When going into transition, one needs to think about what independent living skills he/she needs to learn to survive. One should evaluate these skills and teach these skills. These skills can include cooking, clean up, driving, bus access, gardening, roommate relationships, budgeting, paying bills and others. There are many ways and places to learn them including at home, with friends, and at school through home economics courses. If needed, a supported living agency can assist someone living in the community with these skills. Later on, a person needs to decide if or when they will move out of their parent’s home and where they plan to live in the future.
* Many other aspects of the young adult’s life need to be considered in transition planning. Parents and adult service staff need to consider the type of life the person with disability wants to have and the direction that person wants to take beyond high school. First, there are many things that can make life worth living, such as any combination of the following: recreational activities, hobbies, leisure time activities, the type of lifestyle the person wants at home, having friends, family connections, joining community groups the person wants to be a part of, religious services, sports, arts and culture activities, having a dating life, romance, getting married, having children, having a spiritual life, and more. Each person will have a different answer to what matters to them. Transition teams should work to support the type of lifestyle the person wants.
* Plans for senior life also need to be explored. This may mean saving for a retirement, establishing investments, or estate planning. Too often this issue is forgotten about when it comes to individuals with disabilities. Likely we will be facing one of the first few generations past de-institutionalization approaching their senior years, and we need to start thinking about this issue.
Stephen Hinkle is a first year Ph.D. student at Chapman University. He is also a disability rights advocate, international motivational speaker on disability rights a person with autism, and a former special education student.