Make the transition years count for your student with a disability

As a financial and benefits planner for people with disabilities and their families, I am excited when clients first come to work with me, when their child is young. The earlier we get started, the more opportunities we have to prepare resources and the better the family will be positioned to meet the future needs of the family member, who has the disability. Even so, though, with the exception of children, who require significant medical treatment or technological support, our planning efforts typically look forward to the child’s young-adult years. This is because the November 29, 1975 passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, formerly known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act) has since required that public school systems provide the amount of support, in the form of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), behavior supports, physical, occupational and speech therapies, and aids and services (including adaptive curriculum), and equipment that is required to make sure that each student has a “Free and Appropriate Public Education” (FAPE). Admittedly, some schools and school districts are better at doing this than others; and not infrequently, the child may need additional therapies and services outside what the school agrees to do, but even so, by and large, most of the supports for the child and the family, from the time the child is four through her/his teenage years, comes through the school system. As a result, the so-called transition years become a critical stage in the life of a student with disabilities. The stated goal of the processes to be implemented during the transition years is “to facilitate the student’s move from school to post-school activities.” Thus, to make the most of the transition period, the student and her/his family, needs to look past it to consider what those “post-school activities” may be. (Photo courtesy of Brett Jordan via Unsplash.)

I had the start of the “what comes after transition” talk with one of those lucky Michiganders this past week. The family member in question is only fifteen, which means that he is technically just at the beginning of the “transition planning” period, mandated by law for students with disabilities. Per the IDEA, transition planning at age 14.5 and must begin by age 16. We started to look at what might be available for him in the way of adult services and, relevant to financial planning, what those services would cost and how they might be covered. We found several agencies in the geographic vicinity of the family that, among them, offered the following:

  • Lifelong learning classes on things like budgeting, money management, problem solving, time management, communication, and safety

  • Social programs and community activities

  • Exercise programs and adaptive sports camps

  • Pre-employment skills building

  • Immersive, out-of-home weekend experiences for building independence

  • Art collectives with the opportunity to participate in exhibitions and sell one’s artwork

  • Volunteer experiences

  • Employment in agency-run bakeries, restaurants, and thrift stores

  • Supported employment

  • Assistance finding and maintaining competitive employment

A couple of the organizations had the capacity to work with students while they were still in transition, thus creating a bridge from the school environment to the adult-services environment. Workshops, subcontracting with employers to do piecework and single-site, pre-configured “day programs’, were conspicuously absent from all of the agencies’ programming.


Preparing for the adult life is an iterative process. I help students with disabilities understand the supports that various agencies will offer them when they have aged out of school. Knowing the options for adult life gives families ideas about what their child could or might like to do in society. They can then work with the school system to design transition goals that work towards those adult options and build the auxiliary proficiencies, including communication, transportation, and “people” or “soft” skills. Trying out these directions during the transition years, in turn, helps students and families understand better for which adult agency and for which programs will be most suitable. Having these years to investigate and understand options will be beneficial for the future, while still retaining the full entitlement of the public school system.


Some students in special education are keenly aware that their mainstream peers, including their siblings, leave school and be what is perceived as adult life at the end of grade twelve. A feature of IDEA is that it permits states to transfer to the student at that state’s respective age of majority the right to manage and determine her/his own educational course. This may include giving the student the right to receive notices for and attend her/his own Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting, consent to a re-evaluation, consent to a change of school placement, and request mediation or due process to resolve some kind of dispute around eligibility for or to help understand the nature of services and placements. Until the age of majority, parents were routinely included in this information and these decisions. Afterwards, they are excluded from the process, unless the student her/himself has opted in to continuing to include her/his parents.


It is a difficult balance because the goal of transition is to develop the student’s capacity to make her/his own decisions; however, without constructive support and help from family, along with trusted adult friends and teachers, the student may give in to perceived peer pressure and opt to take her/his diploma and thus end her/his access to further school-funded transition services. This was the unfortunate experience of the individual of another client family. Though the student in question is academically capable, he has not thus far been successful pursuing either community college or competitive work without the built-in supports of the school system and without, as yet, being found eligible for and obtaining funding for services from an adult-provider agency. Had the young man stayed in school, he might have availed himself of dual enrollment and taken some of the same community colleges courses. The opportunity for such dual enrollment is covered by IDEA because the Act allows funds to be used to cover technical school, community college, or other post-secondary enrollment costs if those programs can be deemed necessary to maintain a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for the student. Another benefit to dual enrollment is that the high school IEP team can assist the student to work with the post-secondary disability office to put accommodations in place.


For students, who are not inclined to pursue post-secondary education, transition is an excellent opportunity to find or create, and practice work skills that can set the student up for paid employment or, at least, meaningful volunteer work in adult life. And, of course, it is a time to build and practice independent living skills. Academic, employment, and independence activities should be combined in a way that is most useful to each individual student and her/his vision of adult life. Transition is not just a few more years of the school taking responsibility for keep a student with a disability occupied and safe. Used properly, it is a valuable opportunity to build adult-applicable skills, using the schools resources and being in an environment that the student finds familiar.

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