Transitioning into the adult sphere can be a tricky venture under the best circumstances, and even more so for individuals with a disability. Covid-19 has abruptly transformed the landscape of transition for such individuals even further. As such, starting early and having adequate outside support, while staying informed, is critical in this uncertain time. Fortunately, there are a myriad of programs available to help parents and their children navigate through their challenges and achieve independence and, ultimately, to realize their highest potential.
Making the leap from child to independent adult is never an easy task. In the case of an individual with special needs, it can take years of intensive preparation by the parents, children, support programs and organizations involved to achieve. Under Connecticut state law, transition begins during the school year in which the student turns 16 years old, except that for students with autism spectrum disorder, transition services start at 14 years old. The earlier the start, the better. The length of the transition process, and what sort of educational, social, vocational, or life-skill training is given during that time, is determined by each individual’s needs, strengths and weaknesses. Progress is monitored regularly so that adjustments can be made to the Individualized Education Program (IEP) and transition goals as necessary. Further time may be garnered by involving the child in services beyond the school year in an extended school year (ESY) during the summer. A recent federal court decision required that services continue up until a student’s 22nd birthday, unless the student graduates with a regular diploma earlier. Again, the earlier the start the better, as progress is neither linear, nor always accomplished within the time span available.
One well-known program to support special needs individuals transitioning into adulthood in Connecticut is BRS (Bureau of Rehabilitation Services), a division of the Connecticut Department of Labor and Connecticut Vocational Rehabilitation. BRS focuses on presenting opportunities to individuals age 16-21 with significant disabilities to allow them to enter the competitive workforce and to live independently. Their counselors work one-on-one to help eligible individuals prepare for, find and maintain jobs. BRS counselors help with resumes, looking for employment opportunities, preparing for interviews. They also assist individuals in overcoming any difficulties or impairments that might interfere with their ability to work. They emphasize career exploration and work readiness, and facilitate this by granting access to assistive technology, or adaptive communication and mobility equipment. They also provide school-to-work transitional opportunities, job site or business training, work-based learning experience, and career education within secondary and vocational schools. They facilitate vehicle and home modifications if necessary.
BRS and Connecticut Vocational Rehabilitation has continued to provide services during the Covid-19 outbreak by intensifying their level of contact and engagement with their students outside school settings. They have moved their model from in-person to virtual provision on a much larger scale, providing virtual job experience and internship opportunities for tele- employment while continuing to provide on-site job opportunities for work-based. They will be working closely with an online-based learning company called Conover Online to assist students to do career exploration work, online assessment, and skill building and inventories. Furthermore, BRS will be implementing a virtual Job Club which consists of a 12-hour session delivered over three weeks and overseen by community rehab providers.
BRS has been in existence since it was established after World War II to assist returning veterans to find work. It has been subject to serious criticism for a one and done approach to job training. Many individuals with disabilities require continued support. Unlike returning veterans, they are not rehabilitated and then good to go on their own. This writer was dropped from the program when jobs that suited for her and in her field were scarce, “until her circumstances changed” and then BRS would “reopen the file.” The file stayed closed until she aged out due to continued transportation difficulties in her area. Further BRS lacks the staff to provide transition services to more than a small fraction of students with disabilities aging out of school
Other public agencies, such as Department of Developmental Services (DDS), Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS), and the Board of Education Services for the Blind (BESBE), provide some transition services for their clientele. Yet, the bulk of transition training and support is provided by private providers, often on contract to government agencies. One such program is Options Employment and Educational Services. This program operates out of Hartford and provides highly individualized instruction, whether educational or vocational, to those students who have been unsuccessful in the public school. Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, Options’ work took place in surrounding communities. Vocational instructors brought young adults to locations specializing in their areas of career focus, or in the case of students, to their area of interest or study. For example, vocational staff brought clients to an ambulance station to practice studying to be an EMT. The pandemic has forced Options to continue its work remotely with the same certified instructors who also provide written information about the student’s chosen industry while connecting them with professionals in the field and their expertise via zoom. The students gain experience and learn firsthand through informational interviews from experts, while being able to explore all their future options in a safe but productive way until in person interaction is available again. To prevent social isolation and to maintain social skills, students have also been connecting in gameplay with one another via zoom.
Another private vocational support firm is EPIC, Educational Partnership for Instructing Children, serving the New York metropolitan tri-state area from Paramus, New Jersey. EPIC provides children aged 3-21 with severe challenges linked to autism with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), goal-oriented executive function training and transition services and planning. The transition process begins at 9 years old, with plans and goals re-evaluated every 3 to 5 years. Staff work one-on-one with students to foster each individual’s continual growth in verbal, academic, and social skills through childhood. Where appropriate, EPIC provides learners with skills to ease transition or inclusion into a general education setting. Life skills can include anything from teaching students hygienic habits to teaching them to shop for themselves. Later, staff teach workplace readiness skills and work with local businesses to provide supported internships, so students can transfer smoothly into the occupational sphere after graduation. In short, EPIC fosters generalization of skills across all aspects of their student’s lives to stretch beyond academia and vocational ability into independent executive and behavioral functioning in adulthood.
However, to many organizations like EPIC who cater to young clients with developmental, communication and behavioral challenges, distance learning as precipitated by Covid-19, has proved nothing short of devastating to those require repetition, and often hands-on or cross environmental instruction, in order to learn and then maintain their skillset. Not only are young people losing the time they would’ve had to learn or properly instill these skills, but they are likely regressing, or at least not advancing in them as a result of social distancing. There is a severe disruption in routine and predictability which can have a severe negative impact on their emotions, motivation, and interpersonal skill acquisition. Additionally, the virus itself presents a wholly different hurdle to those who have worked for years to master interpersonal skills and human contact. Students must now avoid human touch, practice vigilance with hygiene, and adapt to wearing masks. The job market will likely be more competitive than ever, making it doubly important to possess acceptable societal behavior and appropriate independent living skills, like hygiene and staying engaged and being self-motivated.
There appears to be general agreement on how transition is best accomplished. Reinforcing the student’s goals, keeping a regular schedule, maintaining their interests, furthering their learning, perhaps by interviewing professionals on zoom, or researching their passions, is vital. So, too, is firing up their motivation and providing them regular feedback and accountability along with emotional and skill support and expansion. There is also an unprecedented market for online skills and jobs, so it is important for students now to be familiar with appropriate technology where possible. This necessary distance interaction may actually be a boon for those whose passion is numbers or machines and for those who perform better in more ordered, less crowded environments, simply due to the nature of social distance. But for those in need of one-on-one tutelage or job training, virtual reality may prove an invaluable tool in the future to simulate an in-person encounter and thus have similar positive effects as a true interpersonal encounter. There are options. Even with these uncertain horizons, there is hope, and, with the right supports, be they educational, vocational, domestic, or technological, there can be success for those transitioning into the adult sphere.
For further resources, please visit:
Options Employment and Educational Services, LLC
Director: Scott W. Wells
Phone Number: (860) 523-5318