Helping Youth with Disabilities Achieve Independence

Do you remember your teenage years?  Were they exciting?  Scary?  Carefree?  All of the above?  For most people, adolescence is […]

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Do you remember your teenage years?  Were they exciting?  Scary?  Carefree?  All of the above?  For most people, adolescence is a time to discover who we are as individuals.  It is also a time to begin thinking about our futures.  We begin asking ourselves questions like “What do I want to do with my life?” or “Where do I want to live?”  For youth with disabilities, the answers to these questions are often unclear.  Often, youth with disabilities have low expectations about their futures.  In addition, parents, teachers, and other professionals sometime have diminished hopes for these young people. 

While it is true that teens with disabilities face many obstacles upon entering adulthood, parents and teachers can do many things to prepare them for this transition to independence and, most likely, meaningful employment.  With the proper support and encouragement, many young people with disabilities have become quite successful in their adult lives.  Below are a few ideas to consider when preparing a young person to become a happy and productive member of the community.
* Start Making Plans Early – Talk to your child about his or her hopes and dreams for the future.  Encourage them to develop interests that might lead to a possible career. Give them the opportunity to observe different jobs.  If they have career goals that seem impossible, don’t discourage them.  Instead, show them what they will have to do to achieve that goal.  Let them know that it is okay to discover new possibilities as they pursue their original dream.  Friends and relatives can also be valuable sources of information for youth who are curious about certain professions.  It is never too early to begin exploring the world of work with your child.  If parents and teachers express confidence in a child’s abilities and potential, that child’s self-esteem will increase and they will have more hope for their futures.

* Educate Youth about Their Disabilities – Many young people have very little knowledge about their specific disabilities.  Some youth cannot identify the name of their disability; much less explain how it affects their health.  Young people need this information to become better advocates for themselves.  Youth who have basic information about their disabilities are better equipped to explain to future employers what accommodations they need to do their jobs.  They can also begin directing their own health care because they better understand how factors such as diet and stress can affect their physical well-being.  Youth should be encouraged to talk to their parents and physicians about questions related to their disabilities.  Vast amounts of disability-specific information can also be found on the Internet and in public libraries. 

* The Role of Schools – Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), schools are required to provide transition services to students with disabilities beginning at age 14 (or earlier if appropriate).  Transition services can include job skills training, college prep classes, development of independent living skills, etc.  The transition services should help the student make progress towards post-secondary goals such as going to college, finding a job, or living independently.  Transition services must be listed in the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP).  The student must also be invited to any IEP meetings where transition will be discussed.  If a parent or guardian feels that their child is not receiving appropriate transition services, they should ask for a meeting with the IEP team to discuss their concerns as soon as possible.  Parents can also contact advocates at PACER Center with any questions related to transition services or IEP’s.

* Know about Resources in the Community – There many agencies and organizations that can help youth with disabilities achieve their goals.  For example, the Department of Rehabilitation Services assists people with disabilities in finding and keeping a job.  Some of the services that DRS provides include job assessment and training, tuition assistance for college or technical school, and financial assistance for purchasing assistive technology.  The Centers for Independent Living (CILs) can help youth develop skills such as balancing a budget or finding an apartment.  CILs can also answer questions about personal care services, accessible transportation, or other disability related issues.  The Social Security Administration has information about disability benefits programs such as SSI or SSDI.   SSA can also answer questions about work incentives that allow people with disabilities to work without losing their health insurance. 

Youth with disabilities have more options for their futures than ever before.  By teaching youth to advocate for themselves and using resources in the community, we can give them the opportunity to fulfill their dreams.  Every journey begins with a first step.  On the road to independence, what will your child’s first step be?

* Department of Rehabilitation Services (job training, placement): 651-296-9981; in Greater Minnesota: 800-328-9095; on the Internet:
* Centers for Independent Living (independent living skills, disability-related information, referral): 651-646-8342; Rochester: 507-285-1815; Mankato: 507-345-7139; Marshall: 507-532-2221; St. Cloud: 320-529-9000; Moorhead: 218-236-0459; East Grand Forks: 218-773-6100; Hibbing: 218-262-6675; on the Internet:
* Social Security Administration (disability benefits, work incentives): 800-772-1213; TTY: 800-325-0778; on the Internet:   For detailed information on work incentives, visit Social Security’s Work Site at
* PACER Center (parent training and advocacy, information, referral): 952-838-9000; Greater Minnesota: 800-527-2237; TTY: 952-838-0190; on the Internet:

Mark Siegel is a transition specialist at PACER Center.  His e-mail address is [email protected].

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