Start of school year a time for transitions and plans

dhancoxWith the start of another school year, students and young adults with disabilities need encouragement and support for success. Transition and transition services for youth was a timely topic, hosted by Independent Lifestyles, on Aug. 18 in St. Paul. David Hancox, Executive Director at the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living (MCIL), entertained and enlightened the group at the workshop Transition: The Journey From Safety of Home to Independence in the Community.

Hancox recommended that we ask our students (and ourselves) to explore how we would finish these statements: I want…I don’t want…I like…I don’t like… 

“We’re all in this alone together,” said Hancox. He encourages students, parents, and professionals to work together for progress. He presented a study done in 2005 called What Minnesota YOUTH Think about Transition. The study asked students their knowledge, thoughts and opinions about transition. Hancox noted that 11% of the students didn’t know their disability diagnosis and 15.3% thought they didn’t have a disability. He encouraged students to learn about themselves and their needs.

Hancox emphasized talking to young individuals with disabilities about their aspirations. He suggested this process needs to begin with children as young as toddlers. He believes there is a hole in the current system where youth are often not even asked about their hopes and dreams. Hancox talked about how our choices today will affect our future. He suggested that we each need to set up goals for our lives.

He described the importance of transitions services for youth with disabilities, focusing on the Individual Education Plan (IEP). In the United States an IEP is mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA requires public schools to develop an IEP for every student with a disability who meets the federal and state requirements for special education.

The IEP must be designed to provide the child with a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). The IEP refers both to the educational program for a child with a disability and to the written document that describes that program.

Hancox tells each student – “It’s Your IEP.” Students should be active in their IEP and make their needs known. It is also important for students to clearly explain what they want.

The most important person at the IEP meeting is the youth, Hancox said. He suggests that each student prepare for meetings in advance. He urged students inventory their strengths and weaknesses, consider what kinds of accommodations have been made for them in the past, and be specific about what areas assistance is needed in.

He described who attends an IEP meeting: the student’s parent(s) or guardian(s), a special education teacher, at least one regular education teacher, a school representative who knows about school resources and an individual who can interpret the child’s evaluation results (often the school psychologist).

Other individuals are sometimes invited, including speech and occupational therapists, professionals who have worked with or assessed the child, or someone to assist the parent in advocating for their child’s needs, and the child. Surprisingly, the student is sometimes left out of the process. About 20 professionals and five consumers gathered around a row of tables in the conference room. The professionals included social workers, transition program directors, and independent living skills workers. They described working with high school-age youth and young adults.

“I found it valuable to hear what the students thought in the study that was conducted. It is valuable to hear what the students have to say to know how to incorporate a better program for them. It was important to hear that transitioning needs to be incorporated as early in an individual’s life as possible. Transitioning is not always easy for individuals and learning the steps to ease that transition was of value,” said Amy Gapinski, program director at Opportunity Manor.

Hancox expressed his admiration for a remarkable program manager at MCIL who has her master’s degree. In her youth she was counseled to not attend college, because she has a disability. She followed her dream despite the lack of encouragement. An MCIL consumer in the audience related that she feels very inspired by this program manager’s accomplishments. “If she can do it, maybe I can too.”

MCIL is the Twin Cities Center for Independent Living and follows a policy of hiring individuals with disabilities, said Hancox. In this way consumers have direct contact with others who are living their dreams. Fiftythree percent of program staff, seventy-one percent of managers with decision making authority, and eighty percent of MCIL Board Members are people with disabilities.

The MCIL Transition Program is driven to assist young adults with disabilities, to make a successful transition from high school to post secondary education, employment and self-directed living. For more information contact Nick Wilkie, Transition Specialist. Independent Lifestyles, Central Minnesota’s Center for Independent Living, offers transition classes at area high schools through the BRAVO program. BRAVO stands for blended resources achieving vocational outcomes. For more information contact Cara Ruff, Executive Director: carar@independentlifestyles.org.

Resources for youth in transition: Minnesota Association of Centers for Independent Living: www.macil.org/. Minnesota’s Shared Youth Vision Activities: www.deed.state.mn.us/youth/syv/syv.htm