For the past 15 years, Erik Johnson has helped with receiving at Beyond the Blackboard in Arvada—moving boxes from the truck into the store, unpacking them, and pricing items. Then comes his favorite part of the job: breaking down the boxes and recycling them. Erik is the store’s “most dependable, long-term employee,” says co-owner Jean Boylan.
Erik, 32, also has Down syndrome, which affects his speech, making it difficult for most people to understand him. For Erik’s mom, Laura, finding Erik’s place at Beyond the Blackboard while he was still in high school eased her concerns about transitioning him out of school and into adulthood.
“His self-esteem and his sense of purpose for what he does there is the most valuable thing,” she says.
For many families, the transition into the post-school world can be daunting. Developing a comprehensive transition plan for a child with disabilities is key. The plan can help avoid the isolation and boredom that often comes with leaving the structured school environment and give individuals an opportunity to use their gifts.
While educational environments offer benefits and services for students with disabilities from the ages of three to 21, adult services center around eligibility for certain government and employment programs. Even if students continue into secondary education, they don’t receive the same individualized support they do in K-12. And, since they are adults, parents aren’t required, and sometimes are not allowed, to interact with instructors and be a part of the process.
“That can be an emotional shock to families when they’re going from an entitlement system into an eligibility-based system,” says Tanner Whittaker, the director of transition services at Easterseals, an advocacy and service organization for people with disabilities. “Navigating all of the different systems can be difficult. But that’s where it’s critical to find out who the key point people are within those systems and begin to establish a relationship with them.”
Identify Transition Goals
Each student with a disability should begin incorporating transition goals into their Individualized Education Program (IEP) at the age of 14, according to The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 (IDEA). The plan prepares the student for life after school, focusing on their particular needs and interests to incorporate in continued education, vocational training, employment, and independent living.
Through the state-wide School to Work Alliance Program (SWAP), school-based transition programs work closely with the Colorado Department of Education and the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) to provide pre-employment services, career development, and case management. Additional resources, organizations, and agencies can assist with parental self-education and early planning processes.
“You want to stay ahead of the game on what programs are out there,” says Yvette Plummer Burkhalter, executive director of the THRIVE Center in Aurora. THRIVE offers training sessions for both parents and youth in transition. In Project Independence, parent sessions cover topics from continuing education and employment to understanding transportation options. THRIVE’s youth transitions program focuses on self-advocacy, which teaches students the power of their own voice in communicating their needs and desires as they become adults.
Self-advocacy is a key component of a healthy transition, says Teresa Greene, youth independent living adviser at the Center for People with Disabilities (CPWD) in Boulder.
“We want them to be able to advocate for their needs in their home and their community, in their school, or even just for themselves,” Greene says.
A Different Kind of Independence
Independence must be defined individually, Greene says. For some it may mean living alone, going to work, and taking public transportation. For others, it may mean washing their own dishes or doing their own laundry while still living in the family home. Whatever the case, independence always involves the “dignity of risk”—parents letting go and allowing their children to experience failure. Regardless of what it looks like, independent living benefits the whole family, Greene says, giving freedom not just to the person with a disability but their parents, siblings, and everyone else involved.
For Erik, independence meant moving into his own apartment. Five years ago, he relocated to a complex in South Denver where both people with and without disabilities live. Cottonwood Community Alternatives provides necessary help for individuals living in the complex. Staff is present around the clock to help Erik cook meals, take his medications, and catch his bus—provided through RTD’s Access-a-Ride—to work each morning.
“For me to be able to see how well he is doing independently, both with his job, with his apartment… It’s exactly where I want to be with Erik,” his mother says. “We still have a very close relationship… but his life is independent at this point. And that’s such a reassuring feeling as a parent—to know that he is thriving.”
Teaching the Autism Community Trades (T.A.C.T)
The unemployment rate for people with autism in the United States is 90 percent, a fact that inspired Danny Combs to start Teaching the Autism Community Trades (T.A.C.T), a nonprofit technical school that helps individuals with autism build confidence and social and emotional awareness.
“It’s overwhelming as a parent when you start looking at all the different services that your child needs and organizing it all,” says Combs, who has a son with autism. “There’s no book or chart or anything that really helps you navigate it.”
Designed for those transitioning into the workforce, the career training program at T.A.C.T covers multiple disciplines, including electrical, welding, automotive, carpentry, construction, and manufacturing, and teaches to the Colorado Trade and Technical Education Standards. T.A.C.T provides individualized instruction and support with a 2:1 or 3:1 student-to-instructor ratio.
Since it started in 2016, T.A.C.T has served more than 500 young adults in the Denver metro area. It offers workshops and summer camps to younger children as well, helping them discover their interests and capabilities early on.
T.A.C.T also works with employers, encouraging them to hire T.A.C.T graduates for their talents rather than their disabilities. It’s our selling point, Combs says, not only because of their talents, but also because research shows that people with autism have significantly better retention and on-task engagement rates than the average U.S. worker.
With an 86 percent job placement rate, T.A.C.T is helping people with autism find meaningful and productive work. T.A.C.T students have won prestigious auto restoration competitions. Some of the electrical graduates are installing the first 1,200 lights on the I-70 project with Sturgeon Electric. As Combs says: “They’re literally lighting up our streets.”
Inclusive Employers Any Family Can Support
- Blue Star Recyclers in Denver and Eco-Cycle CHaRM in Boulder both recycle electronics and other materials, and employ individuals with disabilities.
- Brewability Lab in Englewood brews and serves small-batch, hand-brewed beers and is staffed by individuals with disabilities. Pizzability is scheduled to open this summer.
- Stepping Stone CO-OP Coffee Shop and Marketplace in Littleton serves up coffee, lattes, and baked goods Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings from 9:30-11:30. The coffee shop trains and employs people with a variety of disabilities.
3 Questions Parents Should Ask about the School-to-Work Transition Process
1. What community resources are available in my area, outside of the school system?
There is no shortage of organizations working to ensure adults with disabilities live, work, and thrive in our communities. It’s just about finding the right ones to suit your family’s needs. “The services should always be individualized. And don’t let anyone lower that expectation…If that’s going to college, make sure you go down that path. If it’s to go on and work in a certain field of employment, really push and make that a requirement within their transition plan,” says Whittaker. If you’re in Aurora, the THRIVE Center provides parent and student training. The Jeffco Transition Alliance Group (TAG) offers online training for parents in Jefferson, Clear Creek, and Gilpin counties. You can also reach out to one of the nine Colorado Centers for Independent Living around the state, all of which provide services at no cost.
2. How can my child’s interests become a job opportunity?
Growing up, Erik Johnson loved folding clothes, which led him to a job with the Denver Broncos right out of high school. He folded towels, organized drinks, and cleaned the team equipment during off-season training. Does your child enjoy introducing themselves and talking to people? If the answer is yes, maybe they can become a greeter at Arc Thrift Stores, which employs 350 people with disabilities around the state. Or maybe they love building things and could benefit from a summer program with T.A.C.T. Pay attention to your child’s interests and help them further develop their skills.
3. What benefits will my child need as an adult and when should I apply?
As your child transitions into adulthood, they may become eligible for a variety of government benefit programs, including social security, housing, supported living services, and health insurance. Many of these programs have complex application processes and waitlists. For example, Health First Colorado, the state’s Medicaid program, offers additional benefits for people who need access to 24-hour services to live independently through its Developmental Disabilities Waiver (DD). The current waitlist, however, is more than 2,500 people, according to Heidi Haines from The Arc of Colorado, an advocacy organization. To avoid lapse in coverage between youth and adult benefits, start the application process early.