“What Will Happen When I’m Gone?”

Published on April 24, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

As a Connecticut special education lawyer who has been representing students with disabilities for many years, I find that most parents who are fighting to get their child the right special education services are most fearful of what will happen to their child when they are no longer able to take care of them.

Getting our children with special needs to the point where they, hopefully, can be fully functioning members of our society is one of the primary purposes of the IDEA.  The statute states that special education and related services are to be provided for children with disabilities “to prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.”

Or, as one expert witness I know says:  “the goal is to get them to be taxpayers.”

So, how do we get them there?  One key way is through Transition Services.  “Transition Services” are those services which are designed to “facilitate the child’s movement from school to post-school activities.”   They are required under the IDEA for ALL students who are identified as eligible for special education, and should be in place from the IEP prior to their sixteenth birthday (at the latest), and should continue through either graduation or when they exit the system.

Just as for any special education or related service, Transition Services need goals and objectives, and a specific plan as to how the IEP team intends for the child to meet those goals and objectives.  And, of course, regular monitoring of how the student is progressing.

Unfortunately, I find that school districts are not paying enough attention to Transition Services.  What usually happens is that, at the very end of the IEP meeting, as the administrator is checking off the various boxes on the forms from the State, they get to the Transition box and say “oh, yeah, he’s going to be 16 soon right?  We need to discuss Transition.  Does he have any career interests?”  Then the parent might say something like “well, he likes trains.”  And so the minutes of the meeting or the Transition section says:  “Tommy is interested in trains.”

Well, now, there’s an iron-clad plan for you!

Parents, make sure that prior to the Annual Review IEP meeting which occurs before your child’s sixteenth birthday, you have clearly thought about what a reasonable “next step” might be for your child after she graduates or exits special education services. If you do not see the discussion of Transition Services checked off as one of the purposes of the meeting on that IEP Notice, contact your administrator to let them know you intend to discuss it.

If college is the plan, then consider what needs to happen to make that a reality…does the child need special help locating appropriate colleges, extra time on SATs, or to be taught how to advocate for himself for accommodations once he gets there?  If a job is the most likely next step, then the IEP Team should be identifying interests and abilities through vocational assessments, and perhaps as your child gets older there should be more opportunities for job shadowing or mentoring in the community through the IEP.  If another state agency is likely to be involved in your child’s adulthood (such as the Department of Children and Families, Bureau of Rehabilitative Services, Department of Developmental Disabilities or the analogs in your State), they should be invited to attend the IEP meetings as well, and your school district is required to make sure they are involved.

Remember also that all of your child’s rights under the IDEA “transfer” to him or her upon reaching the age of majority, for almost all, that is on their eighteenth birthday.  School districts are required to explain this process to your child one year prior, so for most by their seventeenth birthday.  If you do not believe your child will be capable of making decisions for him or herself when they reach the age of majority, you should begin the process of obtaining the appropriate legal decision-making authority for your child well in advance.  Also remember, if you do not believe that your child is prepared to graduate, do NOT wait until it has already happened to speak to a special education attorney about your child’s rights.

Transition plans can, and should, vary as much as people do, and they should be done with care and reliable information, not rushed through at the very end of a meeting as an afterthought.  If done right, they can make the difference between a successful transition to adulthood, or absolute panic in the last year of eligibility.