When Entitlement Ends, Eligibility Begins
Children with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate education at public expense (FAPE) from birth through the age of 21. But what happens when the entitlement ends. For many young adults and their families, it is a lot like walking off a cliff.
Yes, there are public adult services agencies that are available to help young adults with disabilities to be further trained, given employment accommodations, and helped to find jobs. But young people are eligible for those services and when the money runs out so do the services. Consequently, families find that their children are eligible but there is no money to provide the service. Only about 35% of adults with autism are employed. Increasingly, businesses are finding that these people bring unique characteristics to a job and in many ways are better employees than non-disabled staff.
Families are seeking alternative ways to meet their children’s needs. Some are going to the extreme of setting up a business in which they can assist their children in being employed. Of course, that takes a good bit of start-up money and parents need to be able to stop their own employment to manage the new business. It can take quite some time before these businesses become profitable so a good bit of start-up capital is necessary. This solution is out of reach for most families.
Federal agencies and their funding have come down hard on what used to be called sheltered workshops. These were facilities that provided simple assembly line work and for which employees were paid by the piece. Most often this type of employment did not provide a minimum hourly wage and there were no benefits provided at all. Some states, like Maryland, have now required that people with disabilities be paid at least minimum wage for any work they do. That is great and reasonable for those people who have disabilities and who have a job. But in some ways, it will decrease the number of employers who are willing to take a risk on an employee with a disability.
There are important questions that need to be answered regarding our societal values and what we believe. Is it better to have a person with a disability employed independent of how much they will earn OR is that exploiting the person with the disability. The answer to both questions is yes. As in many things, the answer is grey. For some very disabled people the socialization of any kind of work is more important than what the income from that work might be. The work gives the person something to do every day. It gives them a place to go. And it also acknowledges that the disabilities of some people are such that they will not be able to contribute to competitive employment. Admittedly some people are not willing to make that acknowledgment and think that those who do are selling people with disabilities short.
The fact is we have no coordinated plan or blueprint for moving people with disabilities into the workplace. It has been 43 years since the United States created a law entitling all children with disabilities to an appropriate education. You would have thought there would have been another plan by now besides throwing these young adults into an unfunded pool and telling them they were eligible to swim to the other side.