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Progressing Toward Functional Adulthood

Parents are often unprepared for the educational, legal, medical, and social changes that occur when a child reaches adulthood.

Research shows that three years after high school graduation, less than 10 percent of students with disabilities are actively employed or enrolled in postsecondary education. But with help, a student with disabilities is more likely to earn a degree, get a job, and successfully shift to adulthood. Services and planning can ease the switch.

As a child becomes an adult, medical decisions become the young person’s responsibility. A young adult can also sign contracts and make financial decisions. If a child is unable to make responsible decisions, parents may want to consider a guardianship or trust.

Planning for a young adult’s future must begin even before they finish high school. Get a comprehensive transition evaluation, conducted by a multidisciplinary team of professionals, to assess the child’s life skills, cognitive abilities, and job interests.

Young adults also need to learn self-advocacy: confidently asking for what they need, asserting their rights and duties, and using available resources.

Living Independently

Based on an independent living assessment evaluating organization, wellness, kitchen skills, housekeeping, finances, social skills, and self-advocacy, consider the following options:

  • Supported Living offers services to those who can live in a home with other young adults without disabilities.

  • Supervised or Semi-Independent Living offers structured support, often round the clock.

  • Group Home Living, the traditional model, features several unrelated people living together with onsite staff.

  • Other options include Group Living/Ownership, or co-op, and Teaching Family Model/Foster Home Living, which are similar to Group Home Living.

Postsecondary education options

For more functional young adults, consider these postsecondary education options:

In the Traditional Model, a young adult with special needs attends school and receives academic accommodations.

In the Mixed Hybrid Model, students with disabilities enroll in some classes with students without disabilities and other classes with students with disabilities.

In the Substantially Separate Model, students participate in classes with other students with disabilities but have the chance to join in social and job activities with others.

In the Inclusive Individual Support Model, students receive individual services.

Vocational Training Models

A variety of vocational training models are available for functional young adults with stronger vocational capacities.

  • Competitive Employment is a full- or part-time job with market wages and responsibilities and usually no long-term support.

  • Supported Employment is a competitive job with support provided as long as the person holds the job, although supervision is reduced over time.

  • Customized Employment features a job description uniquely created for the individual.

  • In Secured or Segregated Employment, the individual is not integrated with workers without disabilities.

  • In Sheltered Employment, the individual develops life skills as well as education and prevocational skills.

Programs for the Less Skilled

Some graduating seniors lack the skills to become independently employed. When researching programs for them, consider these factors:

The Staff to Client Ratio

For a child used to programs with high staff to client ratios (e.g., 1:10), options such as Vocational Rehabilitation or independent employment may be best. For those accustomed to a lower ratio (e.g., 1:1 or 1:3) an Adult Prevocational Training program may be better.


Learn what prevocational skills the program will teach, whether social, work place and community skills will be addressed, and how life skills will be taught.

Community Involvement

Look for a program that trains at various sites to work on multiple skills and help your young adult find potential employment interests.

Alicia Braccia, founder of Providence Foundation, says that although transition into adulthood can be daunting, “parents who prepare early, teach their child to make such decisions, and practice long before that fateful day arrives can and do see success in the efforts.”


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