By Andrew H. Hook, CELA 
Transition planning, the preparation of a young person with special needs for adulthood, should begin before the student turns 16. Many school divisions choose to begin this planning when the students enters high school, typically at the age of 14. To the extent possible, the student should work with parents, counselors and teachers to identify personal interests and goals for life after school. The student’s IEP (Individualized Education Plan) should then address the independent living, social and self-advocacy skills– as well as the academics—needed to support the lifestyle to which they aspire.
High school graduation marks a major change in every young person’s life, but for an individual with special needs, the adjustment is particularly dramatic. During the school years, IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) provides a federal guarantee of “free and appropriate education to prepare for employment and independent living.” Once an individual with disabilities ages out of school at 22, though, they must rely on widely divergent state programs for support. As they’re poised to begin adulthood, having a well crafted transition plan that provides an integrated approach to personal and financial affairs can make all the difference to their quality of life.
Because the choices that they face are complex and far-reaching, families should consult someone familiar with public benefits, tax law and trusts as they chart the way forward for their loved ones. A special needs attorney can be of enormous help as they analyze the legal instruments and community programs at their disposal.
At the age of 18, individuals are assumed to be competent adults, and absent legal action, decision-making shifts away from parents. For that reason, six to 12 months before this important birthday, families should begin to consider whether or not guardianship is a desirable option. This is a significant, nuanced decision. In some states, for instance, guardianship will automatically deny an individual the right to vote unless specifically addressed. The goal should be for the individual to retain as much autonomy as possible, but it may be advisable for the individual to grant powers of attorney to a parent if they will need assistance making decisions related to education, healthcare or finances.
Once the child is 18, parents’ income is no longer considered when applying for means-tested programs, and at this time, the individual should sign up for SSI (Supplemental Security. In many states, enrolling in SSI is a first step towards eligibility for Medicaid, through which many disability programs are made available. Parents should ensure that a special needs trust (SNT) is in place so that funds set aside for the child do not affect eligibility for important government benefits.
Choices must be made concerning employment and living arrangements. What sort of career counseling is available? Will the individual need workplace accommodations, and what assistance can they get in locating appropriate job opportunities? What Medicaid waiver programs are in place to provide community-based housing? Can the individual live independently, perhaps with scheduled visits from care providers?
Choices made on the cusp of adulthood have the potential to shape an entire life. When a child has special needs, thoughtful transition planning should begin early.