The teen years can be angst-filled for youngsters and parents alike, but no more so than for parents of teens with special needs. In addition to the usual academic and social concerns, there's the pervasive worry about what they will do after graduation.

These aren't idle concerns. More than 30 percent of children with learning disabilities drop out of high school, according to the 28th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Only 13 percent of students with learning disabilities go on to a four-year post-secondary program.

Wisconsin has taken a few steps to make your vision for the future a little clearer. First off, state law requires transition plans for students with disabilities age 14 and older (two years earlier than federal requirements), giving you extra time to prepare and create the optimum curriculum for success in adulthood.

Second, the Department of Public Instruction offers a web-based Postsecondary Transition Plan application that can be filled out during the Individual Education Program (IEP). By the time your child is a teen, you are probably well versed in educational acronyms and regulations, but filling this out prior to the IEP meeting can be helpful in taking advantage of school district, county and state resources.

Third, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation will meet with you and your teen at least two years before graduation and, if your child is eligible, they will help you develop an Individualized Plan for Employment.

In addition, many school districts now offer 18-21-year-old programs to provide students with the opportunity to learn and practice independent living skills, social skills and work skills in a realistic setting outside the school.

The skills taught and hopefully mastered in the 18-21 program are wide-ranging. They include:

· Meal planning and grocery shopping

· Going to the post office and library

· Time management

· Reviewing a lease

· Using the Internet/newspaper

· Making appointments

· Job shadowing

· Driver's ed (if appropriate)

· Leisure activities and friendships

Whichever resources you choose, it's important to get your teen involved in the planning so the next steps in his life are based on his interests, abilities and goals. You never know what job opportunities will develop out of his passions.

For many young adults with special needs, employment options have been traditionally either community-based employment, such as retail or light office or industrial work, or sheltered workshops, which are supervised workplaces that employ exclusively workers with disabilities.

For more tha 15 years, the emphasis has been on community integration first, but good-paying community-based jobs can be hard to find and keep.

In fact, a recent survey commissioned by the Special Olympics found that only 34 percent of U.S. adults ages 21-64 with intellectual disabilities have jobs. The majority of this population works less than full time and earns less than the minimum wage.

Fortunately, there's now a third work alternative that provides a path toward self-sufficiency and independence: self-employment. Wisconsin's Department of Vocational Rehabilitation has created a Customized Self-Employment Toolkit to help people with disabilities create their own business opportunities.

One of the most successful users of the Wisconsin Toolkit is New Berlin's Alexis Malloy, who at age 26 is the owner and president of AJ Special Services. Alexis, who has Down syndrome, helps her clients with repetitive tasks like scanning, assembling sales folders and binders.

She is able to perform some tasks independently and others require the direction of a job coach. Alexis works at her clients' offices, so her job coach also sometimes helps with transportation.

In her five years as a business owner, Alexis has mentored two other young entrepreneurs and hopes to see more up-and-coming businesses follow her lead.

Ron Malloy, who's both Alexis' father and the executive director of Down Syndrome Association of Wisconsin – Family Services (an official Division of Vocational Rehabilitation provider), believes that entrepreneurship and micro-enterprises can be the route to independence for many young people with disabilities.

"Alexis has a high-functioning life because of how we built the infrastructure around her. It doesn't matter what the disability, an infrastructure can be put in place to enable anyone to have an amazing life."

The best place to start is for you and your teen to be prepared for and involved in the transition planning process. That process will lead you to the resources you need to be successful. Don't be shy about making the most of them.■

Maureen Connors Badding is a Wauwatosa freelance writer, mom and habitual volunteer.


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