The 21 and Able initiative seeks to create a system for youth with disabilities who are transitioning out of the education and supportive services system. Currently, once a person with disabilities turns 21, they have officially "aged out" of the education system and no longer qualify for many benefits they may have had as children. That's the case with William, who will turn 21 in late January.
"The transition from William's life as a child with disabilities to an adult with disabilities feels like we're about to go over a cliff," said Barbara Taylor, William's mother.
She said that in order to ensure her son continues to get the level of care he needs, her family faces tough choices, including giving up full-time employment. Taylor said that she understands that William won't get everything he wants, nor will he live a perfect life.
"But under Pennsylvania law and whatever moral system you choose, he has the right to be safe and to be healthy. He gets to continue to learn and develop, and he gets to strive at whatever he wants to do," she said.
Problem is All Too Common
William's situation isn't unique. Each year, thousands of young people with disabilities go from having a supportive education and service system to virtually nothing. The main goal of 21 and Able is to change that by developing public policy, public awareness campaigns, and pilot projects.
"We're going to be in Harrisburg and Washington and make sure this isn't a forgotten population," said Bob Nelkin, president of the United Way of Allegheny County, "and we're going to mobilize an amazing coalition of people, a lot of people who've not been part of our advocacy before."
And Nelkin predicts that results will be seen in as little as six months.
The first part of the multi-year 21 and Able effort will be implementing public policy, advocacy, and communications plans that have already been developed. Following that, the pilot project plan will be put into place that will allow transitioning youth and their families to choose service and program options based on their needs, interests, and abilities. This could include anything from continued medical care to vocational training.
Josie Badger is Ms. Wheelchair USA 2012. She completed graduate school for Rehabilitation Counseling at the University of Pittsburgh in April 2009 and is a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor. In May of 2007 she graduated summa cum laude from Geneva College, majoring in Disability Law and Advocacy, and in 2003 graduated high school valedictorian. She said that continuing services through the transition from childhood to adulthood makes all the difference.
"I may be a loud, proud, independent woman with a disability, but that doesn't mean I do it alone," she said. "Independence, for me, requires a team, and for all of these youth, the team effort is a vital part of them becoming an independent, successful adult."