Thursday, June 25, 2009

Adults with intellectual disabilities blocked from some jobs, at the schools that educated them

From The Gazette in Maryland:

Ask Ashley Thompson (pictured in kayak) why she should be hired by Montgomery County schools and she gives a simple answer:

"Because I'm talented, smart and funny — and a good person."

The Germantown 22-year-old, trained by Montgomery County Public Schools, is finding that policies directed toward developmentally disabled students are preventing them from working there.

Thompson, who has a developmental delay that her doctors attribute to a rare metabolic disorder, received a "certificate of attendance" in 2008, the diploma awarded students when they reach 21.

Still, she picked up sign language by watching her teachers, she said, which helped when she started volunteering with disabled preschool-aged children.

As she worked toward a certificate at learning centers in Germantown-area schools, Thompson's education was everything her parents expected it to be when they moved from California in search of the best place for their daughter, said her mother, Holly Thompson.

After her graduation, she was hired two days a week as a teacher's aide at a private preschool in Clarksburg. She also volunteered with preschoolers at Germantown Elementary School.

But when she wanted Germantown Elementary to hire her, school officials balked at the idea because she had only the certificate, Holly Thompson said. MCPS policy requires paraeducators to have the full-fledged high school diploma and at least one year of college, according to spokeswoman Kate Harrison.

It leaves Ashley Thompson's parents pained by the irony that their daughter, though featured prominently in MCPS materials promoting the success of special needs programs, is deemed unfit to work in the classroom.

"If she can be hired in the private sector, why can't she be hired in the system that trained her to be employable?" Holly Thompson said. "They taught these kids to be educable and employable. Well, back it up a little bit and realize that they are young adults now and deserve to have a chance."

Support for 20 years

After a child is diagnosed with autism or another developmental disability, federal law requires supporting services until graduation or age 21.

But families find a shock when that 20-year period ends.

"They just don't feel prepared," Shawn Lattanzio, the county's program manager of a state initiative to help autistic students transition to adulthood.

"You blink your eyes and it's there … You're used to the schools, where you have these new shiny things, and you go in some of the adult providers and maybe things aren't so shiny. School services and adult services are two different worlds," Lattanzio said.

Students end high school either with a diploma or when they reach the maximum age of 21. Those students are awarded a "certificate of attendance." At graduation, they become eligible for fewer state programs.

The outlook can be grim, advocates and officials say. The waiting list for housing and other state services can be decades long. Doctors oftentimes balk at accepting Medicaid. Jobs are scarcer than for non-disabled people.

Several county and state agencies partner to make that transition as seamless as possible for the more than 5,500 students in Montgomery County between the ages of 14 and 21. The state gives priority to people in their first year out of school. The state's "New Directions" program, launched in 2005, lets parents decide how to spend their children's funding.

Eighty-one of this year's special needs graduates eligible for long-term state funding will in the coming days find out what programs the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Administration will pay for, and what agency will provide the services.

All but a few will receive day service and possibly supported employment, Lattanzio said. The state pays for a fraction of the therapies, behavioral management and family supports that most had while in school.

The anchor that can steady the transition most is finding meaningful employment, advocates and parents say. But less than half of developmentally disabled adults in Maryland had jobs last year, according to a November report by Cornell University.

The economic downturn has reduced those opportunities further, Lattanzio said, as companies cut budgets and non-disabled workers take jobs that they might not have considered before.

Others are precluded from some or all jobs by the severity of their disability. Others still do not have reliable transportation to would-be job sites.

Systemic Shortfall

Ashley Thompson's case comes as MCPS is being buffeted with criticisms on a different front.

An April report from the county's Office of Legislative Oversight found that the school system's transitioning efforts boil down to two tracks — a "work track" for certificate-bound students and a "pass the HSA track" that focuses diploma-bound students on the state's High School Assessment test.

That comes at the expense of work-readiness for diploma-bound students, said Karen Leggett, chairwoman of the county's Transitioning Work Group, a panel of parents, advocates and providers and school, county and state officials.

"We like to think we're reaching a higher standard, and in theory, that's fine," said Leggett, whose special needs daughter has struggled to find work since getting her certificate from Silver Spring's Blake High School in 2005. "But in the process, we may be causing more dropouts or graduating a lot of students who are prepared for neither a post-secondary education nor a career."

Nonetheless, advocates and parents are seeing cause for optimism.

Because developmentally disabled children are being diagnosed earlier and have more access to better therapies, future generations will be more functional and better prepared.

More and more, Lattanzio is seeing people far exceed the stereotypes that people with developmental disabilities are fit only for menial work.

"We do have a lot of folks at Giant doing the carts," she said, but what people don't hear or see are the people she has placed in the National Institutes of Health mail room, or tagging inventory for busy commercial enterprises, or doing database entry for major corporations.

"We like to think that our people aren't pigeonholed anymore," she said. "I think we're changing attitudes."

Leggett points to several career-training programs at Montgomery College, a four-year program at George Mason University and a county program that has given government internships to 36 disabled people.

"Gradually we're seeing that change," she said. "It's pockets of change, though."