Planning for the Transition from IDEA Protection to Adulthood

Daniel Dage

Note from the editors for readers from outside of the United States: In the US, educational rights for students with disabilities are covered by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Another piece of legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also has educational implications. A third piece of legislation, the Family Education Rights and Protection Act (FERPA) transfers privacy rights to students when they reach the age of 18, unless the student grants rights to parents.

In the US, the preferred term for substantial limitations in cognitive and adaptive functioning is “intellectual disability”, while “learning disability” is reserved for unexpected difficulty in acquiring specific academic skills. Elsewhere in the English-speaking word, “learning disability” is used in referring to people who have substantial limitations in adaptive and cognitive function.

There is widely understood to be a continuum of disability (both in physical and cognitive areas): mild, moderate, and severe and profound. There are varying definitions at the US state level, nationally, and internationally.

Note from the author: This article is part of a multi-part series about Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and the IEP process in which I go over each part of the IEP in-depth and describe the process from both a teacher perspective and a parent perspective. The complete list of is at the bottom of this post.

The transition plan is a required component of IEPs for students 16 years old or older, although most systems begin building a transition plan at age 14, presumably before the student begins high school.

For all the anxiety over all the other parts of the IEP, this section probably involves a great deal more fear over the uncertainty of the future. And it should.

The end goal of all educational efforts (regular and special education) is for the student to have a successful transition into adulthood and post-school life. Ideally, the student will be able to live and work independently. But for many students with special needs, this is often not a likely scenario. I am a parent of special-needs students, and I teach students with severe and profound disabilities. In some ways, I see myself as an “educational undertaker”, because my students have severe and profound disabilities, and are unlikely to be able to live and work without significant, around-the-clock support.

For the parents and care-givers of students like mine, contemplating life beyond the protections of IDEA can be frightening. Time passes all too quickly. This was a realization that struck me as my son was in 1st grade, when I first published this article, and now he is in 5th grade and his voice is changing and he is taller than his mother. I still have a few years, but some other parents do not have that luxury.

The transition plan is known in some districts as an ITP (individual transition plan). The purpose of it is to plan for what that student will do after high school and then map out a course for getting them there.

What parents have to know is: planning for transition should take place, in a parent’s mind, right now. No matter the age of the child, parents are the ones who have to take the much longer view. While teachers, schools and programs come and go, the parent is the one constant in that child’s life. Along with the child, the parents have to live with the consequences of decisions made today.

Transition planning:

What parents should be thinking about, and including in the transition plan, starting in middle school (if not before)

  • Is the student working towards a regular education diploma?
  • If the student will earn a regular education diploma, will he or she go to college?
  • If the student will earn a regular education diploma, but college is not in the plan, what additional training will be required for employment?
  • After graduating from high school, will the student require services from vocational rehabilitation services?
  • What is the plan to transition the student to services from vocational rehabilitation services?
  • After graduation from high school, where will the student live?
  • If group home/congregate care is in the student’s future, what needs to be done to transition the student from living with the parent to a group home?

Going back to my role as an educator, generally we try to list student preferences, interests and abilities in the transition plan, and then look at what is possible for the student in our community. My sense is, as the years go by, the ITP should become more detailed and focused.
As part of this plan, the student is informed in the year he or she turns 17, at the age of 18, all rights transfer to them. In other words, the student is the one who has then has rights and the student is the one who accepts or rejects service options. As a courtesy, schools keep parents involved. But they don’t have to, under the law.

My students have severe and profound disabilities, but they are not excepted from the passage of rights from parents to the student at the age of 18. Rights transfer to them unless the parent or legal guardian applies for and obtains guardianship of that student. This is a process that parents or guardians should initiate soon after the student turns 17. The process takes away rights from the student and grants them to the parent or legal guardian, by declaring the student incompetent. But it is a necessary process, because it protects the student from being abused and taken advantage of by the syste. For less severe students, partial guardianship may be obtained to protect their interests.

Why should parents start thinking about this transition process in middle school? One reason is that teachers tend to pass problems along like a proverbial hot potato up the line. As a igh school teacher, I am the end of the line. There’s no place left to toss them except out the door. And out there, is a very cold and bleak world for our kids. There is no IDEA, there is no due process, and there are no procedural safe-guards. No one has to take your kids once they are out. Parents, at that point, you are stuck with whatever happened during the previous 21 years. Planning today for the outcome you wish to see later can pay dividends or at least minimize some of the later headaches.

As my son approaches middle school, we are concentrating mostly on making sure he is keeping up academically. At the present time he is able to pass the regular curriculum but with the increased emphasis on state standardized tests, the rigor and pressure also increases. But it is important to persist in efforts to stay on that regular track because once a student falls off and gets behind, it is almost impossible to catch up again. A student who is not in a regular diploma track will have an increased emphasis on job-related skills, while continuing to be served in the academic subjects. For students with developmental disabilities, it is important to attempt to make the transition as seamless as possible since difficulties with transition is often such a defining characteristic for these individuals.

Here is Daniel’s entire IEP series:

A version of this essay was originally published at