Born Fabulous Podcast Blog Post #12 – Honest Talk About Transition

One of my favorite parts of episode 12 is Jeannie Harris’s honest discussion about transition. In my second blogpost, “Those Critical Years Right After High School” I touch on this issue with some some possibilities. Since people with disabilities have an 80% unemployment rate, in 2019, this is a critical issue that needs major changes, so this blog will address transition more deeply.


If you have a very young child with a disability—this discussion includes you too. Why? Because successful transition begins at birth, or when a diagnosis is received. How? With the numerous decisions parents make starting with early intervention, education, inclusion, parenting, seeking role models, and becoming involved in their communities (which means inside and outside of the school systems.)  Too many parents, and students, wait until their child is about to graduate before seriously thinking about transition. That is way too late.


Assuming you know the significant benefits of early intervention, let’s start with education, which really starts around age two – three in preschool. It is no secret that our education system is broken.  What is a secret, to the world outside of disabilities, is that many parts of our country are seeing regression or indefensible stagnation in how students with disabilities are educated.


And when it comes to students with more significant disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, autism,  multiple disabilities, etc. – the indifference, refusal to change decades old practices, low expectations, and blatant segregation is there for all to see. Please look at this 2018 report from the National Council on Disability, titled The Segregation of Students with Disabilities.


Some people reading this may still be thinking, “Why is the education piece important to transition?” Because a well educated student has more opportunities and choices. Because a student who has had the privilege (and that is what it is in 2019) of being included with their peers in general education courses has the chance to take those math, science, computer, culinary, etc. classes that may help their career pathway. Because a student who is included with their typical peers going from class to class, mixed with real world internships (not in a non-profit pipeline), like any student, is often more adaptable. Because a student who is included with their typically developing peers may have increased readiness for continuing education, or be able to pass certain certifications. Because a student who is included with their peers is preparing for the real world after graduation, not a special world.


In this first season of Born Fabulous you have heard Steve and Laura Riggio (NJ), Sandra McElwee (CA), and Jeannie Harris (NM) all say that their child’s high school did not have challenging and successful transition programs. Steve Riggio said point blank that no student should be staying in high school after they graduate, even though the law says students who do not earn standard diplomas can stay until age 22. It is not a good environment for them to grow. Sandra McElwee and Jeannie Harris both described how their child’s later education was not challenging, when segregated in high school.


In 2019, on the school side, little has changed for too many students.


On the college side, there is good news. Numerous four year and community college options exist. Many areas include workforce development in these scenarios with planned work outcomes. If the high school education side of this puzzle was fixed, more students with significant disabilities would be able to earn standard or advanced diplomas, and therefore have even more college and career options. That is a torch parents of younger children need to carry. 


Let’s discuss the transition piece from the transition specialist / state agency / non – profit / job coach side.  Many experts say we need to look at employment through different lenses. The decades old practice of sheltered workshops mixed with typical job coaches begging for work for people with disabilities has failed. 80% unemployment is a failure.


There is more acknowledgement now of this incredibly high unemployment rate.  And there is hope along with some progress. Our legislators are gradually eliminating sheltered workshops which pay people with disabilities subminimum wages, state by state, and with current pending national legislation. Through WIOA, and examples like the pending Capabilities Act, state rehabilitative agencies are putting significant efforts in reaching students in high school. They are engaging them in employment readiness, internships, and summer jobs. State rehabilitation specialists are doing more than traditional job coaching as well. They can help some individuals pursue further education to earn needed credentials or certifications. In some cases they can also help future entrepreneurs. This is all very exciting and long overdue.


But what about the employers? Jeannie mentions Tim’s Red Robin experience many times. Red Robin was his first employer in high school. Though he had access to a job coach, Red Robin said they would train Tim. They had confidence in their well -established training program and staff. We need more employers like Red Robin. In this age of true diversity, shouldn’t that be a main focus of every human resources department—making sure they are well equipped to train, and support, all types of employees? What if every person asked their employer if they were truly ready to train all types of employees, and encouraged them to do so? What if every person encouraged their employer to seek out the information they need to be better prepared? What is every employee readily became a mentor to a new employee, with and without disabilities? What if our underfunded and extremely stretched state rehabilitative support agencies, and job coach companies, who are amazing experts, could place most of their resources helping employers, because one to one job coaching was no longer needed to the degree it is now?


Generational change is a huge part of this transition puzzle. As inclusion increases for students with significant disabilities, so does their positive impact on their peers. Their peers who will be the employers, leaders, co-workers, change makers, and politicians of the future.


We cannot overlook relationships. Award winning filmmaker Dan Habib made an important film called “Intelligent Lives” which is screening all over the country at various times and places. If you have not seen it—make an effort to do so. Intelligent Lives is “a catalyst to transform the label of intellectual disability from a life sentence of isolation into a life of possibility for the most systematically segregated people in America.” When you see this film you will see how relationships are paramount to the outcomes of the three students the film follows. Person centered planning, social capital, and supported decision making, all require relationships and are all central to the students’ successful transitions.


I do not claim to be an expert. Transition is something near and dear to my heart. I have been a civic leader in my community for decades, involved in transition from all sides. Seeing the success of many youth, and my daughter who is a rising senior, is the root of my passion. If you are not involved in your school system and community now—I encourage you to do so at whatever level you are comfortable with. And while you are on this road, help to make your friends and family more aware of disability and employment issues. The road is complex.  The experience you gain, and pure joy you feel making a difference for others, are all worth it.


Thank you for caring.


From my heart,


Greta Harrison


Thank you to Jeannie Harris for her time, wisdom, honesty and stories. She is a pioneer and a wonderful mother. Thank you also to Tim Harris for being so fabulous, approving each episode, and for allowing us to have this discussion. 


If you have not heard episodes 1-12, you can go to the link at the bottom of this page and it will lead you to the episodes. Episodes 1-4 are with Steve and Laura Riggio, the parents of writer / self-advocate Melissa Riggio. Episodes 5-8 are with Sandra McElwee, the mother of actor / business owner Sean McElwee. Episodes 9-12 are the first of a five – part series with Jeannie Harris. Next week Jeannie Harris continues with part 5. That will be the last episode of season 1.


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