Conn. Transition Programs Help Young People With Disabilities Forge A Path Towards Independence

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This article was published on WSHU by Clare Secrist on March 30, 2021.

Young adults with disabilities undergo a difficult transition from the time they finish their education and try to enter the workforce. Employers and advocates have said these young people are often left behind with little options of where to go in Connecticut.

Harry Fiske said he had friends and programs in school that kept him busy. Then, he graduated Fairfield Warde high school in 2014. He said he wasn’t sure what the future for someone like him would be.

“After we turn 21, there’s really nothing else to do,” said Fiske, who is on the autism spectrum.

Young adults with disabilities have the option to stay in school until 21. After that, they are in the adult world.

At 25, Fiske said he struggles to feel like he has a purpose. That is until he found refuge at a pet store: WoofGang and Co.

“I feel like at WoofGang I’m in the work safe haven,” Fiske said. “I feel like this is home to me. I know a lot of friends and people I get along with are also part of this organization.”

And that is the premise of WoofGang. It’s one of the few organizations in the state that tries to help young adults with disabilities with a job opportunity post-graduation.

The volunteer-based program teaches life-long vocational skills. They make and sell high-quality pet treats. The non-profit has a storefront where young adults work shifts to gain experience with the public.

“We really believe in these young adults and they are fully capable and it’s a really great opportunity for them to blend into Main Street USA,” said Kelly Maffei, co-founder of WoofGang. “This gives them a chance to be a real vibrant part and get a true sense of what it’s like to work a business.”

Maffei said the WoofGang program builds a sense of empowerment in these young adults who often are left behind by society. And for Fiske, WoofGang gives him motivation.

“It’s a great organization. It’s a great business,” he said. “It gives me work experience and something to do rather than just be at home all day.”

Young adults with disabilities are less likely to continue their education after leaving high school than their peers, according to the National Center for Special Education Research.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor show that less than 18% of people with disabilities were employed in 2020 during the pandemic — down from over 19% in 2019.

Some parents are offered the option of transitional planning.

“When my daughter was 14, she was always in special ed,” said Muncie Kardos, a Connecticut-based educational consultant who helps students with disabilities plan for the transition after school. “They said we needed to start looking into transition planning, and I started to look into the transition planning aspects of public education.”

Kardos said poor preparation leaves many young people with few options.

“We now have a much larger group of students who stay longer than the completion of 12th grade and so schools are struggling to accommodate and educate them,” she said.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA, has been a federal law for over 40 years. It has long required schools to help students transition after graduation to job training.

Kardos said it’s a big job, and a difficult one, to have a comprehensive program that accommodates the needs of young adults with disabilities. And the federal requirements don’t always connect school districts with help. She said the right training helps in a big way.

“Many students who were not considered competitively employable with the right training and support do go on into competitive employment,” Kardos said.

She said when public schools partner with outside agencies, it can help bolster their ability to get a job.

But many young adults like Harry Fiske leave school unsure of where to go next. Fiske found WoofGang through being involved in outside school programs.

His boss, Kelly Maffei, is proud that it has helped encourage and train Fiske with job skills that he can use for future employment.

“It fills a void that would be there if our young adults had to rely solely on what the government provides,” Maffei said.