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Entitlement vs Eligibility 

There is a significant difference between mandated special education programs and adult services based on eligibility. The shift can be abrupt but research, persistence and building a strong support network that will help you effectively navigate the transition.

Some families talk about falling off a cliff when their child ages out of high school, However, rather than thinking of it as a “cliff”, we encourage you to instead, take a leap of faith. Don’t lose heart, build your support, reach out for advice, read success stories and keep that vision for your student present in every step. Maintaining an inspired vision for your child’s adult life and conducting research and building strong networks will help you navigate the transition effectively. Let’s first consider the differences between Entitlement and Eligibility.

Entitlement (school-age children)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that school-age students with a disability receiving special education services have the right to access a free appropriate public education (FAPE). This is commonly known as entitlement. This entitlement applies to children 3 – 22, (or earlier, depending on the state they reside or the completion of graduation requirements and transition services that reasonably position the student to reach their postsecondary goals). Special education services are documented within the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) as determined by the IEP team and funded by the federal government, state and district. These services include a full team of classroom teachers, related service providers, administrators, etc. so building support for adulthood during this time is imperative.

Transition tip

Once connections with adult services have been established, students and families can (and should!) request that the school team invite relevant adult service agencies to IEP meetings and person-centered planning.

Eligibility (after high school)

When students age out of public education, this entitlement ends and they must apply for adult services, services such as vocational supports and programming, living/residential options as well as supports for daily living. The application process will determine if an individual is eligible for services. Not all young adults will qualify for adult services, even if they have a disability and have previously received special education services. Each state has a different eligibility process and budget to provide services.

The responsibility to apply for and obtain adult services falls on the young adult, parent or guardian. Teamwork and group effort with the family, student, school and agencies involved will prepare families and youth to enter the world of adult life.

Rights in adult services are governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA, signed by President Bush in 1990, was the world’s first comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities, and prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in many areas of public life.

Transition tip

Not all young adults will qualify for adult services, even if they have a disability and have previously received special education services.

Stuff and Seal

What this means for Residential Services

In many states including Massachusetts, postsecondary residential services are not guaranteed, even if the student is found eligible for DDS and was previously being served at a residential high school for special needs. DDS assigns a priority level for each service or support you request. For example, if you request a group home placement and employment supports, DDS assigns a priority level for the requested residential service and a separate priority level for the requested employment supports. In Massachusetts, DDS only assigns a priority when you request a service. You have to be clear about the specific service you are requesting. 

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Need to know

Once found eligible, services may not be provided right away; young adults may face waiting lists and limited services, as services are not mandated to be provided immediately. It is important to explore possible options before turning 22. Working with your school district is a good starting point.

Summary 

When students age out of public education and eligibility takes over, the responsibility falls on families and the young adult to apply for services. For example, a young adult attending college needs to work with the college accessibility resource center to provide proof of their disability and request accommodations. Individuals with complex needs and challenges where health and safety is a consideration need to apply for state disability services to determine eligibility in order to identify and submit an application to a day habilitation program that is the right fit and has availability. 

In many states including Massachusetts, postsecondary residential services are not guaranteed, even if the student is found eligible for DDS and was previously being served at a residential high school for special needs. DDS assigns a priority level for each service or support you request. For example, if you request a group home placement and employment supports, DDS assigns a priority level for the requested residential service and a separate priority level for the requested employment supports. In Massachusetts, DDS only assigns a priority when you request a service. You have to be clear about the specific service you are requesting. 

It takes work, persistence, oftentimes legal appeals, strengthening and adding to circles of support including forming a strong connection with adult agency staff. Don’t lose heart, build your support network, reach out for advice, learn of success stories and keep that vision for your student present in every step.

Resources

Whether you or someone else provides the caregiving, the following might be helpful benefits of having Adult Foster Care, or options to ask about when looking for AFC:

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