SACRAMENTO, Calif., Sept. 10, 2013 /PRNewswire/ -- Although school just started for the 499,275 California students enrolled in grade 12, as projected by the California Department of Education, graduation isn't that far off and questions of "what's next" loom in the background. Leaving high school may translate into enrolling in college or considering employment options or exploring new cities and cultures. To make informed decisions, students first must understand their options and, second, possess the ability to weigh and exercise those options for successful outcomes. For students with disabilities, these options aren't always clear, which is where California's Independent Living Centers (ILCs) play a vital role.
According to Community Resources for Independent Living (CRIL) Community Organizer Dolores Tejada, "Apprising transition-age youth (TAY) with disabilities about available resources and opportunities makes it easier for them, not only to be more informed, but to enhance their skills and make independent decisions about their futures."
Career and college readiness is a key focus of two pieces of legislation, one federal – S. 1356 Workforce Investment Act of 2013 and one state – Assembly Bill 1041, which propose to expand transitional services for high school students with disabilities. California's public high schools share the same focus; however, they face numerous challenges, including classroom size, curriculum and standard requirements, technology advancements and budget constraints, while ensuring they offer special education services as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
"California's public schools are overwhelmed by the number of issues and needs put in front of them," said State Independent Living Council Executive Director Liz Pazdral. "Because ILCs are experts in providing independent living skills training, including how to write a resume, have a successful job interview and balance a checkbook, ILCs can be instrumental for young people with disabilities leaving high school as they sort through the challenges ahead."
CRIL's Executive Director Sheri Burns believes a big opportunity exists to assist TAY and college-age students with disabilities in their transitions by teaching them to become better advocates. One of the best ways to do this is for students to participate in the Disability Action Network for Youth (DANY). DANY is a member-led group of 16- to 24-year-old students who participate in a group structure and process to share ideas while prioritizing and focusing on different skills needed to reach their goals.
"With DANY, students can use their unique skills and see the outcome of those skills in play. For example, they might attend public hearings or present on an issue they oppose or support," said Burns. "Instead of relying on 504 plans that prohibit discrimination based on disability, as specified by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, or Individualized Education Programs, DANY teaches self-advocacy to empower students to use their skills in making positive changes as well as understand when it's appropriate to share that they have special needs."
CRIL and DANY view the Hayward Unified School District (HUSD) and the Mocha Cafe as key partners in working with TAY. Students with disabilities gain valuable vocational training by operating the Mocha Cafe on the adult school campus. They learn diverse and transferable skills, such as handling cash transactions, managing inventory, merchandising, customer service and more. Through the Cafe, students have additional opportunities to work with local employers at no cost to the employers and continue strengthening and developing new skills.
The Cafe represents core opportunities for TAY. In fact, one of DANY's first efforts was a campaign identified by several youth from the Cafe who learned it was closing due to funding cuts. DANY students quickly organized and held a rally outside of city hall with more than 40 members, parents and community leaders opposing the cuts. Additionally, DANY students testified at the HUSD Board meeting. As a result of these actions, funding was preserved.
Another instance where TAY with disabilities learned the value of expressing their views was when an employer offering on-the-job training made it clear to the students that, due to a corporate decision, the site would no longer be available for training. CRIL facilitated a discussion between the employer and the students to educate the employer on why the training was necessary to further the students' independence. As a result, the training was reinstated.
"These types of experiences are important to transition-age students with disabilities as they learn leadership and problem-solving skills," said Burns. "People, including parents, sometimes question the ability of students with disabilities to make decisions. DANY helps youth feel empowered. They learn that by speaking up, their voice counts, and by taking action, their independence increases."
The California State Independent Living Council (SILC) is an independent state agency which, in cooperation with the California State Department of Rehabilitation, prepares and monitors the State Plan for Independent Living.
The SILC Mission: To Create Policy and System Change for Independent Living
SOURCE California State Independent Living Council (SILC)