Turning 21 is supposed to be a joyous milestone in a young adult’s life, one that is looked at as full of possibilities. But to an individual with a disability and their families, it can be looked at as a time of anxiety and hopelessness. For many individuals turning 21 means they will no longer receive the supportive services needed to live a full life of quality and independence. Instead it is the age when many “graduate to the couch.”


But the United Way of Allegheny County and other civic leaders and businesses are working to bridge the transition from supportive services and education to adulthood through their new 21 and Able initiative.

Bob Nelkin, president of the United Way of Allegheny County, said in many cases at one’s 21st birthday individuals with disabilities and their families feel like they are falling off a cliff. Because of their age, they no longer have support services needed.

21 and Able is an initiative that is working to create a roadmap for youth with disabilities who are transitioning out of the education and supportive services system to work, live independently and participate actively in their communities to the fullest extent possible for each individual. By advocating and working to develop public policy changes, the initiative will address an issue that is becoming dyer.

According to Jennifer Highfield, director for communications at United Way of Allegheny County, there are approximately 23,000 special education students in the 43 districts among Allegheny County and 1,000 students per year in Allegheny County who are transitioning out of the education and supportive services system.

Nelkin said there are no programs or support for disabled youth after 21 and a long list of applicants waiting for assistance. The list, the Department of Public Welfare’s Pennsylvania Consolidated Waiver for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities, however only provides services for those with intellectual disabilities and not those with physical disabilities. There is also a long list of applicants for emergency waiting lists.

He added that with limited resources and the loss of services due to age requirements, many individuals are forced to limit their work hours or quit their jobs all together to take care of their loved ones with disabilities, especially ones that require extensive care.

“We are asking officials of Pennsylvania to have a plan collectively for these individuals to help them and for agencies to effectively work together more,” said Nelkin. “(Disabled youths) should not have to wait until they are 21 or something happens before their future is planned.”

One of the ideas for the initiative is to have a pilot project that will work with disabled youth, who are able to work, to get training and employment. Through the project, industries that typically hire individuals with disabilities would be identified, along with the training that is needed, so that students can get the education needed to help them for their future.

The initiative would also work to gain additional supportive services and recreational programs.

Aurelia Carter-Scott, a participant of the 21 and Able initiative and who has a disabled son, said, “I hope we can reach more people because it (this issue) is critical.” She added that the program will also help Black families, like herself, become educated and better informed of the services that are available.

“My dream is for Brandon (her son) to be independent,” she said. For Carter-Scott, housing for her son Brandon, 23, was her biggest obstacle. “A group home was not an option,” she said. She hopes that through this initiative more housing options will be offered to disabled youths.

Carter-Scott said last year her son was placed on the waiver list and now has someone to help her and Brandon to better support himself.

“As a parent who is getting older, we need to be thinking about what is going to happen with them. With this initiative if we’re gone today or tomorrow our kids will be taken care of and given the self help skills so that they can live an independent life,” she said.

(For more information on the 21 and Able initiative, call the United Way at 412-261-6010.)

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