Building a Bridge from High School to Employment for Youth with Disabilities

By Emma Shouse

Emma Shouse is the director of communications for the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities and also serves as lead staff for their Supporting Families initiative. She has a younger brother with autism and helps lead Tennessee Adult Brothers and Sisters (TABS), a statewide sibling support network. She graduated from Belmont University and lives in Nashville, TN. (And she is the daughter of Janet Shouse.)

At the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, we often hear from families and professionals in the disability field about how tough the transition from high school into employment and adulthood can be for youth with disabilities and their families. Sometimes this transition is referred to as “falling off a cliff,” moving from a school environment where the student with a disability receives daily support from a team of educators into the unknown and difficult-to-navigate adult service system.

There’s often confusion – even among professionals in the field, not to mention self-advocates and families – about which agencies play what roles in assisting young adults with disabilities to complete postsecondary education, enter the workforce and become engaged in the broader community. Far too often, youth with disabilities leave high school without the needed supports in place to be successful. Too many young adults with disabilities end up spending their days after graduation at home, unengaged and unsupported in fulfilling their great potential.

One way Tennessee is attempting to address this “cliff” is through an interagency agreement called the Memorandum of Understanding regarding Transition Services for Youth with Disabilities. A Memorandum of Understanding (often shortened to “MOU”) defines in detail the necessary relationships, policies and procedures among agencies to create a common agenda and establish collaborative efforts. Tennessee’s Youth Transition MOU aims to coordinate all transition services from school to postsecondary education and to competitive integrated employment (jobs in the general community at or above minimum wage). The goal of this agreement is ultimately to improve employment outcomes for Tennessee youth with disabilities and help youth and their families bridge the gap to adult life and avoid that “cliff.”

Developing this comprehensive MOU took lots of strategic coordination and thoughtful collaboration over the span of a few years with many partners across state government and the disability community at the table. In the summer of 2015, the MOU was signed by five different agencies whose programs may impact students with disabilities leaving high school:

  • Department of Education
  • Department of Human Services, Division of Rehabilitation Services (Vocational Rehabilitation/“VR”)
  • Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
  • Department of Labor and Workforce Development
  • Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services

[Read the 2015 Youth MOU here]

The Department of Children’s Services also joined the MOU this year. There are plans under way to also incorporate the Department of Health and the Bureau of TennCare. The Council on Developmental Disabilities is designated in the MOU as the agency to convene an oversight committee to evaluate and update the MOU annually. The Council also convenes monthly meetings with all MOU partners called the “Employment Roundtable” to facilitate communication among state agencies that provide transition services to support students with disabilities.

What should you know about TN’s Youth Transition MOU?

  • “Youth with disabilities” is defined as students age 14 years and older in the following categories:
    • Students receiving special education services as defined in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP);
    • Students receiving accommodations through a Section 504 plan under the Rehabilitation Act; and
    • Students receiving general educational services who are individuals with a disability as defined in the Rehabilitation Act including, without limitation, those students identified with a serious emotional disturbance
  • One objective of this MOU is to ensure that all planning documents that guide a student’s transition from school to work (IEP; Individualized Plan for Employment or “IPE” through VR; Individual Support Plan or “ISP” through Medicaid waiver services) are aligned, having the same postsecondary training/employment goals with all activities outlined in these plans supportive of the same end goal.
  • A core principle of the MOU is that each agency that serves students with disabilities “will strive to provide necessary individualized transition services and supports … in a timely and effective manner without a break in services through team work, coordinated planning and shared responsibility.”
  • The MOU outlines specific roles and responsibilities for each signing agency, based on requirements in federal and state law, around:
    • Connecting students with disabilities age 14 and older with the information, resources and experiences they need to be prepared for postsecondary training and/or competitive integrated employment
    • Ensuring all students, at the time of school exit, are enrolled in postsecondary training and/or engaged in competitive integrated employment appropriate to their preferences, interests, skills and abilities

The Employment Roundtable is right now in the midst of developing an MOU action plan for tracking its implementation, measuring its progress and evaluating all outcomes. This agreement is more than just a document that says what agencies “should be” doing – it’s a detailed plan with shared accountability among participating agencies, guiding our efforts towards making measurable improvements and increasing positive postsecondary and employment outcomes for youth with disabilities.

Have you seen any difference in how your local agencies that serve transition-age youth with disabilities cooperate and collaborate over the past couple of years? Let the Council know at


  • Londa Hayden says:

    Regarding Mou, does this program extend to adult services? My son just graduated from high school in May 2016. He is in supportive living now and facing ‘The Cliff’ every day. We are going through this confusion with him and the staff. There really is a need for strong adult incentive programs to help adult children transition from high school to adult services. However, this Mou program sounds like it is limited to the student level only. Does it extend to adult services?


    Londa Hayden

    • Janet Shouse says:

      Hi Londa,
      When you say he’s in supported living now, do you mean he receives Medicaid waiver services? I will check on your question, however, and see what I can find out. Thanks for asking.

    • Hi Londa,
      Thank you for your question. Let us first clarify that the Youth Transition MOU is not exactly a ‘program’, it is a statement of the expected points of coordination between the programs that already exist. In that sense, the Youth Transition MOU works to improve what is already in place so that families like yours can more easily understand the system we have today.

      To your question about whether that function extends beyond school-age youth, the Youth Transition MOU does not specifically address coordination among adult programs. However, several of the agencies and programs that are part of the Youth Transition MOU also provide services for adults: Vocational Rehabilitation (which offers job supports for people with disabilities), the Department of Labor and Workforce Development (which offers job supports people with disabilities through the American Job Centers), and the Medicaid Waiver programs (which offer long term services and supports for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including employment and independent living supports).

      It sounds like your family has obtained Medicaid Waiver services if your son is receiving the service “Supported Living”. Any person who is receiving waiver services has a support coordinator whose job it is to help you navigate the various postsecondary options and employment services available to your son as an adult.

      Another good resource is TN Disability Pathfinder (, a site where you can search for postsecondary program contacts or utilize the toll free call line (1-800-640-4636) to talk to a person who can help you locate potential resources, including learning more about the ‘adult system’ like job services through Vocational Rehabilitation or American Job Centers.

      Please let us know if this information is helpful!

  • Mike Johnston says:

    In TN individuals can attend high school until the age of 21 so I would assume that this MOU would extend to at least that level. ??

  • Londa Hayden says:

    Thank you for your very long explanation. My son is receiving Medicaid services. I guess I was a little confused as to the purpose of this MOU. It sounded like it is supposed to help prepare the post-secondary child to transition into mainstream living. Your answer diverted a direct answer. I do have services for my son, but he is struggling to adjust to this new lifestyle. He comes from a very restrictive living environment as a residential student at a special needs school. They were wonderful and the program worked beautiful. But the day he graduated, he immediately entered supportive living and suddenly presented with all these choices he’d never had before. He had to decide how and what he wanted to do on a daily basis. He was not prepared for this at all. It was overwhelming. There needs to be a program to help these children transition once they enter the adult service program so they can better handle this new lifestyle of freedom and choice.

  • Janet Shouse says:

    Londa, I’m sorry for the confusion about the MOU, but the majority of students with disabilities do not have any kind of services when they exit high school. Many families aren’t aware of the available services, and even if they are, their child either does not qualify or they face long waits for services. These are the students and families who often need the cooperation of the various government agencies to work together to make sure the student doesn’t end up just sitting at home watching TV or playing video games while mom or dad are at work.
    Since your son is receiving Medicaid waiver services and is in a supported living situation, I would think it would be possible for his direct support staff to create a fairly structured daily routine that could, at least in some ways, resemble the structure he had at school. Also, your son’s independent support coordinator might have some thoughts for creating some extra structure or ways to decrease the stress of this transition. Part of a school’s transition-age program should focus on encouraging choice-making and self-advocacy skills so that when the student leaves high school, the individual is prepared to begin to make decisions about what he or she wants to do. Thank you for raising the questions. I hope your son is able to successfully adjust to his current living situation. If you have additional questions or concerns, you are welcome to email me at

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