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

/ October 25, 2016

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

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