"When my family and I went to my first education planning meeting in high school, we had no idea what to expect or even ask," said 20-year-old Alexis Wineman, college student and Miss Montana 2012, who was diagnosed with autism at age 11. "I am struggling to advocate for myself now that I am an adult and my parents can no longer speak for me."
The Wineman family has something in common with the millions of American families whose child with special needs will be going through the same transition from high school to adulthood. Wineman, who made national headlines in 2013 as this first Miss America contestant with autism, joined Special Olympics International and Best Buddies International today to announce the release of a comprehensive new report by AbilityPath.org entitled "The Journey to Life After High School: A Road Map for Parents of Children with Special Needs."
"The resource guide was created to address the problems so many families face when going through this difficult and confusing period of life, and to help them be better prepared for the legal, social and regulatory changes that come with the transition to adulthood," said Tracey Fecher, Vice President of Programs at AbilityPath.
"One of the most effective things that can be done early on is preparing your child to be a self-advocate," Fecher said. "All too often, families discover that there is little coordination – and a lot of fragmentation -- among agencies and services for those with special needs who are over the age of 18. This report offers practical solutions and tools for preparing those individuals."
"The Journey to Life After High School" also lays out the options for young adults with special needs post-high school graduation. Entering the workforce is a viable option for the majority of people with intellectual disabilities (ID), yet only 34 percent of working-age adults with ID are employed, according to a recent study Special Olympics International conducted with the University of Massachusetts Boston on the job market for those with disabilities. Janet Froestcher, CEO of Special Olympics said, "This employment rate is critically low. The challenge is how to change that statistic. We applaud this report by AbilityPath because it offers employment options and an extensive resource list to assist families in finding supportive agencies."
One of the supporting organizations partnering on the release of "The Journey to Life After High School" is Best Buddies International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to establishing a global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).
"Unemployment is a national disgrace for our friends with special needs. They are an incredible contribution to the work force and have the power to change the dynamic and energy of a company," said Anthony Shriver, Founder and CEO of Best Buddies. "We have to change the thoughts of corporate America and reach our population of the best employees. We are proud to partner with AbilityPath, who is kicking off the conversation and bringing awareness to the issues that are important to these individuals and families."
Wineman, whose personal struggles are chronicled in "The Journey to Life After High School," says she wants to experience the same opportunities as her peers. "If this resource guide existed a couple of years ago when I was in high school, I'm sure I would be in a much better place now. I want to help make the journey easier for other people with special needs by sharing my story."