KU Lands Grants to Work with Families, Communities to Improve Transition for Individuals with Disabilities

The University of Kansas has secured a pair of grants that will enable researchers to partner with community leaders, self-advocates with disabilities, and families to help improve the transition of young people with disabilities from school to vocational training, higher education, and careers.

The two grants from the Administration for Community Living of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, totaling $1.5 million, will fund a three-year pilot project to research ways to improve transitions to community living and competitive, integrated employment and a five-year project to partner with people with intellectual disability and family members to enhance collaboration across existing local systems in several Kansas communities.

"Both projects are deeply involved with engaging communities to identify and address barriers to successful transitions,” said Evan Dean, associate director of the KU Center on Developmental Disabilities at the Life Span Institute and principal investigator. “We’re working with the Self-Advocate Coalition of Kansas to mentor people with intellectual disability to lead engagement activities in their communities. We will also be working with Families Together to mentor family members and engage marginalized community members whose voices are often overlooked. We’ll really be diving into individual, distinct community needs to facilitate discussions that identify possible ways to address them. We know the best ideas will come from people in those communities.”

Young people with developmental disabilities often face barriers in transitioning into higher education, vocational training or competitive employment upon completing K-12 education. KU researchers have shown that research-based self-determination interventions that support goal setting and action toward goals greatly improve outcomes for people with disabilities.

“When youth with disabilities have opportunities to identify what goals are important in their lives, take action toward those goals with support and self-evaluate what they have learned, we consistently see enhanced outcomes related to employment, higher education and community participation,” said Sheida Raley, assistant research professor at the KU Center on Developmental Disabilities and co-principal investigator. “However, even when youth use their self-determination abilities, young people with disabilities still have higher levels of unemployment and lower levels of educational transition than their non-disabled peers and face what the field refers to as a ‘transition cliff.’”

Often, this is because youths do not receive the supports and services necessary to achieve their goals – or those supports and services do not work together to support the youths and their family.

“We believe that when schools, community organizations, employers, and other stakeholders work together along with youth and their families, that youth will have better transition outcomes,” Dean said.

“These projects advance our mission to change the disparities experienced by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We need new solutions, and I think the work Evan and his team are doing to support those who have lived this experience and empowering them to lead is very exciting to see,” said Karrie Shogren, director of the KU Center on Developmental Disabilities and co-principal investigator.

The three-year project will engage “Transition Councils” in seven Kansas communities to convene, identify existing challenges to accessing community supports and identify solutions to address them. The Transition Councils will include community members including youths and adults with disabilities, family members, transition educators, community independent living experts, vocational rehabilitation providers, employers, and others who support young people with disabilities and their families.

“Establishing Transition Councils has the potential to transform how communities come together to support the transition to adulthood for youth with disabilities, building their knowledge of how to promote self-determination and cross-organization collaboration,” Raley said.

The five-year project will focus on improving collaboration among agencies that serve young people with disabilities and families in six Kansas communities. In both projects, the goal is to build research-based, sustainable models that are responsive to unique community needs that can be scaled up in communities across the country.

Dean, Shogren, Raley, and colleagues have long researched the benefits of self-determination and built models for communities to implement practices to improve transition outcomes, allowing individuals with disabilities to continue their education or avoid menial employment for substandard wages.

“We know that self-determination is a predictor of positive outcomes. But one of the biggest barriers is a lack of access, not due to the person, but due to systemic barriers and bias,” Shogren said. “This is about building opportunities for education and career growth for everyone; we all need supports to achieve our goals.”

The project will be led by Dean, Shogren, and Raley as well as Jennifer Bumble, Sean Swindler, and Brad Linnenkamp from the KU Center on Developmental Disabilities.