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Families, Advocates Say New Policy Will Ease Service 'Cliff' For Maine Students With Disabilities

Jodie Hall

Parents and advocates are cheering a recent policy change in Maine that say could reduce the risks many Maine students with disabilities face as they transition into adulthood.

For years, such students have received supports and services from their schools up until the school year they turn 20 — and families say waitlists for adult services can stretch months or years. The new policy extends those supports.

Jodie Hall says she’s long dreaded this so-called “cliff,” which awaits her son Andrew when he leaves school. Andrew’s a sophomore at Greely High School in Cumberland who loves math and swimming. He also has Down syndrome.

Hall says when Andrew eventually ages out of school, he’s likely to lose many of the supports he receives there.

“Once the school services end, adult services is a whole different ball of wax, and it’s really challenging. Because in Maine, there are a lot of waitlists. There are a lack of providers. There are a lack of programs. And there are a lack of employment opportunities for people with disabilities,” she says.

So Hall says she was thrilled when she learned that the state’s special education rules were changing. In the wake of a recent court ruling in Rhode Island, the advocacy group Disability Rights Maine filed a complaint arguing that Maine must expand its age eligibility, or it’ll be in violation of federal law. In January, the state Department of Education announced that, effective immediately, students are now eligible for services until their 22nd birthday.

“A year of services — intensive educational services — means everything for many of these individuals with developmental disabilities,” says Nancy Cronin, executive director of the Maine Developmental Disabilities Council.

Cronin says that additional year will help students maintain their skills as they wait for adult services to open up.

“The additional year gives a little bit more breathing room in which people can keep getting skills, while they’re waiting to get on a waitlist,” she says. “We don’t really want people to transition into the adult system and get nothing. And lose all their skills, because they’re on a waitlist, and then they finally get services, but they’ve lost so many skills.”

Cathy Dionne, with the Autism Society of Maine, says she hopes the extra time will also allow students with disabilities to explore additional college or job options, and help them to transition to whatever path they want to pursue.

“So now we’re able to look at these and say, ‘OK, this student wants to go to college,’ so we can work really heavily in that post-secondary, and that independent living to get them the skills they need to be successful,” she says.

An initial analysis by the Maine Department of Education estimates that about 200 students in Maine should be affected by the new rules. Erin Frazier, the department’s director of special services, says the state plans to work with schools and providers on extending services.

“So our hope is to develop some really great programming to partner with adult agencies, and businesses and organizations, vocational rehab, to really provide something that’s really meaningful to students in Maine,” she says.

In North Yarmouth, Hall says the change comes in amid of one of the hardest years of school for her son, Andrew. The pandemic has forced many of his classes to move online. And Hall says despite the best efforts of his school, they haven’t made much progress.

“So just a few weeks later to hear that he has now gained additional time, under the umbrella of school services was, for us, just this bright spot of, ‘Oh, wow.’ We may have lost a lot this year in terms of his education and his progress, and even some regression, but he just gained a whole other year, in which hopefully, by that point, he will be in a much more appropriate educational setting, as opposed to engaging virtually and being so isolated,” she says.

Hall hopes that by the time Andrew is 20, he’ll be exploring job opportunities and getting more hands-on experience with his additional year of services.