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United Way's '21 and Able' aims to help young adults with disabilities avoid a scramble for services

More than a thousand young people with special needs turn 21 locally each year.
 
"We do a wonderful job in Allegheny County with providers” who are available to serve their needs, says Cindy Shapira. The issue, she explains, is that since kindergarten they have been in a system where services are mandated for them, but they are no longer kids, and nothing happens automatically for them. "These young adults with special needs who do not often have the wherewithal are dropped from the system, and it's left to their parents and guardians to figure out what comes next."
 
That’s why Shapira, as a member of the board of directors of United Way, is chairing the advisory committee for a new UW effort called 21 and Able. Its aim is to help parents and other caregivers avoid the scramble for vocational training, housing, and other services that would help these young adults stay healthy and more independent. About 18 percent of the U.S. population has disabilities, and they are living longer and experiencing a better life. But it remains unclear to many how to maintain access to programs that could and should help them. Sometimes a parent needs to retire early just to take care of a young adult.
 
“We want to see a public policy solution that helps to satisfy their needs in a smooth way," Shapira says. "There are more and more people in this category … We're not providing a safety net as we should be.
 
“There's already funding in place,” she adds. “The issue … is that funding is in narrowly defined areas in different departments in different offices," making it easier, say, for these young adults to take a fun ceramics class, while blocking access to an accounting class that could lead to a job.
 
If 21 and Able is successful, "we see Allegheny County as potentially being a role model,” Shapira says. “We're not sure that any county or any state is addressing this issue adequately. It's under the radar."
 
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Writer: Marty Levine
Sources: Cindy Shapira and Amy Snider, United Way
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