The INSIDERS: Aging out of the System

The INSIDERS: Aging out of the System
Posted at 1:46 PM, Jul 24, 2015
and last updated 2015-07-27 09:52:05-04

TALLAHASSEE, FL. (WTXL) - According to the National Center for Special Education Research, traditional social behaviors of adolescents emerging into adulthood include: living independently, going off to college, obtaining full-time employment, getting married, and possibly becoming a parent. However, for those living with disabilities many of those goals may seem unattainable due to a lack of services. So what's being done to help the disabled transition into mainstream society?

The Florida Department of Education defines a learning disability as a disorder in one or more of the basic learning processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written. Although there are federal and state offered services for students with disabilities in the public school system but not everyone gets the help they need for life after high school.

Mary Mahler is a 22 year old young woman and at first glance she seem, very normal and for the most part she is. There's just one catch, Mary has spent her entire life battling a number of mental disorders that affect the way she feels, acts and the way she learns.

Finally Diagnosed at the age of eight, Mary suffers from Bipolar Disorder, Asperger's syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), making day to day activities very difficult.

Mary says, "I'm tired a lot. I am challenged with reading and people have to explain things to me."

Mary's disabilities made her high school experience challenging. Making friends was difficult and keeping them was impossible.

According to Mary times were difficult growing up, "From kindergarten up till the first day I stepped on a college campus I was bullied. People picked on me and in middle school some got physical."

She blames her disorders for the bullying which led to her quitting high school with only her GED.

Mary has dealt with ups and downs, "It creates this brick wall and friends don't seem to stay on my side of the brick wall, they come and go but never really stay. I don't really have any friends most of them are animals."

Mary's story is just one example of those suffering with disorders and disabilities. While there are resources available in the public school system, once a child times out of school there are not enough resources available to help them transition to adulthood.

Dan Moore the Executive Director of Ability says it's a real issue that needs to be addressed, "The quality of your life as a person with a disability is often determined by which disability you have. There are some disability program services that are well funded that have been in place for a longtime and do a really good job at helping adults be successful. Then there are other disabilities where there is no designated funding."

According to the "Agency for Persons with Disabilities" or (APD), Those with disabilities can be dealing with a number of different challenges. Disabilities can be either physical, mental or in many cases both. In Florida, close to 660,000 adults and 181,000 children live with serious mental illness, bipolar disorder, severe depression or schizophrenia. The 2004 Reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act highlighted the importance of improving the post school outcomes of youth with disabilities.

Moore says there is help on the way, "Nationally there is some federal legislation that is coming down to the states that's going to priorities serving young people who have aged out of the public school system and helping them make better transitions into a successful adulthood."

In many cases those with mental disabilities do not meet the threshold for an agencies services. Meaning the person's disorder or disability is not severe enough. But there are schools and agencies doing the best they can to make a difference.

According to Jane Floyd-Bullen the Principal at Gretchen Everhart School, "There are limited options in our community. There are some good options that we have but sometimes there is a waiting list."

Gretchen Everhart School is one of the shining resources in the community for those dealing disabilities.

Bullen says, "The Goal is to help every individual be as independent as they possibly can be and have a very good quality of life."

Budget cuts have gutted many of the programs designed to give the disabled opportunities. In the final days of the Florida Legislative session the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education cut $10-million to various programs across the state. Despite the cuts Leon County Schools says, the Adult and Community Education Center, designed for helping the disabled will open in August.

As for Mary Mahler, with the help of Tallahassee Community College life after high school couldn't be better.

"College is different. Honestly people don't care, they wear pajamas to class. It's just wonderful. The DSS office has made the difference. You give them your documentation on whatever hinders you from learning and they put a plan and you can take your tests at the center. I take my service dog with me and it's almost like I can talk through him. People want to talk about him and want to ask me why I have him? So I use him as a magic shield to take away the brick wall."

Her service dog Rooster plays a major role in Mary's success, he's helped her break through barriers that once stood. She's been fortunate to have a support group at home and agencies like Ability 1st. Her story is just one example of just how important the services for the disabled are. The goal for so many living with disabilities and disorders, is trying to have a life filled with happiness and as much normalcy as their disorder will allow.

She's looking forward to finishing her Associates Degree and hopefully finding a job working with flowers or animals. Just one step closer to her own independence.