Lori Foulke (left) and Mariel Foulke (center) stop at a table at the Transition Academy's DiversAbility College and Career Fair on April 14 at Metropolitan Community College. Mariel Foulke was looking for additional work opportunities. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

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Like many of the 127 participants at Transition Academy’s recent college and career fair for students with disabilities, Logan Burgess came in search of the “next step.”

High school “got me to graduate, but that was pretty much it,” Burgess said. “Then I was just kind of, I guess, metaphorically thrown to the wolves, just trying to figure out where to go and having really no footing to do so.” 

Burgess is already involved with Vocational Rehabilitation, a program available in both Missouri and Kansas that provides employment services for people with disabilities. 

He’s attended some trade school, but doesn’t think college would be a good fit. He likes animals, though he’s worried regularly seeing them in distress might be too upsetting. He thinks his attention to detail could be good for a career working with machinery.

But while he knows he wants to work, and to rely less on his family for support, Burgess said he can struggle with lack of motivation. 

“I get in these ruts where I’m just stuck and it feels like I can’t make any progress, and I can’t get ahead, you know what I mean?” he said. 

Burgess arrived at the Transition Academy’s DiversAbility College and Career Fair “hoping that I would find something to show me that there is options … and I can find a way to keep going.” 

Kim Riley, founder of the Transition Academy, said it’s not unusual for people with disabilities and their families to be confused about choices after high school. The nonprofit connects people with services for a variety of situations that could affect access to jobs and school, including physical disabilities, neurodivergence and intellectual disabilities. 

“Those of us who were in general ed classes, when it came time for college visits, we visited the campuses, we got excited about all that was offered and we started really visualizing ourselves on the campus,” she said. “On the disability side, we do the opposite. We lead with the paperwork and we really don’t do a good job of introducing you to all of the different experiences.”

The April 14 fair at the Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley Education Center was a piece of Riley’s effort to connect families with the resources, experiences and knowledge they need to create a smooth transition out of high school for students with disabilities, whether that means continuing to higher education, starting a career or even opening a business. 

The group also offers a Facebook community, a detailed but straightforward guide that takes families through the transition to adulthood, and “cohorts” where people can learn about specific topics like college success, “discovering personal genius” or entrepreneurship. 

“We basically demystify this whole transition process,” Riley said. 

Transition Academy encourages ‘career discovery’ 

Patricia and Rob Fehr attended the fair to get a head start thinking about college and career plans. 

Rob Fehr is homeschooled and, at age 16, still has time to figure out what he wants to do. But his mother, Patricia Fehr, said she’s finding that many opportunities begin at age 18 or junior year of high school.

“They really should start sooner,” she said. “Because they’re capable. More than capable.” 

Riley said she advises families to start as early as possible when it comes to exploring career and school opportunities. 

Kim Riley, founder of Transition Academy, attends a DiversAbility College and Career Fair her organization sponsored to connect youth with disabilities to work and higher education opportunities. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

Concrete experiences are important, Riley said. For example, many students say they want to work with animals. But some find they don’t like the daily realities, such as cleaning pens, when they take a volunteer job.

“We see they’re uninterested. And we’re like, ‘Oh, you just want a puppy, you really aren’t interested in working with animals,’” Riley said with a laugh. “And so we just encourage families, just see their interests, and give them as many opportunities to volunteer, and even job opportunities to explore.”

The Transition Academy guide points to community rehabilitation providers that can offer intense support such as on-site training. Local ones include:

Resources to help people with disabilities find their strengths include:

  • E3 Academy, a nonprofit that provides strengths assessments.
  • Griffin-Hammis Associates, a consulting firm that provides “customized employment services” for people with disabilities, including a career discovery workbook.

Higher education resources for students with disabilities

Mariel Foulke, who attended the fair with her mother, Lori Foulke, graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Propel program, a transitional program for students with disabilities. The Propel program closed during the COVID-19 pandemic when the university switched to remote learning.

Mariel Foulke spoke softly with a near-constant smile, often echoing her mother’s words. She said she had a good experience at UMKC, made friends and got connected with a part-time volunteer job at a senior center, which she likes. 

The Foulkes came to the fair to make contacts and search for similar work for Mariel, who said she enjoys helping people and making them happy. 

The Transition Academy’s Greater Kansas City DiversAbility Guide to Success After High School suggests that students who are interested in college can reach out to Vocational Rehabilitation for assistance during the application process. 

It also includes a success story of a student who reached out to his university’s disability support office for help. 

Representatives of local colleges and universities like MCC and UMKC were at the fair. 

Local and national resources for higher education include: 

Entrepreneurship opportunities

Riley said that sometimes the best choice for a student with disabilities is to start their own business. 

The DiversAbility Guide includes the story of Joe Steffy, who has Down syndrome and autism. 

His high school transition team wasn’t confident he would be able to work, but he started his own kettle corn business in 2005 using support from Vocational Rehab, the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities and the Social Security Administration’s Plan for Achieving Self-Support (PASS) program. 

Other entrepreneurs highlighted in the guide founded Jonah Vending and Yousef Speaks Spices

Riley said the PASS program, which helps people with disabilities free up resources to meet employment goals, is particularly underused. 

When the program approves a self-support goal, it doesn’t count income dedicated to the goal when calculating how much Social Security a person should receive. That means payments would go up in the short term to compensate for money spent on starting a business or workforce training. 

The program’s long-term goal is to help people be financially independent and stop drawing Social Security.

“Why on earth are we focused strictly on begging someone to hire our kids, when these kids could actually have their own businesses, and quite frankly, many of these kids could be the key to pulling their entire families out of poverty by launching their own business?” Riley asked.

“Less than 1% of qualified individuals apply for the PASS program, and Kansas City is getting ready to turn it on its head because we are about to explore and access this program and completely change the trajectory.”

The guide suggests contacting these organizations for help setting up a business plan to apply to PASS: 

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.