In The Politics of Autism, I write:
When disabled people reach their 22d birthday, they no longer qualify for services under IDEA. ... People in the disability community refer to this point in life as “the cliff.” Once autistic people go over the cliff, they have a hard time getting services such as job placement, vocational training, and assistive technology. IDEA entitles students to transition planning services during high school, but afterwards, they have to apply as adults and establish eligibility for state and federal help. One study found that 39 percent of young autistic adults received no service at all, and most of the rest got severely limited services.
Pennsylvania’s students with disabilities can now receive a free and appropriate public education until they turn 22—a policy change that will provide months of additional support to young adults across the commonwealth at a crucial juncture in their lives. Today, as part of a settlement reached in a federal class action lawsuit, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) announced a change to their previous eligibility policy, which aged students out of special education services at the end of the school term in which they turned 21.
The policy change follows a lawsuit filed by A.P., a 19-year-old student with multiple disabilities, and his family. The case challenged PDE’s previous age out policy for failing to comply with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees students with disabilities the right to receive individualized support services until they either earn a regular high school diploma or turn 22. The Public Interest Law Center and Berney & Sang represented A.P. and his family in the case.
As part of the settlement, Pennsylvania updated its age-out policy—effective immediately—allowing eligible students with disabilities to continue to receive a free and appropriate public education until their 22nd birthday. The policy change also applies to eligible students who turned 21 during the 2022-23 school year and were prematurely exited from school under PDE’s old policy. These students will have the option to re-enroll in public school this school year.
The updated policy will have a significant impact for hundreds of students like A.P., who works with personal care assistants and receives occupational therapy, speech therapy, and transition services to help him prepare to successfully transition to adult life. His 21st birthday is in February 2025, and under the old policy, he would have lost access to these services in summer 2025 at the end of the school year. Now, under the new policy, he will be able to continue to receive services until his 22nd birthday in February 2026—more than six months later.
As part of the settlement, PDE has sent a letter to all families with 21-year-old students with disabilities who may be eligible to continue to receive services, and posted an FAQ on their website about the new policy. PDE has also sent a notice to the superintendents and special education directors of all school districts, charter schools, and intermediate units in Pennsylvania telling them to contact students and provide them with the option to re-enroll.
The Public Interest Law Center and Berney & Sang, attorneys representing A.P. and his family, released the following statement:
“The PA Department of Education’s new policy complies with federal law and allows students to receive the support they are entitled to until they turn 22. This is a significant step forward for young adults with disabilities in Pennsylvania. We commend PDE for acting promptly and meaningfully in response to our class action lawsuit, and we look forward to working with them to ensure that students with disabilities are able to receive the support they deserve to prepare for the next stage in their lives.”