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Local Column

Heimerman: Event focuses on education, work for special needs community

I’ve been very lucky.

I’ve won a bunch of awards over my dozen years in journalism.

There’s one award, however, that brought me to tears: A few days after I started with the Chronicle, I was honored in my old stomping grounds, Sterling, by the Bi-County Special Education Cooperative, for my coverage of the special needs community in the Sauk Valley.

I’ve been lucky because my job has allowed me to hang out with people with special needs, tell their stories and generally learn from the way they eagerly seize each day without prejudice or negativity.

One topic I covered at Sauk Valley Media makes me feel lucky for a different reason. Federal and state legislation have limited what agencies such as Opportunity House in Sycamore are able to do for people with developmental disabilities once they age out of the “transition” phase, during which they’re guaranteed public education services from age 14½ until they turn 22.

Last year, Illinois became an “employment-first” state, putting an emphasis on getting people with special needs out of sheltered workshops and into jobs in the community that pay at least minimum wage.

I’m lucky because I’ve always just written about it. But for loved ones and caretakers of people with special needs who are scratching their heads, Northern Illinois University is hosting a free event Tuesday night at the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center, 231 N. Annie Glidden Road, to help make sense of it all.

A panel of six experts – made up of teachers, a special ed cooperative director, a lawyer and program coordinators – will offer guidance.

“There are so many resources that teachers and parents need to plan ahead,” said Toni Van Laarhoven, a professor in NIU’s Department of Special and Early Education, “so we’re looking at what’s out there: What are some of the benefits available? What are some of the legal things people need to think about, such as guardianship? How do we prepare individuals if they choose to go the college route? These are things people really have to start thinking about.”

I spent months banging my head on my desk, calling legislator after legislator trying to get straight answers on how to interpret certain parts of the Workforce Innovations Opportunity Act – who’s still allowed services in sheltered workshops and how those workshops could be punished if they don’t follow the rules.

For many clients who work in a sheltered workshop, it’s their home away from home. They’ve forged meaningful relationships and found fulfillment thanks to thoroughly researched, tailor-made jobs that often are made possible by innovative adaptive equipment.

I’m hopeful customized employment, or employers simply finding appropriate positions for people with special needs, can further tap into their potential. We should all live our best lives, be compensated appropriately for the best work we can do. No matter how many adaptations are made, though, there’s the potential of “normal” work not working out, leading to disappointment and loss of confidence. This is why we’re counting on the state to make good on its pledge to provide resources and guidance needed to help the special needs community.

The changes either started or fully enacted over the past few years are complicated, and I’ve heard parents describe the void between ages 22 and 24 as “falling off a cliff,” “having a trap door opened,” and having their “world stripped away.”

This is why I’d like to present an award to NIU in advance of Tuesday’s event. I know many will breathe a sigh of relief when they head home afterward.

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