Executive Summary

What is 21 and Able?


Each year in PA, hundreds of young people with disabilities move abruptly from a good system of education and supportive services to virtually no system or help at all, when they turn 21.


21 and Able is an initiative of United Way of Allegheny County that aims to address this serious issue by ensuring that there are options for transition and by involving families, the community, and agencies in developing effective practices and systemic changes.

Background / Goal


Historically, youth with disabilities were denied public education and received insufficient or no training, while their families encountered little support or help. Through advocacy efforts in the 1970s, the federal government mandated that public education and ancillary support services, including transportation, be systematically provided to these youth. Today, they are supported throughout childhood by educational and Medicaid-funded programs and services to help them work toward productive and meaningful lives.


Their progress is halted, however, when at age 21, they “age out” of the education and supportive services system. They then are faced with substantially reduced and often inadequate services, until their names come to the top of state waiting lists. This process can take years or even decades. As a society, we have not addressed the issues facing this often unseen population of young adults who “graduate to the couch,” due to a lack of accessible services and funding.


The project goal is to instead create a systematic roadmap for young adults with special needs so that they can transition successfully to adulthood (and mitigate the round-the-clock burden of care on their parents/guardians). 21 and Able will engage people throughout Allegheny County to:

  • – advocate for major changes in federal, state, and local policies and funding; and

  • – develop and implement a pilot project to provide opportunities for these young adults.

Progress to Date


United Way has worked for the past year to develop plans for public policy, advocacy, and public awareness, and it is outlining the design of a pilot project. Key steps in developing these plans were conducting a needs assessment, researching best and promising practices and public policy, and developing communication ideas and materials. These tasks were informed by interviews, focus groups, and meetings with policy experts, legislators or their aides, service providers, parents, and youth who have recently transitioned or will be doing so in the next few years.


All of this work has been performed under the guidance of a community advisory committee that was convened by United Way to include prominent persons in the disabilities field, persons connected to the target population, and those who have the potential to advocate for resources that will make a difference in the lives of these young adults.

Next Steps


The first part of the multi-year 21 and Able project will be implementing the public policy and advocacy/communications plans that have been developed. Following that, the pilot project plan will be put into place so that transitioning youth can choose service and program options based on their individual needs, interests, and abilities. The pilot project also is intended to inform policy decisions including long-term sustainable funding.

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