Transitioning to Adulthood: Building Better Interventions for Youth with Disabilities

Youth with disabilities, especially youth receiving Supplemental Security Income, face unique challenges that affect their employment prospects as they become adults. The transition to adulthood is an important time in their lives when better interventions could make longstanding impacts and narrow the educational and employment attainment gap between youth with and without disabilities.

Employed Youth
27% with disabilities 43% without disabilities
High School Diploma
76% with disabilities 88% without disabilities
College Enrollment
27% with disabilities 43% without disabilities

*Source: The 2021 Youth Transition Report: Outcomes for Youth and Young Adults with Disabilities.

A fragmented and complex system of supports makes it difficult for youth with disabilities to get the services that can help them the most. Localities vary a great deal in available education, health, employment, and other support services, and there is no single point of entry for youth to begin obtaining services. After high school or at a certain age, they stop receiving services in one system and need to transition to a new system, leading to confusion, information gaps, and the inability to track outcomes. 
Recent research suggests that it is possible to smooth the transition to adulthood for youth with disabilities, especially by providing well-designed customized supports to specific populations.

Demonstration Projects Reveal Opportunities

Since the 1980s, several major cross-agency and cross-state demonstrations have sought to improve outcomes for youth and young adults with disabilities as they transitioned to adulthood.

History of Youth Transition Project Evaluations At a Glance

Mathematica has a long history of evaluating youth transition interventions, whose findings are the foundation of today’s programs.

1981: The Structured Training and Employment Transitional Services demonstration showed that young adults with intellectual disabilities could perform competently in competitive employment and established the effectiveness of transitional employment supports.

1985: The Transitional Employment and Training Demonstration was the first major demonstration to improve adult outcomes for youth with intellectual disability receiving disability benefits.

2003: The Youth Transition Demonstration was one of the largest initiatives by the Social Security Administration to help youth recipients of Supplemental Security Income become more self-sufficient. 

2013: Promoting Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income, the largest cross-agency initiative to date, engaged younger youth and their families with supports, including paid work experiences. Collaboration among state and local agencies delivering youth services was a key component of the demonstration projects.


In a review of these demonstrations, we identified lessons learned on how to improve outcomes for youth with disabilities. Our review also included other interventions for youth more broadly. Some of the key findings include the following: 

  • Youth’s service and support needs differ from those of adults. Youth have a more extensive set of needs related to their education and cognitive and noncognitive skill development, which continue to evolve as they age. For this reason, outcomes such as self-determination, education, and social engagement can be precursors to employment. 
  • Local staff and program incentives enhance enrollment. The average participation rate of demonstrations is usually well below 50 percent. Recipients of Supplemental Security Income and their families might worry about losing benefits, which often make up a large portion of a family's income. When it comes to recruiting, having a presence in the community and offering incentives and benefit counseling can be beneficial.  
  • Intensive service models with a clear focus on specific outcomes generate larger impacts. Specialized and intensive services produce better results but cost more. Impacts might depend on the type of intervention and target population. In addition, a concentrated focus on employment during service delivery is correlated with improved outcomes. 
  • Large investments in youth might be difficult to offset with short-term benefits.  
    Recent Social Security Administration demonstrations indicate that impacts tend to taper off over time, raising questions of how to sustain outcomes into adulthood. 
  • Long-term impacts through expanded training and employment opportunities can address systemic gaps. Earlier demonstrations showed the potential of using competitive employment over sheltered employment. Evidence in non-Social Security Administration demonstrations from residential interventions for subgroups of youth with disabilities in Job Corps or, more broadly, sectoral training for other youth groups in Year Up, had greater employment impacts that stayed in pace longer than the Social Security Administration demonstrations. 

A Better Pathway for Transition-Age Youth with Disabilities

On the Evidence Guests, Kaiser, Wittenburg

Kim D. Kaiser, an autism advocate and certified peer support specialist, and David Wittenburg of Mathematica discuss transition-age youth who have disabilities and must navigate a complex and fragmented system to access benefits and support services.

“The entire system needs to be engaged in supporting youth- and family-driven solutions.” –Kim D. Kaiser

Over the past 30 years, federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act have established policies and programs to protect the civil rights of youth with disabilities and increase their education and employment opportunities. But a fragmented and complex system of supports makes it difficult for youth with disabilities to get the services that can help them the most.

In this episode of On the Evidence, Kim D. Kaiser, an autism advocate, certified peer support specialist, and parent of a teenage son on the spectrum, and David Wittenburg, a senior fellow at Mathematica, discuss findings from past studies on transition-age youth with disabilities. They also explore the potential for developing services at a community level to get buy-in, enhance participation, and improve outcomes.

A version of the full episode with closed captioning is also available on Mathematica’s YouTube channel here.

Focusing on the Diversity of Youth with Disabilities

Youth with disabilities are a diverse group with different needs and experiences. Youth and young adults with disabilities face individual and societal obstacles to employment and self-sufficiency, and youth with disabilities from communities of color and other marginalized groups experience poorer outcomes. Those that have already left school also face unique challenges connecting to supports.  
The Administration for Community Living’s initiative Minority Youth and Centers for Independent Living uses a grassroots, stakeholder-informed approach to empower Centers for Independent Living to increase and improve services for traditionally underserved out-of-school youth from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds. 

U.S. map of youth and young adults aged 16-24 with a disability not working or in school

Making Data on Minority Youth More Accessible

Mathematica has made data on youth with disabilities more accessible by building an interactive map and creating downloadable data briefs for county Centers for Independent Living across the United States.

Explore the Data

Moving Forward: Solutions for More Successful Youth Transitions

To generate testable ideas for improving outcomes among youth receiving Supplemental Security Income, the Office of Disability Employment Policy in the U.S. Department of Labor initiated the Supplemental Security Income Youth Solutions project led by Mathematica. The project selected the following 12 novel ideas from subject matter experts for program and policy solutions that warrant further examination or broader implementation: 


Let's Progress Together

To learn more about our work, contact one of our experts or check out our transition to adulthood projects and publications. This includes several notable ongoing projects: 

Our Experts

Gina Livermore

Gina Livermore

Senior Fellow; Director, Center for Studying Disability Policy

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Ankita Patnaik

Ankita Patnaik

Senior Director, Research

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