The Right to Education for Disabled Young Adults

There are milestone birthdays we all look forward to reaching. When you’re sixteen, you’re old enough to legally get a driver’s license. When you’re eighteen, you’re old enough to legally vote and do a lot of other things. And when you’re twenty-one, you’re old enough to do pretty much everything else.

But for a lot of disabled people, turning twenty-two is a milestone they dread. They fear that once they reach that age they can legally be pushed over a virtual cliff.

Federal law says that students with disabilities have the right to receive an education until they earn a high school diploma or turn twenty-two. However, the problem is that school districts often cut these students off the day after their twenty-second birthday, even if that occurs in the middle of the school year. 

In Illinois, where I live, the state legislature passed a law in 2021 allowing all special education students to continue attending school through the end of the school year, even if they turn twenty-two in the middle of it.  

But in the state of Pennsylvania, things have been more rocky. There, special education students were being forced to leave school at the end of the school year during which they turned twenty-one. But last year, a federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of a special education student in Pennsylvania who won’t turn twenty-two until February 2026.

The complaint said that the state’s policy “unlawfully deprives students with disabilities of up to a year of a (free and appropriate public education) at a critical juncture of their lives, denying them essential services such as job readiness training, functional math and literacy instruction, and the acquisition of daily living skills such as using public transportation, shopping for groceries, or managing a home.”

In response, the Pennsylvania Department of Education changed its policy to allow special education students to remain in school until their twenty-second birthday. But the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and three school districts sued to block the change. Their rationale is that they should have been consulted and given time to budget accordingly. In May, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled that the state Department of Education acted improperly in making the change, rendering it unenforceable. The state’s Department of Education is appealing.

Meanwhile, chaos reigns, as some school districts are allowing special education students to remain in school until they turn twenty-two, and some aren’t. 

This was not a problem for me, mostly because there were no federal laws specifically protecting the rights of disabled kids to a public education until I was in college. Even if that hadn’t been the case, by the time I was twenty-two I had already graduated from college. And my birthday is at the end of June, so I wouldn’t have been kicked out of school in the middle of a school year anyway. 

But a lot of disabled students don’t follow the same trajectory, especially those with intellectual disabilities. Remaining eligible for special education services for as long as possible, even for a few more months, can make a big difference.

Some disabled folks rely on school for community support much longer than most of us, and it’s not right to be so quick to cut them off.