Creating Powerful Partnerships Between Schools and Centers for Independent Living (CILs)

By Debbie Grosser, M.Ed., and Dale Pennell, C.A.S.

What Are Centers for Independent Living?

Centers for Independent Living, often referred to as CILs, are non-residential places of action and coalition where persons with disabilities learn empowerment and develop the skills necessary to make lifestyle choices. Centers provide services and advocacy to promote leadership, independence, and productivity of people with disabilities. Centers work with both individuals and local communities to remove barriers to independence and ensure the equality of persons with disabilities.


An interview with Theresa Preda, director of Independent Living Community-Based Services of the Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services; Kimberly Lett, Youth Services transition specialist, disAbility Resource Center, Fredericksburg CILs office; and Cheryl Ward, Education Advocacy Coordinator, Endependence Center, Norfolk CILs office

Question: Who is eligible to receive services from CILs?

Persons with physical, mental health, and intellectual disabilities are eligible for CIL services in Virginia. Family members, caretakers, community members, and other providers may also access CIL information/referral services and training opportunities.

Question: How early may students be referred to CILs?

Students are generally referred when secondary transition planning begins (no later than age 14 in Virginia), but CILs can offer information and referral services for students and their families at any age. Preschool services can begin at age 2, and many parents contact CILs for basic education-related information as soon as their children become eligible for special education services.

Question: Who may refer students to CILs?

Self-referral is preferable, since self-determination is an important tenet of independent living. However, school personnel and parents may also refer students to CILs.

Question: What services do CILs provide to clients who are in secondary school?

All CILs offer four core services to students. They include: 

  • Independent living skills training;
  • Peer counseling;
  • Advocacy; and
  • Information and referral.

CILs may work with students on an individual basis or through group activities within a school program. Training in independent living skills, such as keeping a check book, travel training, social skills training, or developing a resume, can be provided through a “fee for service” model for students receiving special education services. Such services are offered without cost to eligible high school graduates. Further, CILs provide students and families training, information, and referral assistance regarding students’ educational rights and opportunities, resources in the community, and how to navigate systems to access those resources.

Some CILs offer additional services based on community needs. Further, the National Centers for Independent Living are considering the addition of transition as a fifth core service, recognizing that students in the transition process from high school to adult life can benefit from working with CILs to achieve and sustain independence.

Question: How can schools create powerful partnerships with their local CILs to support students’ successful transitions to post-high school life?

Schools or school districts can contact their local CILs to learn more about CILs and how they function, explore common goals, find out how to make referrals for their students, and how to work collaboratively to obtain the most beneficial outcomes for students. Together, schools and CILs may develop skills training classes, peer counseling groups, advocacy training sessions, and sometimes summer programs. Recognizing that developing independence in our students is a shared vision that leads to solid partnerships, almost anything is possible if there is a strong relationship between the local CIL and the local school division.

School division personnel may contact their local CILs to learn more about specific program offerings and to open a dialogue about how to create powerful partnerships between the two agencies. For more information and for a list of CILs across the state of Virginia, visit