A recent Chicago Tribune article highlights students with intellectual disabilities who are successfully attending area colleges. One 25-year-old who graduated from Elmhurst Learning and Success Academy is currently working two part-time jobs as she completes a veterinary assistant program at the College of DuPage. A recent graduate of the PACE program at National Louis University in Skokie described the three internships he worked while earning a two-year certificate program. Each of the students interviewed expressed their satisfaction with their respective programs and career goals.
Most young adults with intellectual disabilities (ID) leave high school without a regular diploma. Realistically, they are unlikely to complete a college degree. So why push for young adults with ID to attend post-secondary education (PSE) programs? According to Meg Grigal , a Senior Research Fellow at University of Massachusetts Boston at the Institute for Community Inclusion, high schools provide a highly teacher-directed learning environment for students with ID and an extremely proscribed curriculum. These students have extremely limited choices in selecting those courses that they may find personally fulfilling. Likewise, high school transition services don’t provide great outcomes. The youth are funneled into state vocational rehabilitation centers or state developmental disabilities agencies. And yet statistics indicate that most of these students will be unemployed or underemployed several years out of high school. By providing them a college experience, however, these young adults can learn how to access adult learning and find out what truly engages them. The skills they acquire can translate into better employment. Do we really want to tell young adults with ID that they are done learning once they turn 21? According to Dr. Grigal, probably not.
Sharon Lewis, the Commissioner for the Administration on Developmental Disabilities for the Dept. of Health and Human Services, discussed many of these facts in testimony last spring before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. According to Ms. Lewis, 1 million students receive IDEA services under the special education classifications of intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, autism, traumatic brain injury, and developmental delay. Yet despite these services, most of these students graduate without receiving regular high school diplomas. Whereas 56% of students with autism and 40% of students with multiple disabilities earn high school diplomas, only 34% of students with ID graduate with a regular diploma. One to four years after high school, individuals with ID have the lowest rate of paid employment (29.8%) of all disabilities. However, students with ID who completed a PSE program were 26% more likely than students without PSE to leave vocational rehabilitation services with employment and with a 73% higher weekly income.
Part of the reason that so many students with ID are showing up on college campuses is because the government is pumping money into programs that will help them be successful. The Higher Education Opportunity Act, which was signed into law on August 14, 2008, included several provisions that enable students with ID to be eligible for financial aid programs, including Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, and the Federal Work Study Program, all from which they had previously been excluded due to lack of a regular high school diploma. The act also called for the establishment of model demonstration programs and a coordinating center to support these programs to provide individuals with ID the resources they need to be successful in college programs. (4) Subsequently, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in October 2010 announced 28 grants to fund the model demonstration program and the coordinating center. Of the 10.9 million awarded, $10.564 million dollars was given to 27 two- and four-year institutions of higher learning under the model comprehensive Transition Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID). The 27 TPSID grantees are to create or expand programs that “focus on academics and instruction, social activities, employment experiences through work-based learning and internships, and independent living.”
A separate grant was awarded to the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston to fund the Consortium for Postsecondary Education of Individuals with Developmental Disabilities to support the TPSID grantees. The goals of the Consortium are “to conduct research, provide training and technical assistance, and disseminate information of promising practices that support individuals with developmental disabilities to increase their independence, productivity and inclusion through access to postsecondary education.” As a result of these multiple efforts, the number of programs available to students with ID has grown from a mere four only eight years ago to more than 250 in over 36 states and two Canadian provinces.
Happily, some 6000 students with ID are currently attending college programs, and that number should only increase. (One community college administrator referred to the increase of students with ID as a “tsunami.”) And resources for these potential students and their families are also increasing. In particular, the Think College website (a project of the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston) is an exhaustive resource providing information on college options for students with ID and their families.
And what can we say to these young adults with ID who are showing up on our college campuses? To quote the film Dead Poets Society: “Carpe diem, boys (and girls). Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary.”