Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

Opportunities rise for college students with intellectual disabilities

Students who desire the college experience can find more avenues to get there, and are more likely to find jobs after they graduate than non-college peers. 

Courtesy of The New England Council
James T. Brett, President and CEO of The New England Council, recognizes Collette Divitto with the ‘New Englander of the Year’ award.

When Collette Divitto was recently named “New Englander of the Year” in recognition of her advocacy for employment opportunities for people with disabilities, she received a standing ovation from a live audience of 1,700.

The Boston baker with Down syndrome opened her cookie business in November of 2016 and has since sold more than 147,000 cookies. Ms. Divitto is working to grow her business to meet increasing demand, with the goal of hiring 20 employees with disabilities.

In her speech, Divitto, who is in her 20s, thanked her mom for never treating her like she was disabled.

That philosophy – giving people with intellectual disabilities the same opportunities and platforms as others – is what’s behind the growing movement to include the group in higher education. Thanks to changes in the law a decade ago, there are now 264 higher-ed programs nationwide that cater to such students. The employment rate of the graduates is almost triple that of those who didn’t go to college, 45 percent versus 18 percent, according to the Think College National Coordinating Center, a project under the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI). 

“In a lot of ways, this is a civil rights and social justice issue,” says Tom Sannicandro, the director of ICI, which is based at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Children’s Hospital Boston and promotes equality for people with disabilities. “We have a group of people who have been denied access to education essentially forever. Now we are saying ‘these folks need access to education to have the best quality of life they can have.’ ”

The momentum started in 2008, when Congress reauthorized the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA). For the first time, a section was added to address individuals with intellectual disabilities, and allow such students to qualify for Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, and the Federal Work Study Program.

HEOA also established a new grant program to fund programs tailored to college students with intellectual disabilities. While some programs existed before the HEOA update, the grant and the addition to the law are what led to the major expansion of such programs nationwide. 

“We view college as the pathway to employment,” says Debra Hart, the educational coordinator at ICI. She notes that the newest program – launched this school year – is at Portland State University in Portland, Ore. 

Courtesy of ClemsonLIFE
ClemsonLIFE freshman Brittany Kennedy displays her cutting skills in cooking class. The program at Clemson University in South Carolina aims to equip students to live independently upon graduation.

Campus offerings

Divitto, the baker, recently graduated from a program at Clemson University in in Clemson, S.C. ClemsonLIFE, now in its 10th year, aims to teach students with intellectual disabilities the skills necessary to live independently and to obtain and maintain employment when they graduate.

Students live in Clemson residential housing for either two or four years with their peers and are fully assimilated into campus life. Students take ClemsonLIFE courses as well as university courses, which vary by student interests. 

“They have all the same access and opportunities that traditional students would have,” says Erica Walters, the program’s coordinator.

Post-high school transition programs, such as ClemsonLIFE, Ms. Walters says, are necessary to allow individuals with disabilities to have the opportunity to live independently, maintain competitive employment, and be contributing citizens of the community.

At Clemson, courses teach skills that range from time management to cooking to navigating transportation, Walters explains. Additional skills such as filling out job applications and respectfully communicating with a boss are also included.

“They are in class all day, they are working, they are learning through these experiences,” she adds.

ClemsonLIFE students work in a wide range of environments  – wider than some people might expect, Walters says – including retail stores, children’s museums, the food industry, and grocery stores.

A push for more rigorous standards

The Clemson program was modeled after MasonLIFE, a program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., started in 2002. Given its experience, that pioneer program – along with Think College and Stephanie Smith Lee, one of MasonLIFE’s founders – is now in the process of establishing an accreditation standard for similar college offerings.

While each university and college is accredited, the programs are not. The accreditation standard would make sure students reach certain benchmarks and have a sufficient grade point average, or equivalent, so that they are able to make academic progress.

Heidi Graff, the program director of MasonLIFE, says as more programs are established, it’s important to maintain a quality standard. The ultimate goal, she says, isn’t merely recruiting students to be in college. It’s to push them toward academic progress and treat them the same way non-disabled students are treated – something that high schools are wrestling with as well.

“We are hoping that it’ll lead to better standards within our programs,” Dr. Graff says. 

A different model  

In recent years, advocates have found another way to help with college access. In Massachusetts, students get a boost from the Massachusetts Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative (MAICEI), an initiative housed in the Department of Higher Education. Funded by the Commonwealth since 2007, MAICEI offers grants to college-school partnerships to support eligible public high school students – ages 18-22 – who have intellectual disabilities. As a result, more students have the opportunity to gain experience at a college or university. 

Jessica Vega, a senior from East Boston High School, has been taking classes and engaging with campus life at the University of Massachusetts at Boston since her freshman year. Ms. Vega says she loves to talk to all kinds of people on campus; it has taught her “how to communicate with people, how to learn the environment, and how to behave.”

High schools often segregate students with intellectual disabilities from the rest of the student body. But research shows students are more successful when they are included with their peers, notes Mr. Sannicandro. MAICEI supports that approach by allowing students to go on college campuses to take classes and join clubs with peers of all backgrounds. Currently, 13 universities are participating.

Vega was excited when she learned she was going to college – she says she has always wanted to attend. A few years in, she says college has helped her “get more independent and grown up.”

“Students with intellectual disabilities ... are sometimes perceived and thus treated as perpetual children by those around them, especially when other kids in high school are much younger,” says Paula Sotnik, the project director of the University of Massachusetts at Boston MAICEI. “So this feeling of independence that the college experience offers, especially being around students [of] their own age, is very positive.”

Working as a cashier at Primark, a clothing store in downtown Boston, Vega dreams of becoming a social worker and helping people. She says life is difficult. She understands the arduous journey ahead to become a social worker. But college has showed her “to never give up, to keep going in life.”

Courtesy of ClemsonLIFE
ClemsonLIFE freshman Shaylyn Smith works on her laundry skills during apartment class at Clemson University in South Carolina.

Benefits across campus

On campus, administrators are hopeful about the effects of the programs beyond the undergraduate years.

ClemsonLIFE, for example, has more than 500 volunteers from the traditional student body. Walters can’t hide her enthusiasm when she mentions the inclusive community atmosphere. It’s a win-win to her.

“[W]hen they graduate, when they go out to the real world, they are going to be more open for individuals with intellectual disabilities to work for them, or work with them,” Walters says. “I think that’s going to be an incredible movement that we are going to see in the future.”

Some professors, by having students with intellectual disabilities in their classrooms, are reexamining their teaching approaches to make sure college learning is for everyone, according to Sannicandro.

The conventional view of college, he notes, is that it is for “the most academically gifted, the hardest workers, those are the people that get to the highest level of institutions. And if you don’t have those attributes, you don’t go,” he says. “But we’ve changed the way we are looking at that. We are looking at university and college as an opportunity for growth and learning… We all benefit from [the students’] experience and their worldview when they are better educated.”

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