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Intellectually Disabled Youths Going to College in Record Numbers

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College was once considered an unattainable goal for students with Down syndrome, autism and other conditions that can result in intellectual disabilities, but these students are now leaving high school more academically prepared than ever before and many are excited to take the next step in furthering their education.

College Programs Designed for Students with Intellectual Disabilities

One year ago, over 250 programs that allowed students with intellectual disabilities to experience college life with extra help from mentors and tutors existed on university campuses.

Eight years ago, disability advocates could locate only four such programs.

Current college and university programs designed for students with intellectual disabilities are located in over three dozen states and in two Canadian provinces.

The programs vary but their goals are similar—support the students while they attend regular classes with non-disabled students. The college or university often asks professors to modify these “integrated classes” by shifting away from a format that relies entirely on lectures or adding more projects in which students can work in groups.

$10.9 Million in Grants for Students with Intellectual Disabilities

On October 5, 2010, the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced an award of $10.9 million for 28 grants under two new federal programs which create opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities to attend and be successful in higher education.

All grants are expected to be funded for five years and the recent announcement was for 2010-2011 award amounts only.

The grantees will create or expand programs that focus on academics and instruction, social activities, employment experiences through work-based learning and internships, and independent living. Grantees will provide individualized supports for students and opportunities to be involved in college experiences with their peers without disabilities.

Of the $10.9 million, $10.564 million was awarded to 27 two- and four-year institutions of higher education or consortia of institutions under the model comprehensive Transition Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID).

The Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts-Boston will receive a separate grant of $330,000 to fund a coordinating center to support these TPSID grantees as well as other programs around the country.

College Programs for Intellectually Disabled Students Have Been in the Works for Years

Debra Hart, director of Think College at the Institute for Community Inclusion, has been working to develop such programs for the past 12 years.

“Initially, people looked at me like I had three heads and spoke a different language than they did,” she told the Idaho Press Tribune. “Now, most events we hold are filled to capacity and very supportive. It’s really changed.”

Intellectual Disabilities Reaching, Educating and Achieving More— iDream for short—is a program for intellectually disabled students at the College of Western Idaho. Classes include “Awesome American Sign Language” and “Art, Art, and More Art.”

A similar program at the University of Central Missouri that serves students with disabilities was described by the Associated Press on October 16.

Zach Neff, a 27-year-old college student with Down syndrome, enjoys giving fellow students high-fives as he walks across the University of Central Missouri campus. He hugs nearly everybody repeatedly and even tells teachers he loves them.

Better Jobs for the Intellectually Disabled

Hart believes that programs for intellectually disabled students should take full advantage of college life and the campus atmosphere without separating the students from traditional college students. “The more the student is part of the college life and community, the more the impact on their skill acquisition and their connection to the community at large,” Hart said.

The hope is that polishing up on intellectually disabled students’ social skills—like cutting back on the hugs—while living in residence halls and going to classes with traditional classmates will help students like Neff be more independent and get better jobs.

Disability advocates believe only a small percentage of participants in programs for intellectually disabled college students will actually receive degrees, but are encouraged that the programs can help them get better jobs.

Hart feels that with additional training, college program participants can go on to do everything from being a librarian’s assistants to data-entry work in an office.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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