College Programs for Students with Disabilities Are “Changing Culture”


For too many kids in classrooms like mine in New Haven, Conn., disabilities can be sources of shame, indicators of what students can’t do, instead of what they can. As part of the Department’s Ready for Success bus tour, I got to see two universities where students with disabilities are not just enrolled in college, they’re thriving, finding success academically and socially in a way that many never could have imagined.

Staff at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Central Missouri go beyond procedural compliance to provide, what Melody Musgrove, director of the Office of Special Education Programs, called an “on-ramp to the rest of our kids’ lives.” Federal data suggests that students with disabilities are less likely to attend four-year colleges than their peers; these examples prove that doesn’t have to be the case.

Meridith Bradford said college counselors at her New Jersey high school “said I was crazy” when she shared her plan to attend a four-year college. With the support of the University of Illinois’ Beckwith Residential Support Services program, Bradford, who has cerebral palsy, is now a senior and one of the student managers for the university’s wheelchair basketball teams.


“When I was in high school, I had an aide follow me everywhere whether I liked it or not,” Bradford said. “When I get my college degree, I know it’ll be me getting it under my own power.”

The 26 students with severe physical disabilities in the Beckwith program live in an accessible dorm and hire a team of personal assistants who help them with daily living tasks like eating and dressing. “If I would’ve gone anywhere else, I would’ve had to have lived at home,” said Dan Escalona, a sports columnist for The Daily Illini who has muscular dystrophy. “The independence aspect is a big reason why I came.”

Today, students with disabilities at the University of Illinois graduate at about the same rate as others in their same programs, according to Tanya Gallagher, dean of the College of Applied Health Sciences.

Meanwhile, at the University of Central Missouri, students with intellectual, cognitive, and developmental disabilities are learning to lead independent lives.

Julie Warm knew she wanted her daughter, Mary, who has Down syndrome, to attend college ever since Mary was in first grade. She also knew that no appropriate program existed.

She reached out to 19 area universities before she connected with Dr. Joyce Downing, a professor in UCM’s College of Education, who was enthusiastic about designing a program.

Today, Mary, 23, is an alumnus of the university’s THRIVE program and is studying to be a preschool assistant teacher, so she can “teach kids to accept people and not grow up to be bullies,” she said.

Students in the THRIVE program live together and take a range of classes, both in the university and customized to their needs. They also take on two internships in fields of interest and experience counseling to develop their life and social skills.

“In the past, schools would’ve put them in a vocational role,” said Michael Brunkhorst, one of the instructors with the THRIVE program. “I say, raise those expectations because all of our students have proven that they can do much more than was thought they could do.”

Programs like these involve “changing a culture,” said Michael Yudin, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services at the U.S. Department of Education.“It’s more than just providing services to students with disabilities,” he said. “It’s about the value and talent that these individuals can contribute to our society.”

After these visits, one of my first tasks upon returning to school was to welcome a new fifth grader with an individualized education plan. My experiences at these universities left me hopeful that by the time he graduates, more universities will have programs like these that go above and beyond to harness students’ talents for the good of us all.

Matt Presser is an Instructional Literacy Coach at King/Robinson School in New Haven, Conn., and a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.


  1. Could funding be the issue of why some universities and institutions do not have programs in place for students with disabilites? Advocating for such programs by faculty/staff and parents is needed to bring more light to the programs. Kudos to those who are fighting the good fight for our next generation of leaders.

  2. I agree especially with the current generation of kids and young adults they often choose not to disclose their disability – a lot of those questionnaires give him the option of not answering. My daughter has down syndrome and a cognitive disability. Do you need more programs like what the Thrive program sounds like! My daughter is 16 and I’m trying to plan for her future! Right now there are not a ton of options out there and we need more options! The state of Indiana has seven colleges that offer programs for people with mild disabilities but none of them all for housing? How can the kids get that college experience and life experience if they’re not there on campus?

  3. Programs like these are not just important for students with disabilities, they are important for all students. I am currently a junior at a large university and I am constantly surrounded by a great variety of students who each bring a unique perspective to the table. Class discussions are so much more interesting and beneficial when you can learn about a topic through a different set of eyes. If students want to become effective leaders they need to understand that there is more than one way to look at an issue and more than one way to solve a problem. What better way to learn and develop this understanding than from fellow students? It is inspiring to read about these students’ desires to learn and grow and shows how much we need more programs like the Beckwith and THRIVE programs.

  4. As discussed in the toolkit blog, students with disabilities also have a certain civil right to the best quality of education. I am touched by the programs set up to help them thrive, but also inspired by the students’ desire to be independent and persevere through what has to be a very trying process. I am however a little disheartened that this blog reads as though these programs are still relatively few and far between saying as disability awareness is widely recognized throughout the world. Most colleges and universities advertise that they are non-discriminatory, but not being capable to provide for a student because their needs are slightly different seems unjust.

  5. Educational programs for disabled students are important for helping them achieve independence. So often disabled students are labeled as incompetent because of their disability, rather than encouraged to achieve whatever they set their mind to. Programs like those listed above are vital to helping all individuals, regardless of disability or background reach their full potential and become fully functioning members of society.

  6. Janice, Universities only know about students with disabilities when they make voluntary disclosure. Most of the college students with disabilities whom I know choose to make no such disclosure, so the university would not have an accurate count of people with disabilities on their campus. Some people with more obvious disabilities such as sensory or mobility impairments make themselves known, but most students with less obvious disabilities do not.

  7. Just posted this comment: This article is simply insulting. It is not surprising having battled NYC’s DOE for years and dismissing their ridiculous notions of what my daughter with hearing loss could and couldn’t accomplish. My favorite was when my daughter was told she could not learn French because of her hearing loss. Without skipping a beat, she asked, “What people do in France with hearing loss do?” She now speaks French fluently…She will be graduating an ivy league university with an offer at a London bank. She is about one of six students with hearing loss at her university. We need more students with disabilities at the top universities.
    Schools that receive federal funds should be required to track the number of students by disability. It is impossible for a student with a disability to obtain this information on their own. No school would release the data when they were contacted. Yet, students are tracked based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. Aggregate data in my opinion is not subject to HIPA and is easily gathered via Services for Students with Disabilities.
    Secretary Duncan, it is time to start listening to parents of children with disabilities rather than so called “experts” whose goal is to ensure their employment. The US DOE and DOE’s across the country are using antiquated models for students with disabilities. In the hearing loss world, “Teachers of the Deaf” are used when many of them are ill-suited for their roles. An English teacher is better equipped to teach nuance in language.
    If we want real change then we need to disrupt the model of how students with disabilities are educated and treated. Teaching students with disabilities is about innovative solutions, changing the perception about who they are and what they are capable of accomplishing.
    Janice S. Lintz, CEO, Hearing Access & Innovations

    • To Janice Lintz and others – DITTO to all of Janice Lintz’s comments. I have a 17 year old daughter who is visually impaired (legally blonde) due to a very uncommon retinal degenerative disease (Cone/Rod Dystrophy). She has been losing her vision since the day she was born but it wasn’t obvious to us until she entered the third grade and came home from the first day at school complaining she could’nt see the board. Well, that started a whirlwind of a journey turning out to be much more than a trip to the eye doctor’s for glasses. She tries so hard to hide her disability. It was easier when she was younger and had more left than she has now and with all her peers getting their drivers licenses this past year – well you can imagine the rest. My daughter works extremely hard at her school work since the loss of vision resulted in her not being able to continue on the sports teams that she so loved as a young child (basketball, softball, swim team). The stigma that still surrounds disabilities is absurd!! Most of these kids work 100 times harder at any challenge they are given. My daughter has a 4.4 GPA from a private catholic high school and we are looking at colleges. You cannot imagine the researching one still has to do to find out what kinds of services are offered on campus and in the classroom. She will graduate in 2016 in the top 5 or so in her class and she is working very hard to secure a spot in an Ivy League school as well. Kudos to you and your daughter – you are not alone.

      • When I was in college (graduated in 1975), there was a student at my college (Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, N.Y.) who was blind. The campus is hilly, but you might want to check it out for you daughter.

  8. Thanks for sharing your story and Blessings sent to all of those students who are going after the dreams of attending school and living life to the fullest in spite of his or her challenges. I have a 17 year daughter, who is a senior in high school this year and she has chosen to go to school to obtain either a counseling or office administration degree online. You have encouraged me to further encourage her, that IT CAN BE DONE!

  9. Hi Matt. Thanks for the nice shout-out for UCM’s THRIVE Program. It was a pleasure to meet you while you were in Missouri.

Comments are closed.