In Illinois, a Powerful Showcase of Abilities: Academic, Athletic, and Civic

Students playing wheelchair basketball

Day three of the Ready for Success bus tour began on the leafy campus of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: a school with a tremendous track record of doing creative things to help all students thrive in college, earn a degree, and find fulfilling careers. Illinois is the most diverse public university in the Big Ten, and that diversity embraces students with disabilities.

In fact, the University, through its Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES), is one of the nation’s best in serving the needs of college students with disabilities. So much so, that the graduation rate for students with disabilities, at 91 percent, is higher than the campus average!

And, within a year of getting their degree, 84 percent have launched their careers or started graduate or professional school.

Since the 1940s, this pioneering campus has seen many disability firsts in U.S. collegiate history – in academics, sports, and every phase of campus life, including being the first postsecondary institution to form a disability service fraternity, first to install curb cuts to accommodate students with disabilities, first to offer a study-abroad program for university students with disabilities, and first to offer varsity letter awards to student athletes with disabilities.

The Secretary started the morning out right with the game that’s closest to his heart, joining coaches and players of the Illini men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams – holders of 15 and 14 national championship titles, respectively – to observe a fast-paced, action-packed morning workout.

The coach of the women’s team, Stephanie Wheeler, is also Head Coach of the Women’s U.S Para-Olympic Basketball team. And, the United States Olympic Committee has designated the university a US Paralympic Training Site, offering an elite training environment for Paralympic track and field hopefuls. At the 2012 London Games, athletes from the university’s wheelchair track and field training program took home 10 of the nation’s 28 medals.

Asked to comment on what he’d seen, Secretary Duncan said, “The opportunities this school is creating, and all the potential the students represent – it’s just extraordinary.”

Duncan talking with students in the gym

After that rousing warmup, we sat down with students, alumni, educators and community partners to hear more about their experiences.  Participants pointed out that because DRES is part of the University’s College of Applied Health Sciences, there’s a unique opportunity for researchers and developers, professors, students, and even outside funders to partner in pilot-testing state-of-the art solutions to serve people with disabilities – from accessible elevators and transportation systems to learning technologies.

The message was clear: the school community has worked hard to build a culture of success that includes proactive support and constant innovation.

For instance, the Beckwith Residential Support Services program pairs students with disabilities and trainee personal care assistants, so both members of the team can work together gain skills and meet their academic and professional goals.  And, the school is building on a strong record of serving a thriving student veteran community with veteran-focused academic and transition support system, and a menu of educational opportunities at the undergraduate, professional, and graduate levels, by launching, just this fall, a groundbreaking new Chez Family Foundation Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education.

As one school representative put it, “we’re always looking for the next big thing, the next invention, the next creative solution to make things better for students.”  “That’s the right mentality,” the Secretary agreed. “You’re making good investments in the kinds of things our young people need – and our country needs their talent.”

Students in the roundtable – enrolled in bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs – described the personalized support they were receiving. Retired Illinois Army National Guard Sgt. Garrett Anderson talked about his education journey since returning from a 2005 deployment in Iraq with severe injuries, after an IED exploded beneath his Humvee. With help from his family and the school community’s special focus on supporting veterans with disabilities, he is now pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Illinois in Rehabilitation Counseling.

Kushal Parikh – a student in the Masters of Social Work program – has also taken advantage of the school’s support for entrepreneurship through the I-Venture Accelerator, a program that allows top student to establish startups at the University. As Vice President of ChairDrop, he’s working to helping travelers with physical disabilities have access to wheelchairs and other medical devices at their destination, like rental car companies at airports.

Secretary Duncan talks with a student in a the gymIn addition to pursuing degrees in social work and engineering, respectively, undergrads Brianna Malin and Brian Strole have brought Eye-to-Eye to the University: an afterschool mentoring program for middle school students who, like the program’s co-founders, have ADHD or other learning disabilities. The program pairs middle schoolers with college mentors with similar experiences, in order to demonstrate the power of goal setting, ensure the students receive individualized support, and teach them to advocate for themselves.

Alexis Wernsing, an Art History major, is already planning to earn a Master’s degree in Art Education and teaching at a community college.  Alexis is part of an interdisciplinary team with Illinois’ School of Art and Design, along with the Electrical and Computer Engineering faculty, that developed and piloted an award-winning wheelchair voice amplifier. She described how open and inclusive the school community was from her very first semester, adding: “that’s great, because I remember what it was like to be afraid.”

Meridith Bradford, a senior with cerebral palsy who is majoring in Recreation, Sport and Tourism, with a concentration in Sport Management, explained that she specifically selected the University because of its top-notch wheelchair basketball teams, which she now helps to manage.

Bradford said she has made it her mission to help break through stereotypes about who can pursue higher education, so that “younger generations can have an easier transition than we did.”  Another explained: “Being able to speak up for yourself is the best skill this university has given us.”

As the bus pulled away, one thing was certain: the University of Illinois is providing national leadership in serving all students and proving that, with appropriate and meaningful supports, many more students with disabilities can complete college and be workforce ready.

“This school has made a decades-long commitment to serving students with disabilities,” Secretary Duncan noted, “because they understand that all students are assets.  What they are doing here is changing students’ lives.  Every student has a tremendous amount to contribute; they just need a chance.”

Watch Secretary Duncan wrap up day three of the Ready for Success bus tour: