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.