Students with Intellectual Disabilities and College Attendance: Who Benefits?

Posted by admin on December 19, 2011

While the idea of individuals with “intellectual disabilities” attending college is relatively new, there are more programs in existence for these students than one might realize. According to Debra Hart, who administers the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts, more than 250 are offered nationwide. These include offerings from four-year, two-year, and technical/trade schools. Of significance is Numerous questions arise when thinking about this new wave of students. Are they leaving high school more academically prepared and ready for a college experience than in the past? Are we talking about “inclusion” at the postsecondary level? Are we asking too much of colleges given their multiple constituencies and reduced funding?

One definition of intellectual disability refers to students with significant learning, cognitive, and other conditions (e.g. mental retardation), whose disability impacts their ability to access course content without a strong system of educational supports and services. In other words, significant planning is required to afford them access to postsecondary education. A frequently asked question is “what is meant by access in the case of these students? If the goal is to level the playing field for students with disabilities in postsecondary education, how feasible is it that modifications can be made that stop short of compromising essential course requirements and student functions?

We can all agree that access can be defined in numerous ways, and it’s generally agreed that college growth includes academic/personal skill- building, increased employment potential, independence, self-advocacy, self-confidence, and self-esteem. Do these outcomes, which stop short of addressing grades and graduation, justify the use of shrinking human and financial resources? Also, how might institutions themselves benefit from embracing these students?

As a disability services administrator, I believe we should support these programs for several reasons. These include the potential for additional resources from the federal government, the possibility of state and national recognition for one’s institution, and a belief in an expanded definition of diversity. The possibility also exists to partner with local education systems to not only provide services for these students, but also to address transition issues for students with other types of disabilities. Having said this, it seems fair to ask what is the purpose of higher education within the community, and whether access to it is a right or a privilege? Put more bluntly, is college supposed to be about making intellectually disabled people feel better about themselves?

Whether you agree with the concept or not, one would be hard pressed to deny opportunities for learning are increased by implementing these programs when feasible. To really address naysayer concerns however, promoting capacity building by establishing a national set of program standards is advisable. Benefits to classmates (e.g natural peer interaction/service learning) and faculty (e.g. makes for more effective teaching) are just two examples of tangible outcomes.

So, at one end of the opinion spectrum we have those who believe that we’re not just opening the doors of higher education for altruistic reasons, but for a select group of people who want to learn and have shown they are motivated to do so. At the other end are those who believe that it’s a waste to spend federal tax dollars on these programs, and that calling them college dilutes the meaning of the word.

What seems to be key here, is that gaining acceptance of programs for students with intellectual disabilities on many campuses will require identifying learning outcomes, organizing allies, and being transparent regarding resource allocation and utilization.

What do you think?

By Dr. Rob Cunningham, Co-founder, Transition 2College.

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