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University of Georgia Considers Program for Students with Intellectual Disabilities

January 14, 2015
Source: USA Today

Story by Daniel Funke, University of Georgia

While most college students are adjusting to new classes and a new semester, one student at the University of Georgia (UGA) hopes to make his campus accessible for a group lacking the option to join them.

Jim Thompson, vice president of the Student Government Association, and other student representatives are working in tandem with researchers at UGAs J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development to determine how to best set up an academic and residential program to prepare those with cognitive disabilities for employment and independent living after high school.

Thompson was inspired to start the project last year after he saw a video of a boy with Down syndrome receive his acceptance letter from ClemsonLIFE, the inclusive post-secondary education (IPSE) program at Clemson University. Thompson says everyone should have a chance at higher education regardless of any disability they might have — especially at Georgias flagship university.

“What if we were told You cant go to UGA, but you have all these other options?” Thompson says. “We wanted to come to UGA because theres something unique about the Georgia experience, and we want to provide that to them.”

Once the preliminary research ends later this semester, Thompson says the team will host an open forum to introduce the idea to the campus community, after which administrative action may follow. But UGA is not the only college looking to increase access for people with disabilities.

IPSE programs are growing nationwide, with more than 200 colleges and universities now providing specialized curricula and residential accommodations for students with intellectual disabilities aimed at helping them develop both career and lifelong skills. These resources were rarely discussed approximately a decade ago, when disabled people were often forced into low-paying jobs or dead-end trade schools.

“There were no post-secondary programs at the collegiate level for students, and they needed somewhere to go,” says Erica Walters, ClemsonLIFE program coordinator. “They needed something beyond working at the local workshop.”

According to a survey conducted by Gallup and the University of Massachusetts at Boston, 34% of people with intellectual disabilities are employed in the U.S., as compared with 83% of non-disabled people. With such high unemployment numbers among the former, Walters says programs like ClemsonLIFE aim to increase those numbers through job placement and classes on how to develop work skills.

“Our ultimate goal is that they can attain a job and they can live on their own,” Walters says.

And it looks like its working. Of all ClemsonLIFE participants, 75% are employed and 40% are able to live independently after completing the program, Walters says. The inclusiveness students get from this type of collegiate program help set it apart from separate specialized schools.

“It allows students the opportunity to earn the full college experience they deserve that theyre sometimes denied just because they need a little additional help and resources along the way,” Thompson says.

Through the College of Charlestons REACH program, from which UGA has drawn inspiration, disabled students have access to social mentors who help them get involved with clubs on campus. Similarly, the University of Iowas REACH program gives students with disabilities the opportunity to sit in on traditional classes, interact with others and hold on-campus jobs. At Clemson, meanwhile, students travel to sports games with football players, who Walters says “accept [them] just like theyre part of the team.”

Despite the extra attention and smaller class sizes, IPSE program costs are comparable, albeit often less, than traditional college tuition, depending on the school. The type of accolade, such as specialized degrees or certificates, students receive upon completion also differs from college to college. But Pam Ries, director of UIs REACH program, says the most important thing students learn cant often be taught.

“This is just a valuable experience because they find out they are people — that theyre not someone to be afraid of,” Ries says.

Despite the increase in college programs for students living with mental disabilities, Thompson says lingering ignorance is the “biggest barrier they face.”

“You dont know what you have to learn from someone with a different lifestyle until you interact with them,” Thompson says. “And students with cognitive disabilities have unique stories of their own and they have unique lessons to teach us.”

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