Program Welcomes Students with Intellectual Disabilities; UNF Offers Chance to Audit Classes, Live on Campus

Article excerpt

Byline: Matt Soergel

The crashing piano notes of Henry Cowell's "The Tides of Manaunaun" - parts of it played with the flat of the hand, the fist and the forearm - rings out through the University of North Florida classroom, majestic and brooding.

The students remain straight-faced throughout the 100-year-old experimental piece. It's a music appreciation class, but they give few signs of appreciating the composition, at least not openly.

Except for Joel Reeves, that is. He leans forward. He smiles. He really listens. He's eating it up.

That's what this time of life is about, what college is for, right? And Reeves, 23, is loving his college experience - though at one point in his life few might have thought it likely he would have one.

Reeves, who has Down syndrome and a hearing disability, is part of a program at UNF aimed at allowing students with intellectual disabilities to attend college.

They audit two classes each semester instead of taking them for credit, but in many other respects they're just like every other college student.

The 25 students in this school year's program can take classes and go to basketball games. They can use the weight room and swimming pool. They can hang out in the cafeteria and game room. They can go to concerts and movies. They can work on campus and live in an apartment with roommates.

There's even a separate graduation ceremony, scheduled for April 25.

It's called the Arc Jacksonville Academy On Campus Transition Program. It's been up and running since 2007, a collaboration between UNF and the Arc Jacksonville, a nonprofit that works with people with developmental disabilities.

"For our students, all they truly want to be is just another college student," says Crystal Makowski, the program director. "We don't let the IQ define our students."

Sometimes, Makowski says, she'll see one of her students around campus hanging out with others, and they'll pointedly ignore her. But she's OK with that - that's what their independence calls for.

Those in the program have a range of conditions such as autism, Down syndrome and fetal alcohol syndrome; some are undiagnosed.

Jason Hibbard, who teaches Reeves' music-appreciation class, has had several students from the program in that course and others have taken the history of rock with him. They're a joy, he says.

"A lot of them, like Joel, are among the most responsive students," he says. "They tend to be pretty enthusiastic about the music, especially the rock class."

Keyaire Law, 22, said she's not really sure what her intellectual disability is called, but whatever it is, it doesn't stop her from taking college courses and riding her skateboard - she calls it Purple Haze - around campus.

"There is no such thing as normal," she says. "And we're not dumb, we're not stupid. We just have special needs."

Kayla Kubart, 20, a business student, just had lunch with her. …