Students with Intellectual Disabilities Going to College? Absolutely!

By Kleinert, Harold L.; Jones, Melissa M. et al. | Teaching Exceptional Children, May/June 2012 | Go to article overview

Students with Intellectual Disabilities Going to College? Absolutely!


Kleinert, Harold L., Jones, Melissa M., Sheppard-Jones, Kathleen, Harp, Beverly, Harrison, Elizabeth M., Teaching Exceptional Children


In a pilot project in Kentucky, called SHEP, young people with intellectual disabilities are pursuing career goals and learning important life skills. They participate in college courses, work with mentors and coaches, and experience supported employment opportunities-all through partnerships among school systems, institutions of higher learning, and community agencies. For example, one student pursuing a career in graphic design works at a screen printing business while simultaneously taking college courses to pursue his career goal. This article describes the rationale for such programs, the scope of the programs, and benefits to students and the community.

Postsecondary education and students with intellectual disabilities have not historically been viewed as compatible. In fact, it was only with the 1977 implementation of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142) that students with the most significant disabilities were guaranteed a public education at all, much less the opportunity to attend postsecondary programs. Yet with subsequent reauthorizations of IDEA, including the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 (Public Uw 108446), we have come to realize that all students should have the opportunity to learn age-appropriate academic content and engage in activities alongside their peers without disabilities. In this article, we propose a model of postsecondary education for students with intellectual disabilities (ID); this model extends the notion of inclusive education to the next level - going to college.

Though tremendous overall gains have occurred in the past 15 years in the percentage of students with disabilities who have attended some form of postsecondary education (Newman, Wagner, Cameto, Knokey, & Shaver, 2010), the lowest percentage of students from any disability category attending postsecondary education has been that of students with ID (Wagner, Newman, Cameto, Garza, & Levine, 2005). Until recently, few educators or community members held expectations that students with ID would continue their education after high school. Indeed, the historical exclusion of students with ID from postsecondary experiences has played a significant role in the perpetuation of a cycle of low expectations and poor adult outcomes overall (Grigal, Hart, & Paiewonsky, 2010).

In recent years, a growing number of colleges have offered opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities (Think College, 2011a). Students taking part in some of these programs are often dually enrolled by finishing their final years of high school in a college setting with the additional support required in the postsecondary environment provided by public school special education staff, as a part of these students' transition services (Hall, Kleinen, & Kearns, 2000). Some students, however, participate in programs designed for high school graduates, entering college through non-degreeseeking options or open enrollment programs. Not surprisingly, the students served in these programs indicate goals similar to those of their peers - to get a job, to be independent, to have friendships with peers, and to go to class and social events (Moon, Grigal, & Neubert, 2001). A college or university campus is an ideal venue for gaining the skills needed to achieve these goals.

Along with the students' own goals for postsecondary education, family expectations have also evolved, as families of students who have succeeded in inclusive general education classes with individualized supports now envision age-appropriate options for their students as they graduate (Think College, 2011b). Legislative impetus is occurring, as well, with the Higher Education Opportunities Act of 2008 (HEOA), which supports the transition of students with ID into higher education. The HEOA provides not only new avenues for accessing postsecondary education, but also federal and financial support not formerly available to students with ID. …

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