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Accessible Dreams

New legislation opens college doors to students with special needs.

Like all parents, Steve Phua carries big hopes and dreams for his young son, Max. He envisions Max finding activities he loves, forming long-lasting friendships and going to college someday.

But unlike other parents, Phua gets some raised eyebrows when he talks to others about higher education for his son. Max was born with Down syndrome.

“We want him to have the same options our typical daughter has,” Phua says. “People with intellectual disabilities are often capable of much more than society gives them credit for.”

Though inclusive classrooms are common in kindergarten through 12th grade, the idea of a young person with Down syndrome sitting in a university lecture hall is still a novel one, especially in Colorado. But that is changing.

Growing Opportunities

In Colorado, there are a variety of learning opportunities, athletics, and activities available to children with special needs. Most other states also offer college options for this group. Up until this year, Colorado offered none. There’s a huge void after high school, says Beth Leon, founding board president of IN!, the Colorado Initiative for Inclusive Higher Education.

While in school, teens with intellectual disabilities have a full life, she says. They enjoy a structured school day, socialize with friends, join clubs, and play sports. But after graduation, these individuals end up isolated and lonely. Parents” options for supporting their adult children in intellectual pursuits and careers are limited. “The day after high school is like falling off of a cliff,” Leon says.

In June 2016, Colorado Senate Bill 196 was approved, making higher education more accessible for students with intellectual disabilities, thanks to individuals at IN!, the Arc of Colorado, JFK Partners, Colorado state Senators Bill Cadman and John Cooke, and Colorado state Representatives Lois Landgraf and Dave Young.

Opportunities are growing with the approval of SB 196. Its passage meant funding for three pilot programs this fall. The University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS), the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) and Arapahoe Community College (ACC) admitted a total of 13 students with intellectual disabilities, with plans to increase enrollment each year.

Accommodating Special Needs

Though inclusive education looks different at the three schools, they each follow some agreed-upon guidelines. For instance, students will not pursue a typical bachelor’s degree. This means they don’t have to meet the same entrance requirements as degree-seeking students; an ACT or SAT score is not required for admission.

Institutions should not, and cannot, water down a degree, Leon says, but they can make modifications for students with special needs, if necessary. “For instance, imagine students are assigned a 10-page paper, but a student with intellectual disabilities struggles with writing in-depth. The professor can make it five pages for that student,” she says. Those students can earn a credential to acknowledge their accomplishments.

“It feels empowering. It feels wonderful,” says Kacie Bush, a student in the inclusive education program, Elevate, at ACC. “I feel like I am really independent, like an adult.” With an eye for detail and a talent for writing, Bush plans to work as a journalist. Her communications class is her favorite.

As a little girl, Bush was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which puts her on the autism spectrum. Throughout her education she was placed in mainstream classes, but received extra support for math, speech pragmatics and fine motor skills.

Bush’s mom, Lisa, is proud of her daughter for being a pioneer in inclusive education efforts. “It’s a wonderful opportunity,” she says. “I love that she’s helped to shape the program for those who will come after her.”

To accommodate students at UCCS, the university created the Office of Inclusive Services. Christi Kasa, associate professor for teaching and learning at UCCS, says they intentionally did not want the students in a “program.” Though they help facilitate learning modifications, she says organizers want these students to experience college just as other students do. Students with special needs are considered part of the fabric of the university. “It’s a privilege for all of us to be a part of this,” Kasa says. “We”re taking inclusion to the next level.”

Different Future Plans

Students in the pilot programs pay full college tuition. Because inclusive education college programs are not yet accredited, financial assistance is unavailable. SB 196 gives institutions four years to build and refine their services. At that point, the college can apply for accreditation from the U.S. Department of Education, opening up options for federal financial aid to students.

Kasa says creating a college fund for a child with an intellectual disability is a new concept for parents. “Start saving,” she says. “In the past there was a limited vision of what students with intellectual disabilities could do. Now we see that so much more is possible, including a career that is dependent on college.”

Michelle Ancell is a Denver-based writer.

“Offering higher education options to students with intellectual and developmental disabilities allows these students to have all of the rights, responsibilities, privileges, benefits, and outcomes that result from a college experience to the greatest extent possible, including academic access, career development, campus engagement, self-determination, participation in paid work experiences, on-campus or off-campus living, inclusive social activities, and access to and instruction in technology.” —Senate Bill 196 (excerpt)

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