May 18, 2007

Higher-ed options for intellectually disabled explored

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Stephen Entman, M.D.

Higher-ed options for intellectually disabled explored

Leaders in the national movement to create postsecondary education programs for students with intellectual disabilities addressed a diverse Tennessee audience at a conference last week hosted by the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.

“Public schools are responsible for educating students with disabilities through age 21,” explained Elisabeth Dykens, director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. “Unfortunately, once students with special needs exit school, choices often are limited.”

Although students with physical disabilities are served by Tennessee's public and private colleges and universities, none have programs designed for students with intellectual disabilities. The goal of the conference was to learn how other states have created such programs and to begin planning for Tennessee programs, Dykens said.

Programs in two- and four-year colleges in New Jersey and South Carolina were described by Stephanie Smith Lee, senior policy adviser, National Down Syndrome Society, and former director of the Office of Special Education, U.S. Department of Education.

The National Down Syndrome Society's Transition and Postsecondary Initiative promotes funding for research and provides technical assistance and outreach to model demonstration programs.

The College of New Jersey has created a Career and Community Studies Program, funded by a grant from Laura and Steve Riggio, CEO of Barnes and Noble. Lee described the program as “designed to prepare students, ages 18 to 25, for adult life through academic rigor, career discovery and preparation, and peer socialization.”

Each student has an individualized plan and has social and academic peer mentors, which at the same time provides student peers with experience in teaching and in other service fields like social work, or human and organizational development.

Kelly Borden-Joye, educational specialist at Mercer County Community College in New Jersey, described its DREAM Program-Developing Real Expectations for Achieving Mastery.

“DREAM's goal is to address the development of academic, career exploration, social relationships, and independent living skills to enhance success in community and family life,” Joye said.

“These programs are a transition experience between high school and real life,” said Meg Grigal, senior research associate at TransCen Inc., dedicated to improving educational and employment outcomes for people with disabilities. “We're building a bridge. It's not just about access to college. It's access to lifelong learning.”