Post-secondary Education: Is It a Reality?
by Kathleen Biersdorff, Patricia Bowman and Tim Weinkauf
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developmental disabilities and higher education just don't mix.
At least that's what most people have assumed-until recently.
Now the word is out about several programs that make
post-secondary education a reality for people with developmental
Last year, Wade Screpnek had a dream that changed his life. He
dreamed of going to university. The catch-Wade has a
"In the dream is a new man," says the 24-year-old. "I dream
about doing school work."
This year, Wade is a student in the College Connection Pilot
.project at Grant MacEwan Community College in Edmonton and he's
living his dream.
"After graduation I plan to find a job and work hard at working
with kids. I feel this school make's me feel happiness and gives
Last year, Grant MacEwan Community College started the College
Connection .project so students could experience a college
environment. The University of Alberta's On Campus program has
been providing students with developmental disabilities with a
post-secondary educational experience since 1987, and
The University of Calgary has been home to the Varsity Education
.program since 1992. All three programs are funded through
Alberta Family and Social Services, Services to Persons with
Patricia Bowman, one of On Campus' .student advisors, challenges
the common beliefs about post-secondary education for people
-with developmental disabilities. "People with developmental
disabilities hope for many of the same things from,
post-secondary education as other students," she says. "They use
it to help meet career goals, to explore opportunities for
career development, and for personal development. They come out
of the post-secondary system with greater maturity and both
personal and professional growth, just like other students."
The academic side
Like other university and college scholars, students in the
integrated programs attend classes and "hang out" with their
peers. The biggest difference is that students audit their
courses and don't have to take the same exams as the rest of the
Students may take courses in a variety of fields including
physical education, fine arts, political science, anthropology,
sociology, nursing, early childhood development, education,
agriculture and forestry. This year, for the first time,
students at the University of Alberta who completed their four
years attended convocation with the education students. But
because the, course's are audited rather than taken for credit,
students don't receive a degree or diploma.
On Campus students usually audit courses for a total of four
years. Depending on their pace, Grant MacEwan students may audit
courses over a longer period of time than the standard one- or
two year stay. There is no formal assessment aimed at
eliminating "unsuitable" individuals in any of the programs;
instead, student goals, interests and support needs are a
Each student sits down with a student advisor and sets
educational goals for him or herself, either for a single course
or for an entire field of study. For example, one of Wade's
goals was to "participate in a discussion group and group
If necessary, advisors also help or the way the curriculum is
delivered. Helping students ,with developmental disabilities
keep up. with the workload may mean audio taping texts,
condensing reading materials, or using pictures and plain
language documents to supplement or, replace standard course
materials. In addition, exams may be adapted, practicums
modified, or specialized roles developed to accommodate
participation in group assignments.
When Jodi Chesney, an On Campus .student, decided to take a
human ecology communications course, with the instructor's
permission Patricia modified the assignments so that Jodi could
truly participate in class. For her group project on
entrepreneurship, Jodi attended group meetings, took part in
discussions about what to include and was responsible for
completing the cover page for the assignment. For her year-end
project, Jodi did a presentation about her part-time job rather
than a presentation about a different profession as her peers
were required to do.
Her instructor made sure she had access to the same audiovisual
resources as her classmates and that another student was
available to help her use the equipment. When Jodi wasn't making
her presentation, she took turns videotaping the other sessions.
The feedback from her classmates was excellent.
The social side
All three programs recruit other students to serve as supports
so that students with disabilities can participate in classes,
clubs and other campus activities without paid staff. Peer
supporters can be note takers, tutors, role models, or informal
companions who help their "buddies" learn some of the subtle
differences between high school and post secondary environments.
"it can be something as simple as learning that you don't have
to raise your hand to leave the classroom," Patricia says.
Supporting the Supporters is an important part of the success of
these programs. "If you provide too much support, the
relationship loses its natural quality and people rely on you to
solve problems instead of working together," says Tim Weinkauf
of College Connection.. "If you don't provide enough support,
people start to feel lost and frustrated."
Benefits for students and staff
We have different expectations for people with developmental
disabilities when it comes to post-secondary education. "It all
boils down to perceptions of capability," says Tim. "People have
difficulty understanding how students with developmental
disabilities can benefit from inclusive post-secondary education
because it's never been done before. A major reason it's never
been done is because no one thought it possible for these
students to learn in post-secondary settings."
There are both tangible and intangible benefits for alumni.
Students refine academic skills and gain greater job-related
awareness such as an understanding of the jargon and
expectations associated with a particular field. They also
network with other students who have chosen t h e same career
path and who may be able to help them get jobs in the future.
Despite the fact that students in these programs are still only
allowed to audit the courses, a transcript of courses and
practicums is useful when they're applying for jobs. Having
university or college experience on one's resume helps open
doors to employment.
The less tangible benefits are equally important. Students
mature, become more independent and self-confident, and increase
their decision-making skills. They also learn how to ask for
help when they need it. They expect more out of life as well as
out of themselves. When conversations turn to college or
university experiences, they can participate fully because
they've been there.
Faye Hood, an instructor in the Teacher Assistant Program at
Grant MacEwan College, says that the non disabled students start
to understand that people with developmental disabilities are
just like everyone else. "It's an awakening to some of them...
to all the qualities of students like Wade. That they have all
the facets other students have. That they display the same
emotions. They begin to see that they are just people."
There are also benefits to the university and college
communities. Instructors grow professionally as they develop
innovative modifications to their courses. They learn that
pictorial essays and oral exams can be as valid an indication of
learning as the more standard approaches.
All students benefit from the clearer focus of the courses and
an enhanced learning environment. Peer tutors and others who
interact closely expect more from people with developmental
disabilities. In fact, sometimes students with developmental
disabilities provide help to less experienced non disabled
Inclusive post-secondary education owes its success to the
willingness of faculty, students, families and staff to work
together. But the ultimate measure of success is satisfied
students. Says Terry Ryan, another alumnus, "My experience at On
Campus .was very rewarding. I made a lot of new friends. I
learned a lot."
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