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Article of Interest - Self-Determination

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Bridges4Kids LogoStudent Takes Different Path to University
by Desiree Cooper, Detroit Free Press, March 30, 2004
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Social worker Janice Fialka warns that a child's high school graduation can be bittersweet, but especially so for the parents of developmentally disabled children. Fialka should know: Her son, 19-year-old Micah Fialka-Feldman, is a special education student. As his graduation drew near last year, it felt more like a dead end than an open road.

"Eighty percent of people with disabilities are unemployed," said Rich Feldman, Fialka's husband and Micah's father. "There's not a view of them having a place in our society."

From birth, Micah had developmental delays, including difficulty responding to voices and displaying certain emotions. In the first grade, Micah declared that he wanted to use the same door as everyone else. Since then, his parents have championed inclusion. Micah eventually lettered in cross-country and was on Berkley High School's homecoming court. "Kids like Micah have a better chance if they're included," Fialka said. "It's a social justice issue."

In Michigan, children can be special education students until they are 26 years old or attain a high school diploma, whichever comes first. For some, that means attending community-based, post-high school programs. But for Micah, that wasn't enough.

"My dream was to go to college," said Micah, this year's winner of the Michigan Council for Exceptional Children's "Yes I Can!" Award. "Two days after my 19th birthday, I started going to Oakland University. My dream came true."

Welcome to campus
Micah is one of only four students in the OU Transitions Program. That's a pilot program that allows special education students to be "guests" of the university in order to continue with their learning goals, which may include independent living and job skills training in addition to academic goals.

"There aren't many other programs like this," said Bob Wiggins, the associate dean of OU's School of Education and Human Services and one of the program administrators. "I've been told that this is a minor miracle, but it shouldn't be. This is what college is all about."

Instrumental in cobbling the program together was Micah's Berkley High counselor, Sharon Berke, and Rebecca Craig, assistant director of special education for Rochester Community Schools. Technically, Micah is still a public school student who is carrying out his educational plan on a college campus. The Berkley School District pays his tuition for the program, which will accommodate 10 students next year.

Fixing the world
Now in his second semester, Micah has learned how to take the bus from his Berkley home to the Rochester campus. He audits three classes, volunteers for a campus child care center and has joined the social work club and Hillel, a Jewish organization. His favorite class is social issues because, "It's about how to fix the world." He wants to get involved in politics, so he can advocate on behalf of those with learning differences. One of his prized possessions is his college ID.

"Their egos and sense of capacity just explode when they're included with other students," Fialka said. "You can just see it in his smile: 'I'm not a special ed student, I'm a college student.' "

The Transitions Program is open to Oakland County students. To find out more, contact the special education department in your school district.


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