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Article of Interest - College

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Bridges4Kids LogoInclusive Post-secondary Education: Is It a Reality?
by Kathleen Biersdorff, Patricia Bowman and Tim Weinkauf
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People with 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 disabilities.

Last year, Wade Screpnek had a dream that changed his life. He dreamed of going to university. The catch-Wade has a developmental disability.

"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 me energy.

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 Disabilities.

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 class.

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 priority.

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 project."

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 peers.

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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