Opportunities Available to Students with Disabilities
Bonnie Miller Rubin and Grace Aduroja, Chicago Tribune,
December 12, 2005.
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measure, Bridget Brown has had a successful high school career.
At Hinsdale South (the name of the school as published has been
corrected here and in a subsequent reference in this text), she
was on the speech team, snagged roles in two plays and never
missed a dance.
Now, like so many of her peers, she is focused on continuing her
education. But unlike them, she was born with Down syndrome.
"I love to learn and I don't want to stop," said Brown, 19, who
graduated last spring and still proudly wears her letter jacket.
"That's why people go on to college."
In the past, the educational road for students like Brown came
to an abrupt halt after high school. But in recent years, young
adults with developmental disabilities are finding a burst of
opportunities--from Maine to Elmhurst--that once would have been
What sets these programs apart is the focus on academics and
campus life. While the curriculum may be modified and practical
skills--resumes and job interviewing, for example--are usually
part of the mix, the choices are far more challenging than the
menial labor and sheltered workshops of an earlier era.
"This population is desperate for better," said Cynthia Johnson,
director of a program at Washington state's Bellevue Community
College, which offers an associate's degree to students with
Down syndrome or other cognitive impairments.
Johnson compared the inequities to "the colored schools of the
1950s," when African-American children were put in separate
classes and not expected to learn. "This is a civil rights issue
and a moral issue," she said. "Its time has come."
Just a year ago, only 35 programs existed for these students.
Now there are more than 90 at two- and four-year colleges,
according to the U.S. Department of Education, including one at
Elmhurst College, which began in September and is touted as the
first of its kind in Illinois.
Each program is different. Though the courses are demanding,
they are taught differently. Less "chalk and talk," more
hands-on experiences and technology, such as voice-activated
"This isn't some watered-down curriculum," Johnson said. "We
push our students somewhere between frustrating and challenging
... that's where true learning happens."
In addition to scholastics, some of the programs are residential
and include cooking and money-management skills, while others
are geared to commuters. Most students receive certificates.
Some programs promise a standard degree; all offer a hefty dose
Critics fear goals too high
But a handful of experts fear that the new academic emphasis is
setting students up for failure.
The major factor driving the change: The Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act of 1975, the federal law that became
known as "mainstreaming" in K-12 schools. And "No Child Left
Behind"--President Bush's sweeping educational reforms that hold
districts accountable for the performance of all students--only
strengthened the mandate.
Research shows that students with developmental
disabilities--those who in the past were called mentally
retarded--are more likely to hold a job, have friends and live
independently if they get into a post-secondary program.
But a more typical scenario has been a world of low-wage
employment, such as fast-food or custodial jobs. For parents who
have advocated for their disabled children since preschool,
"This is a unique experiment that is coming from the bottom up,"
said Troy Justesen of the U.S. Department of Education.
Family donates $250,000
Steve Riggio and his wife felt so strongly about continuing
academics for their 17-year-old daughter born with Down syndrome
that they recently donated $250,000 to develop post-secondary
models at two New Jersey colleges. They hope the programs will
be replicated nationally. "It's the next frontier," Riggio said.
The availability of programs after high school was like "going
from a cruise ship to a dinghy," he said. "My daughter had the
benefit of a wonderfully inclusive educational environment,"
said Riggio, chief executive officer of Barnes & Noble Inc. "Why
should that end?"
The program at Elmhurst College, called Elmhurst Life Skills
Academy or ELSA, allows disabled students to get a four-year
academic experience with all the social trappings of campus
life. The customized curriculum is sprinkled with everything
from literature to life-skills courses.
The program's 11 students pay regular tuition rates of about
$20,000 a year but will receive a certificate with a transcript
instead of a diploma at commencement.
They're as likely to participate in theater, the bowling team or
multicultural club as any other undergraduate. But unlike other
students, fewer than 10 percent of students with developmental
disabilities go on to college.
"The hard, stark ugly reality is that current statistics equal
unemployment, poverty and isolation," said Madeline Will of the
National Down Syndrome Society.
Bridget Brown's prospects are brighter. The Darien resident is
currently transitioning from high school in an early childhood
education program at the Technology Center of DuPage, where she
takes some math classes and is enrolled in the child development
program. Her strengths, she says, include being helpful and a
good public speaker. For the last five years, she has run her
own Individualized Education Plan meeting--the blueprint for a
student's classes and services.
"I am really good at advocating for myself," she said with a
broad smile. "Hopefully, the rest of my life will be as fun and
exciting as high school."
Last month, she toured Elmhurst College. To Brown, attending the
ELSA program would be her dream.
She is not afraid to "ask for help when I need it and try new
things.... I'd even try living in the dorm if I could do it with
Student living his dream
ELSA freshman Patrick Hartmann already is living his dream. Not
only is the River Forest resident attending a four-year
school--where his course load includes math, science, technology
and English--but the picturesque suburban campus reminds him of
the East Coast school where his twin brother is enrolled.
"It looks similar and the people are the same," said Hartmann,
21, who was born with spina bifida and wants to work with
computers. "I like being able to be in a four-year college."
Hartmann yearned to continue his education after graduating from
Oak Park and River Forest High School, but his options were
After trying several local schools, where both helpful
instructors and a social network were elusive, he has found his
niche at Elmhurst. There, he has plenty of assistance and has a
group of friends who regularly trade barbs in the school
ELSA coordinator Nancy Cheeseman would like to see the program
go to another level, with on-campus housing similar to the
University of Southern Maine and George Mason University. "Our
goal is to offer as much of a college experience as possible,"
said Cheeseman, who has been fielding calls from excited parents
all over the country.
But some critics question the usefulness of degree-granting
programs, saying they saddle disabled students with unrealistic
expectations and provide them with skills that don't necessarily
lead to employment or independent living.
"A degree is not a life. A degree is an accumulation of academic
credits, but other parts of the person need to be considered,"
said Carol Burns, director of the PACE program, a course for
disabled students at National-Lewis University in Evanston. "The
opposition would say that's not inclusion."
The debate has reached Justesen, head of special education for
the Department of Education, who takes umbrage at critics who
say such programs are setting up students for a fall. He points
out that plenty of young adults enter college with improbable
hopes and struggle to find a job after graduation.
"When a [non-disabled] 13-year-old boy says he wants to be a
football player or a rock star, no one says `Oh you can't do
that. Oh, it's not realistic,'" Justesen said. "What's wrong
with allowing children with intellectual disabilities to
experiment with what they want to be?"
The federal government isn't promoting these new programs, "but
we're watching it," he said. "It's definitely at the leading
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