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Inclusion. The blog for the Center for Disability Studies.

Greater access to college is within reach

By Brian Freedman

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Incoming CLSC student Malik Bradford and current CLSC student Melinda Zerbe at UD’s CLSC orientation last week.

If only events like the one last Wednesday at the University of Delaware happened more often, and at far more institutions of higher learning. That day, young adults with intellectual disabilities and their families attended a student orientation for UD’s Career & Life Studies Certificate (CLSC) program, where the young adults learned how they would soon get the opportunity to extend their academic knowledge, sharpen their skills to live more autonomously, and refine their life and career goals.

Unfortunately, though, because the nature of an intellectual disability suggests that a person will likely require more day-to-day support (i.e., more time, staffing and financial resources) in academic, social and daily living than a person who is developing more typically, society historically has excluded these individuals from pursuing college opportunities.

Lowering expectations for these individuals on the one hand and keeping them from accessing critical learning opportunities on the other couldn’t be more wrong, however. Why? Offering appropriate supports that promote autonomy would allow so many of these students to fully embrace the opportunities that a place like college can offer. And, they’d prosper from those opportunities. The evidence is compelling: Close to 70 percent of CLSC’s graduates find employment or continue in postsecondary education upon graduation. That’s in an era where the overall labor participation rate for people with disabilities hovers around 20 percent.

Yet few opportunities exist like those at the University of Delaware. Only 27 institutions of higher education in 2008 got to develop model demonstration college programs for students with intellectual disabilities, with funding from the Higher Education Opportunity Act. CLSC was one of those programs.

But there’s hope. Last year, then-U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) submitted a draft re-authorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, called the Higher Education Affordability Act. This legislation has the potential to expand college services for all students with disabilities, including by increasing opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities and tracking long-term outcomes, as well as creating similar programs for students who are deaf-blind.

The bill didn’t come to a vote last year. And surely, with Sen. Harkin’s retirement, the reauthorization now requires new champions and continued advocacy. But I’m hopeful that Congress will consider reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act later this summer.

President Obama has called for increased enrollment in higher education and his administration describes college as “no longer just a pathway for a talented few; rather it is a prerequisite for the growing jobs of the new economy.” It’s time – past time – that students with intellectual disabilities are offered this same opportunity to succeed.

About the Author

Brian Freedman is associate director of the Center for Disabilities Studies at the University of Delaware, and director of its Transition, Education & Employment Model (TEEM) Unit. He oversees multiple programs for adolescents and adults with disabilities, including UD’s college program for students with intellectual disabilities.

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