More Colleges Welcoming Learning Disabled

In many ways, Katie Apostolides, an education major at Becker College in Worcester, Mass., is a typical undergraduate. As a freshman, she found it hard to leave her family behind in Pennsylvania and get used to dorm life. Like other new students, she worried that she'd never find close friends. One class—medical terminology—was unexpectedly difficult, and she had to withdraw in order to preserve her grade-point average. Her second year, she says, "has been going better." She's used to dorm life now. She's made friends. The workload is still challenging, but these days, she says, "I take the initiative to go up to teacher and ask for help." Apostolides's troubles may seem ordinary, but she is far from an average college sophomore. She has Down syndrome—a chromosomal abnormality characterized by mild to moderate mental retardation. Profiting from a 30-year movement to keep disabled kids in mainstream school settings, Apostolides, 22, earned a degree from a public high school in Pennsylvania and now, supported by her parents and her own unflagging enthusiasm, is working on a college degree. She's not the only mentally disabled person attending college these days. In 2001, there were 15 postsecondary programs for intellectually disabled students. In 2006, the number has swelled to 115. Next fall, two colleges in New Jersey—a community college and a four-year university—are launching pilot programs to offer a version of the college experience to such students.

Thirty years ago, mentally challenged kids were relegated to institutions, training programs and group homes. Regarded as unteachable, they were trained to do basic menial tasks instead getting instruction in reading and math. That began to change in the 1970s when activist parents backed by new federal laws began pressing local school districts to "mainstream" intellectually disabled children and provide more community-based resources for them. At the same time, education specialists determined that many cognitively impaired children could learn more—provided they received early, intensive intervention. School districts began devising programs that mixed kids with disabilities into regular schools and sometimes, regular classrooms. "There was a massive shift in this country to supply more inclusion programs for intellectually disabled kids," says Debra Hart, coordinator for education and transition for the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts.

Mainstreaming intellectually disabled kids paid off. Today, says Madeleine Will, vice president of public policy for National Down Syndrome Society, kids with intellectual impairments are "functioning better in the world of school, in the home and in the workplace." Parents who have spent the last 20 years creating educational opportunities for their disabled children say college is the next frontier. Steve Riggio, the CEO of Barnes & Noble, who is underwriting the two new programs in New Jersey, says he hopes his own intellectually disabled daughter, Melissa, now a high-school junior, will benefit. Without well-constructed postsecondary programs, he says, after graduation, "she is facing a life without the opportunities that typical kids receive." The goal of many of the programs is to help the children develop the skills they need to live more independently—and that means getting and keeping a job. About 70 percent of intellectually disabled people are unemployed. Lindsey Foley, 20, an intellectually disabled woman from Worcester, Mass., hopes that auditing a computer course at Quinsigamond Community College near her home will help her keep her job at the local YMCA. "I need to learn about computers to get better," she says. Because she can't read or write independently, Foley attends class with a tutor. She uses special software that "reads" textbooks and the Internet. When it is time to take a test, she goes to the learning center where a "scribe" reads the test questions aloud and records her answers. So far, her mother, Robin, points out, Lindsey has not failed a test. "Ha!" Lindsey adds with pride. Next year, she says, she hopes to take classes in English and sign language. Not every college program offers the same level of inclusion and classroom support. Some colleges run life-skills courses on campus but keep intellectually disabled kids away from their mainstream curriculum. Others offer a hybrid, allowing the students to audit regular classes and supplement their course load with skill-building seminars such as cooking and human relationships. Other colleges allow them to matriculate. When Mercer Community College in New Jersey opens its new program this fall, intellectually disabled students will take some regular classes—working toward a vocational certificate—but they'll also get a special program of motivational speakers and seminars in classroom etiquette and time management. What if intellectually disabled students can't cut it? "There are plenty of students without special needs who have to take a class repeatedly before they master the material," says Mercer administrator Sue Onaitis, who is coordinating the program for intellectually disabled students. "We believe that it's OK for all of our students to try and fail. There's a kind of dignity there." These programs aren't cheap. Tuition for intellectually disabled kids is usually the same or more than the tuition for regular learners. In some states, local school districts will help defray the costs. If they don't, parents have to dig deep since intellectually disabled students usually can't obtain financial aid. Parents may be getting some help soon. Last month, an amendment to the Higher Education Bill was introduced in the House that would provide federal work-study funds for intellectually disabled students who attend college. John Russo says he'd welcome all the help his son could get. John, 18, has a cognitive disorder that has kept him out of public schools. Though he reads at the fourth-grade level, he's like other teenagers in many ways—he plays in a band, has shown a flair for design and is dreaming of the day when he can get a driver's license. Russo believes that postsecondary education will help his son make the crucial leap to the working world. Given the right opportunity, he says, his son had the patience and determination to succeed. "It's not like he's never had an obstacle thrown at him," he says. Overcoming obstacles, he says, is the story of his life.