Excerpted from Think College! Postsecondary Education Options for Students with Intellectual Disabilities
WHAT’S THE POINT?
By Meg Grigal, Ph.D., and Debra Hart, M.Ed.
© 2010. Brookes Publishing. All rights reserved.
Recently, I was asked to serve as an “expert” on postsecondary education (PSE)
options for student’s intellectual disabilities (ID) at a national event. I met with
various groups of individuals and answered their questions regarding how to implement
or improve postsecondary education access for students with intellectual
disabilities in their states. One man said to me, “Yeah, I understand why students
might want to take weight training or aerobics. But what is a kid like this gonna get
out of taking an art history class? Why should we waste our time setting that up?”
This is not an unusual question. ... Actually, it’s probably one of the best
places to start when having a conversation about the reason for offering students
with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to access postsecondary education.
What’s the point? Most students with intellectual disabilities will not be going to
college to get a degree. Many, if not most, will not have received a high school
diploma. So then why would we “waste our time” giving students like this a
chance to attend a college course—especially on a topic as esoteric as art history?
The answer to this question is that the purpose of providing students with
intellectual disabilities access to PSE is not limited to simply getting a student into
a class, or the student learning the content of the course. While these elements
are both important, the bigger picture has less to do with the classes students
take and more to do the outcomes that are possible when students with ID are
afforded the opportunity to access college experiences. And by college experiences,
I am not referring solely to taking classes at a college. The college experience
is comprised of a wide array of possible experiences; some social, some academic,
and some employment. These experiences will likewise be unique for
every individual who attends college. There is not one right way to do it. A student’s
experience will reflect their personal needs and goals. Some students will
take many classes, while others choose to go part-time. Some students seek skills
that will lead to employment; others may want to explore a new area of personal
interest. It is in this aspect that college environments provide an array of
experiences that most students with intellectual disabilities are not afforded during
their tenure in public school; the chance to explore, define, and redefine personal
goals related to adult learning, employment, and social connections.
Students with and without disabilities go through their primary and secondary
school years taking a prescribed course of study. High school provides a few
limited opportunities for students to choose a course or an elective, but even
those elective classes are designed for the young adult learner—where the student
is a passive respondent. Students with intellectual disabilities will likely have
even fewer choices in their course options than their peers without or with other
disabilities. They may be included in a variety of general education courses, but
may not have much choice in which ones they can attend. They might be limited
to the life skills or functional academic courses that are provided to students
with significant support needs in their school district. Regardless of the type of
courses they attend, all of these high school options come with a strict set of
guidelines. They are provided in a high school setting; a bell will signal you when
to go to class and when to leave class. The teacher provides a set of expected
outcomes, and in most cases, will make all necessary modification or accommodations
without any input or requests from a student. This is how high school
students with intellectual disabilities are expected to learn.
The employment experiences of students with intellectual disabilities are often
just as teacher directed. Most students participate in job tryouts or training
experiences that they rotate through that are not connected with the student’s
coursework, interests, skills, or—most importantly—to a paid job that they are
trying to obtain. These employment preparation experiences prepare students for
adult employment experiences about as well as their high school preparation experiences
prepare them to go to college. The traditional transition experiences of
students with intellectual disabilities have not been demonstrated to produce
great outcomes for students in adulthood. But given the opportunity, access, and
support—students with ID who receive transition services in college settings can
have great outcomes. Using the college campus as the platform for their education,
students can learn how to access education as an adult, learn how to connect
this education to a paid job, and learn how to navigate between jobs like
all other adults. The option of postsecondary education for students with intellectual
disabilities is ultimately just good transition planning. It allows students
to engage in adult learning and working environments within a context of support
and guidance. It also lays the groundwork for students to obtain the skills
necessary for them to continue to access learning throughout their adult lives.
In today’s public special education system, students with intellectual disabilities
(and their families) are not provided with the expectation that students
should continue to access adult learning after they leave high school. In most
cases, students with ID have not been introduced to the possibility of attending
college, or any kind of postsecondary education—academic, continuing education,
or otherwise. The staff person in high school who is generally the gatekeeper
to college is most often a guidance counselor. However, students with ID
seldom have access to a guidance counselor. As a result, it is unlikely for students
with ID to be presented with information about potential postsecondary
education opportunities in their community.
Instead, the transition component of the IEP under postsecondary education
goals will likely say “not applicable.” The student with ID and their family
will be referred to the state vocational rehabilitation center, and perhaps the state
developmental disabilities agency. If the student is lucky, he or she will be assigned
to an adult service provider who will find them a job in the community.
But as the latest statistics on transition outcomes for youth with ID will indicate,
most of these youth will remain unemployed or under employed. And most will
not engage in any kind of adult learning, whether at a college or in other community
adult education settings.
In our current system of education, people with intellectual disabilities are
expected to stop learning in any formal way at the ripe old age of 21. Imagine,
if you will, if you had stopped learning after high school. No classes at college,
no professional development days, no workshops or conferences. We often lament
the poor post-school outcomes of students with intellectual disabilities. However,
we never seem to make the connection that the system does not support students
with intellectual disabilities to learn anything after they leave high school.
How successful would the general population be if all learning ended after
high school? The current rate of unemployment for individuals who graduated
from high school is twice that of those who graduated from college. Going to college
is and always has been connected to greater rates of employment and higher
wages. It is likely given the opportunity, and the means to document the outcomes,
that students with intellectual disabilities would mirror these trends.
The purpose of exposing students with intellectual disabilities to PSE is to
provide them, for perhaps the first time in their lives, the expectation that they
CAN learn after leaving high school and the opportunity to CHOOSE to learn.
Due to the nature and structure of high school, students with ID are seldom provided
the chance to choose what they want to learn about. Nor are they given
guidance about how to access knowledge as an adult. Choosing to learn about
something is a process that takes some skills. First, a person must identify what
it feels like to want to learn about something and know that there are places that
that knowledge can be found. College is a great place to find out what interests
you and the types of classes that are available on various topics. But it is not
enough to know what is out there; you need to know how to access it.
How do you gain access to adult learning environments? Are they all the
same? Is the process of registering for a basic math class at a community college
the same as signing up to take a water aerobics class through your local park and
recreation department? The flexible nature of a college setting allows students
with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to learn about the various types of
adult education and means through which each can be accessed. Students with
ID can register for courses at the college for audit or for credit, or take a continuing
education course, or sign up for one of the many adult classes that are available
in the community through county or city programs or in local home improvement
stores such as Home Depot or Michaels Arts and Crafts. It is important
to recognize that students who participate in programs located on college campuses
are not limited to taking classes at that college.
Finally, it is important to apply the learning in your life. Were the skills
gained from a class useful to you on your job? Will they help you get a better
job? Are you learning to be a better listener, writer, or thinker as a result of your
class? Or perhaps the class was to explore a new area of interest. Are you still
interested in the topic? Do you want to find out more? What other opportunities
exist to do this? I think it’s especially important not to assign judgment to
the type of education that someone desires. If you want to learn how to speak
French, great. If you want to learn how to tile your bathroom floor, great. Do
you know where to learn these skills and can you apply them in your life? That
is the measure of a successful learner. Many might respond with “Well, what if
they fail?” or “Students with intellectual disabilities aren’t going to do well in
college classes.” And it some cases this may in fact be true. Some students will
fail. And yet when do we learn more about ourselves than when we fail? I can
guarantee that every person reading this book right now has failed at something.
Maybe at a number of things. But you managed to rally, hopefully apply the lessons
learned, and move on. As Oscar Wilde says, “Experience is simply the name we
give our mistakes.” And I’m sure we all have a number of college “experiences”
that served to teach us a thing or two.
And so we revisit our friend’s question, “what’s the point?” The point is to
give students with intellectual disabilities who have the desire to learn, the skills
and the expectations to do so, and continue doing so throughout their lifetime.
The term lifelong learner is bandied about pretty frequently. But what does that
mean? To be a lifelong learner? It means that you know how to access desired
knowledge about a topic. In order to support students with intellectual disabilities
to become lifelong learners we must arm them with the skills to access desired
knowledge. We must also provide them with the experiences to practice
these skills so that when they are 25, 30, 35, or 40 years old, and determine that
they want to learn something that they know what to do. We set PSE as an expectation
early on for the student and their family. We talk about the prospect
of college and other forms of adult education and determine what kinds of opportunities
might be available to them.
So why should we waste our time getting a young person with intellectual
disabilities into an art history class? Let’s review just some of the information
that would be needed for a young woman with intellectual disabilities to take
an art history class:
- Where in the community do they offer art history?
- How does she register for classes?
- What is a bursar?
- Are there prerequisites?
- What is the schedule?
- Does it work with her work schedule?
- How will she get to and from class?
- What kind of help will she need in the class to be successful?
Yet the lessons learned are not limited to what is needed to access a class. Being
enrolled in an art history class will also give this young woman a chance to set
goals, to advocate for herself with a professor and possibly an employer. She will
be immersed in a class that she finds personally fulfilling. She will meet others
who are also interested in the topic, and will make acquaintances—if not friends—
with a mutual interest. She will determine not only if the content of the course
is right for her, but if the method in which the course is taught works for her.
This knowledge may influence the type of courses she takes in the future. She
will be exposed to the ebb and flow of the college workload, the rhythm of a college
class lecture, and get a feel for when it’s ok to ask questions, when and how
to take notes, or how to ask a friend or a professor for a copy of the notes. All
of these skills will ultimately allow her to be more successful in other realms of
her life—in her job, with her friends, as she makes her way in the community.
There are a great deal of skills required to access adult learning opportunities.
And there are very few chances for students with intellectual disabilities to
learn those skills in high school or as adults. Transition services has for many
years been defined almost primarily around employment and the transition from
school to work. And this is a vital aspect of transition. We all believe in the power
of integrated community employment as a hugely successful outcome for students.
But none of us expect a student to exit school with a paid job with benefits
if that student has never had a job tryout, some training, and some experiences
in the world of work. So how can we expect a student with intellectual
disabilities to know how to access any kind of adult learning option, if we have
not given him or her opportunity to sample what adult learning is about?
Students with ID need to be given the chance to experience adult learning
while we are still in the position of providing support and guidance. Our transition
outcomes do not have to be limited to “does this student have a job?” and
“Are they connected with an adult service provider?” Our goals can also include
“Can this student, if he or she wants to, access the adult learning options in their
community?” Just as we teach them the process of obtaining and keeping a job
and the necessary process of changing jobs, we must teach them that their learning
needs and desires may change as they mature. And that the skills to access
learning are ones that they can use for a lifetime. I think that college doesn’t give
anything special to students with ID, instead I think it gives them something that
everyone else that goes to college gets; the opportunity to learn about yourself,
get a better job, and quite possible grow up a little bit.
Who knew an art history class had so much to offer?