In the world of education, there is always talk about preparing students for college. There is also healthy debate about whether or not college is for everyone. These conversations, though, focus on the students who are in general education or have mild or moderate disabilities. In these discussions, never have I heard mention of a person with significant disabilities attending college.
So here’s a thought to ponder. What about the person with significant disabilities who wants to go to college? I mean the person who works extremely hard in school and after achieving all of his/her goals, receives an IEP diploma. I mean the person whose assessments are based on data folios submitted to the state because he/she is not required to take standardized tests. I mean the person who could not take SATs because his/her reading level is first grade, not due to lack of effort but due to the nature of his/her disability. What about these people? In my early days of teaching, I would have said, how could someone who can’t read, can’t take tests and doesn’t have a regents diploma go to college? It makes no sense for them to go, what would they get out of the experience? And I believed that I was right.
Fast forward some years. I attended an inclusion conference in Georgia. I heard Jeff Strully, a wonderful, motivational man, speak. He described a young woman (similarly to this, it was a long time ago) : “ She is 18 years old.” “She is very social.” “She loves to be around people.” “She loves to learn.” “She is a great dancer.” “She wants to go to college.” Then came this description of a young woman: “She is 18 years old.” ” She drools.” ” She needs help traveling.” “She has seizures.” “She reads on a first grade level”. “She wants to go to college.” In his next sentence, we found out that this was the same person, his daughter, and all of the descriptions applied to her. Again, I thought to myself, how can she go to college? What could someone with a first grade reading level, in need of significant supports, get out of college? Boy, did I learn the answer to my questions. Jeff Strully talked about going to college for reasons that were not purely academic. He said college is a natural progression from high school. He said that his daughter wanted to be with her friends and 18 year olds belonged on the college campus. He said that she could audit classes and not be required to do the rigorous academics. She could be with her peer group. She could hang out in the dorms and go to parties. She could go on trips. She could use the natural supports of her friends to help her to be successful in achieving her dream, being on the college campus.
His talk was eye opening for me. After hearing him, I knew that I had to figure something out for my own students who wanted the college experience. I am ashamed to tell you how many times I told a student who said that he/she wanted to go to college the following: “You have to be able to read.” “You have to have a regent’s diploma.” “You have to take SATs.” I wasn’t wrong, I was thinking of the traditional reasons of going to college and the traditional ways to get there. In retrospect, I was also squashing the dreams of my students. How dare I? After hearing Jeff Strully, I had different ideas. Why shouldn’t my students who wanted to go to college, go to college? Why not college inclusion? We did it on the high school level with great results. Our rationale for inclusion was more social than academic. Remember, my students did not take standardized tests, often read on a first grade level and were going to receive IEP diplomas when they completed school. But in the general ed high school, they were exposed to a different level of academics, often resulting in their reading and math improving. They had numerous opportunities to meet and socialize with students in an inclusive setting . They became welcome and valued members of the school community, participating in plays, after school activities, trips and graduation. (still receiving an IEP diploma). If this worked so well in a high school setting, surely it could be transferred to a college setting.
Without going in to all of the details of how we set this up, we approached the dean of education of a college that was used as a work experience site for some of my students. We had an already established, solid relationship, so selling the idea of inclusion was not difficult. The dean was very receptive and wanted to make it work. Logistically it took some figuring out, but after a year, 8 of my students, along with a teacher and a few paraprofessionals were included on the college campus. The students had special auditing status in their classes. Often, paraprofessionals attended the classes with the students to take notes so the teacher could later break down the material and re teach portions of the lessons. The paraprofessionals had to be discreet because my students did not want the stigma of having someone with them. They were in college and it wasn’t cool. We looked for classes that were more hands on, music, film making, physical education, rather than those that were lecture style. The students actively participated in the club hours on campus and also learned to negotiate the very large campus. When I would go to visit, I’d find some of my students having lunch in the cafeteria with their college buddies. This highly successful model was replicated on another college campus so that more of my students could participate.
So despite all the naysayers, I feel, if a person with disabilities wants to go to college, he/she should be able to go. But in order for this to happen it’s time for all of us to think differently. It’s time for schools to look at the ways to support the person who doesn’t fit the traditional mold of college bound student. It’s time to break that mold to fit the needs of that person. It’s time to make today’s colleges fit all of today’s students.
Gail Ray is a married mom with 2 children, both teachers of children with disabilities. A retired principal with over 30 years of experience working with young adults with varying abilities, she now mentors student teachers as they prepare to transition into this challenging, rewarding field.