Monday, May 30, 2011

Clemson University graduates first class of students with intellectual disabilities

From The Independent Mail in S.C.:

CLEMSON UNIVERSITY — Mary Alice Shartle, 24, (pictured) dreams about getting a job someday working with small children.

At the same time, Shartle is clear about the hurdles she faces.

“I have Down syndrome,” she said. “I have trouble thinking sometimes.”

Shartle learned how to speak frankly about her disability during a two-year life skills program at Clemson University. She built on her strengths and can articulate her challenges — both key to a prospective employer, said the program’s director, James Collins.

This spring, Shartle and five other intellectually disabled young adults were among ClemsonLIFE’s first class of six graduates.

“They are adults now,” said Sharon Sanders, the program’s founder and former director. “They were not when they came to me. We treat them like adults. We so often treat them like children, and they grow. All students do that.”

ClemsonLIFE is among five college programs in South Carolina for intellectually disabled adults seeking higher education. The state’s public schools allows these students to remain in high school until they are 21, but there were no further education options for them until three years ago, when the first such program started at the University of South Carolina.

Without opportunities to keep learning, the prospects for independent living are poor for these adults, said Donald Bailey, executive director for College Transition Connection. His non-profit organization coordinates state funding to five colleges, including Clemson, that offer higher education for the intellectually disabled.

South Carolina has about 2,000 intellectually disabled adults who would be eligible.

With 92 percent of this population unemployed, the benefits to the state are obvious, Bailey said. A similar program at Tate College in California has reported that 88 percent of its graduates over the past decade are employed.

“This will ultimately save the state millions of dollars,” Bailey said.

Shartle not only forged friendships with other disabled adults, but also with mainstream Clemson students. She also tried a range of jobs she might someday take on full time.

Her parents live in Greenville. After moving away from home, Shartle learned online banking, sharing chores with roommates, traveling by bus on her own, shopping for groceries and cooking her own meals. She attended Clemson football games and recitals at the Brooks Center.

“I like to cook healthy foods,” Shartle said. “Salmon is my favorite.”

Collins said Shartle shared a normal college experience with other people her age.

Shartle’s mother, Janice Shartle, said her daughter has always wanted to learn.

“As a parent, we found out she can do more than we expected,” she said.

ClemsonLIFE has grown from six students to nearly 20 this coming fall and has acquired dedicated office and classroom space in Godfrey Hall. Created as a two-year program, ClemsonLIFE will add a third-year program in the fall for four students who want to get work internships and try living off campus without a mentor.

Cally Vollmer of Atlanta will be one of those students. She has a summertime job selling jewelry at a store in Delaware, and her parents had to discourage her from taking on too many hours.

“When I first got there, I was completely nervous,” Vollmer said of ClemsonLIFE. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t expect to be with so many awesome kids.”

She and her classmates interacted with more than 130 Clemson student volunteers.

Clemson has drawn several out-of-state students because of the relative rarity of the programs.

“These kids desperately need them,” said Saralynn Vollmer, Cally’s mom. “We couldn’t have made it any better than it was.”

This past year, 30 students were enrolled in the state’s five new programs, but Bailey predicts that number will quickly grow closer to 100 over the next year.

The College of Charleston and Clemson each had 20 applicants for the fall, he said. Two challenges still facing families are affordability — tuition is comparable to full tuition and board for a regular university — and awareness.

“Families didn’t plan on their intellectually disabled son or daughter going to college,” Bailey said. “Then there are families who flat can’t afford it.”

This past year federal Pell grants became available to such programs for the first time, and South Carolina students can get some tuition assistance though the state’s vocational rehabilitation program. Lottery funds that mainstream college students can access for college tuition, however, is not available to these students.

“We are very, very, very lucky,” Saralynn Vollmer said. “We’ve done well. Usually kids who are learning disabled come from low-income situations.”

Bailey said South Carolina is setting a national standard for its public support of the programs. The state Legislature appropriated about $1 million over the past five years to launch programs at Clemson, USC, College of Charleston, Winthrop and Coastal Carolina.

“The Legislature has stepped up; educators have stepped up,” Bailey said. “And they have made a good name for themselves nationally.”

Bailey said he got involved because he wanted in-state higher education options for his own intellectually disabled son, also named Donald. He has a form of high-functioning autism and was unable to finish high school.

Earlier this month, Donald, 23, walked the stage at the University of South Carolina as the first graduate of that school’s LIFE program. Today, he has a job at a county park near his parent’s home in Mount Pleasant.

“He drives himself back and forth,” Bailey said. “He lives on his own. He’s independent.”