Friday, December 24, 2010

Kentucky program helps students with intellectual disabilities succeed in college

From The Louisville Courier-Journal:

As a child, Megan McCormick of Lexington was told by her parents that her Down syndrome meant she would “have to work much harder” than those without disabilities to achieve what she wanted.

Her parents, James and Malkanthie McCormick, both physicians, never treated her any differently than her five older brothers and sisters though, a fact she credits with helping her graduate high school in 2007 with a 3.75 grade point average, and give her the confidence to enroll in Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington.

“It’s hard, but I’m pushing on,” said the 22-year-old, who so far is earning As and Bs, and is focused on becoming a certified occupational therapy assistant.

McCormick said her success is due in part to a program run by the University of Kentucky’s Human Development Institute called the Postsecondary Inclusion Partnership. The program provides support for individuals with intellectual and related developmental disabilities to attend regular college classes at postsecondary institutions around the state. Those disabilities can range from Down syndrome to autism, and also can include individuals who have experienced brain injuries.

In its third year, the program — which was funded by the Kentucky Council on Developmental Disabilities — has helped McCormick and 39 other students attend college classes throughout Kentucky.

Students are offered a variety of supports, depending on individual needs. Those supports can include mentoring, tutoring, help with note taking and assistance with learning good study habits. In McCormick’s case, she has received tutoring and help from an academic coach, and has participated in internships.

In addition to helping students with their needs in the classroom, the program also helps them participate in campus life, work study and internships that are linked to their career goals. The program also aims at the students having true campus life experiences, ranging from living in a dorm to taking part in study groups, rallies and clubs.

Jeff Bradford, the program’s director, said the Postsecondary Inclusion Partnership and similar efforts provide an important bridge for individuals with developmental disabilities who might otherwise never experience a college classroom. Experience in college through a program like this has proven to increase an individual's chances of landing a meaningful job, and ultimately becoming more self-sufficient, he said.

“Our society has pretty much set low expectations for people with intellectual disabilities,” Bradford said. “This program is about seeing people and expecting the most out of them. …”

The Human Development Institute recently secured a $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education to launch a similar program called the Supported Higher Education Project.

The program will assist up to 150 students like McCormick who have the ability and drive to attend and succeed in college, Bradford said.
It aims to build capacity within the state to support students with intellectual disabilities in attending and graduating from college. Doing that will help improve employment options and the quality of life for the students, he said.

“They become tax-paying citizens so we have less people who are receiving government benefits, and we have people who have much better self-esteem,” he said. “Like anyone else, these students want to have meaningful days. They want to be productive.”

Bradford said the idea is not that “every person with an intellectual disability is going to go to college.”

“We’re not saying we’re just opening the doors. That is not what this is about. This is about a select group of people who want to learn and have shown they are motivated to learn,” he said.

Bradford thinks students like McCormick also add to the institutions they attend. “Often we think of diversity as the tone or hue of your skin. But diversity is really about having all different kinds of learners,” he said. “It really enriches the campus.”

In addition to UK and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, key partners in the project include Kentucky Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, the Kentucky Council on Development Disabilities, the Kentucky Division of Protection and Advocacy; Northern Kentucky University and Eastern Kentucky University.

McCormick said people who have intellectual disabilities often feel inferior, and are told they can’t go to college. But she hopes her experience will open doors for others so they can get the education they need.

“…They just have to believe in what they are doing,” she said. “They have to focus on what they are struggling with, and people around them can help them succeed.”