Opening Higher Ed to Students with Developmental Disabilities
by Jasmine Evans
College can be a safe space for people, young and old, to learn and grow. Through programs like the Academy of Inclusive Learning and Social Growth at Kennesaw State University (KSU), youth with developmental disabilities now have the option to experience college. These students have health issues like autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and specific learning disabilities. Jill Sloan, the program coordinator, looks at each student’s level of motivation as the main indicator of success rather than their cognitive abilities.
When Sloan retired from teaching after 30 years, she took a part-time job working with students who have developmental disabilities. During a professional development training session, the leader asked her to write down one professional goal. She wrote that she would like to see a program for students like the ones with whom she was working that would allow them to have a postsecondary experience. A year later, that same leader approached her and asked if she wanted to lead the Academy. “I’m living my dream to see that this opportunity has really come true for students with developmental disabilities,” she says.
Erin Sealy, a freshman with the Academy, is currently taking classes in communications and art. She is also very interested in photography and spent some time shadowing a photographer. Putting her skills to go use, she recently had a photo published in KSU’s school newspaper. She loves being a part of the program, and her favorite part is the large academic environment where there is always something going on.
Each student in the Academy registers as a non-degree seeking student and takes two classes each semester. Many of them also live on campus. In their first year, they take the regular freshmen level courses taught by KSU professors. They may request accommodations, like any disabled student, but the content they must learn is the same as everyone else.
The entire Academy staff and their group of diligent mentors work hard to ensure that Academy students are included in classes and campus activities. Kari Cain, the employment counselor, concentrates on what students are going to do once they graduate from the two-year program. Students start by shadowing someone who works in a field that’s of interest to them. For example, they currently have a student who loves history classes and wants to work in a museum. KSU has three museums, and the student is able to choose where he wants to work. “We try to cater to their individual interests rather than grouping them all together into one training or career,” says Cain. Once they are done shadowing, they can actually try out a job that interests them, like Erin has done with photography.
Alumni of the program are doing well and many of them are working in their desired field. Sloan enthusiastically talks about one of the first graduates of the program, a young woman with autism. She had taken classes in early childhood education and her dream was to work with preschool-aged children. Her special education teacher in her high school told her that her dream wasn’t possible; she’d never be able to do it. But after learning new skills and participating in training at the Academy, she now works at a church preschool program. Success stories like this one are the norm at the Academy.
Cain expresses that their philosophy is simple. “Everyone wants to be treated the same, so that’s our approach. If a student is at a job site and they do something that would get anyone else fired, then they need to get fired too. That’s a valuable real life experience,” she says. She and Sloan both add that this philosophy of inclusivity has spread throughout KSU’s campus. Other KSU students, particularly those who work as mentors with the program, have the opportunity to work, leave, and learn alongside people who learn differently than they do. This kind of lesson in diversity can be invaluable for any student, regardless of whether they are part of a minority group.
Sloan argues that the Academy, “actually supports the philosophy of education in the U.S. that any student who is motivated has the opportunity to access postsecondary education. [Our program] has just opened the door to those who have been historically denied such an opportunity.”
The Academy at KSU is one of about 250 programs across the country that help students with developmental disabilities have a postsecondary experience. However, it is the only program of its kind in Georgia. Sloan mentions that they are working hard to keep the cost of the program low so as not to exclude students who cannot afford an expensive college experience. Any student who is motivated to learn and grow should have the option to take college courses regardless of their health or financial circumstances.