Special Education

College Opportunities Emerge for People With Intellectual Disabilities

By Nirvi Shah — December 13, 2011 2 min read
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Doesn’t Brock McDonald sound like a typical college kid? He will graduate from UCLA next June. He lives in an apartment with two roommates, a place he has to clean and maintain, and he manages his weekly budget, hoping to spend wisely on groceries and other needs each week so he has money left over. He works part-time at Fox Studios, and he has an internship maintaining computers. He is hoping all of his computer skills will help him one day get a job at Apple.

But for Brock, 24, who has severe dysgraphia, a typical college program may have been out of reach. He attends Pathway at UCLA, which is designed just for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Pathway, now six years old, is one of a growing number of college-level programs designed with this group of young adults in mind. I just wrote about this trend, fueled by parents and the federal government, in this week’s issue of Education Week.

The other driving force behind the rise in the number of these programs: the students, said Eric Latham, who directs the program at UCLA.

“We’ve had now 30 years of access for students with disabilities to go school,” said Mr. Latham, referring to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, first passed in 1975, which transformed access to education for children with disabilities. “They’re coming out of that system with a different expectation: Their education should continue.”

Many of these new options are catalogued, and some are being studied, by Think College, a Boston-based initiative formed to provide research, training, and technical assistance around postsecondary options for people with disabilities.

Brock certainly wanted to keep learning, and the skills he gains, both practical and academic, are likely to better position him for a job than most adults with intellectual disabilities, fewer than 10 percent of whom have jobs.

Another Pathway student, Gabby Martoglio developed a brain tumor as an infant, and suffered damage to her spinal cord when it was removed. Her development was affected, too. Gabby is just 4-foot-9 (and a half, she insists), has lost some of the vision in her left eye, and has memory loss.

At Pathway, she said, “I fit in right away.” It’s been an adjustment, living five hours from her family, with roommates, taking the bus. She said before this program, the only thing she ever really did on her own was fly to Ohio to visit a relative.

But in a short time, she’s figured out what she wants and how to get there.

“My biggest goal is to try to work at Disneyland,” Gabby said. She is taking child-development classes and interning at a daycare and preschool. “I’m working step by step.”

Later this week, look for another post from my interview with Elizabeth Hamblet, who advises families of students with disabilities who are making the move from high school to college.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.