Like many of his classmates at Squirrel Hill’s Allderdice High School, senior Colton Vazquez has toured colleges in a handful of states, awaited acceptance letters and is now envisioning how he will adapt to his new college home — with one small, but critical difference.
Colton, an 18-year-old resident of Regent Square, is among a new generation of students with intellectual disability taking the leap from high school to college by way of “inclusive higher education” programs. These programs are now available at many colleges across the nation, including some in Pennsylvania.
This fall, Colton, who has Down syndrome, will be one of a few thousand high school graduates attending college in a non-traditional yet quite regular way. These students will commute to their campuses or live in dorms, audit classes or take them for credit, become more independent and self-reliant, explore career interests and make new friends. In other words, they’ll be doing exactly what their fellow college students are doing.
Of course, the presence of students with disabilities on college campuses is nothing new. About 11 percent of the nation’s college students have disabilities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Whatis new is the opening of the doors of higher education to non-degree-seeking students with intellectual disability.
Even 15 years ago, college was rarely considered for this group of students. Upon graduation from high school, their options were often limited to day activity programs or vocational training in a narrow range of fields.
But expectations have changed. The movement to encourage colleges to offer inclusive programs has been growing slowly but steadily. A research and information center called Think College, based at the University of Massachusetts Boston Institute for Community Inclusion, estimates that more than 4,872 students with intellectual disability are enrolled in 266 college programs across the nation.
Pennsylvania is home to nine inclusive higher ed programs, with a 10th set to open this fall at West Chester University in the eastern part of the state. In western Pennsylvania, Slippery Rock and Mercyhurst universities offer programs; Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University is developing one.
Programs vary widely. Some receive federal funding as transition and post-secondary programs for students with intellectual disabilities (TPSIDs), and some meet federal student aid requirements and are designated as comprehensive transition programs.
Advocates for inclusive college programs point to their potential for supporting students academically and personally, and paving the way to meaningful employment. Think College, which serves as the national coordinating center for the TPSID programs, found that 61 percent of young adults who completed these programs in 2015 were competitively employed a year later, compared to an employment rate of 18 percent for those who did not.
Moreover, advocates say the benefit is not a one-way street. The inclusion of students with intellectual disability positions higher education to reflect on its mission and to explore assumptions about human potential, labels and who deserves — or has been excluded from — educational opportunity.
“Changing the rules of who attends college in an inclusive capacity promotes a culture shift on the campus,” Ann Marie Licata, director of the Pennsylvania Inclusive Higher Education Consortium, wrote in an email.
‘Smashed through ceilings’
Colton works as a server in the cafeteria at the Environmental Charter School, a school in Regent Square that he attended through eighth grade.
After lunch, he takes two buses to Allderdice High School, where he is finishing up credits for graduation in June. On Fridays, he works “front of the house” at Square Café, a popular breakfast spot on Braddock Avenue. His work record, including a couple of years at Giant Eagle in Greenfield, surpasses that of many teens.
Colton is also front and center at the National Down Syndrome Society’s annual Buddy Walk in New York City, where his photo has been shown on the Times Square video display three times. His acting ability earned him an audition for a role as a high school wrestler in an episode of “Orange is the New Black.” He didn’t get the role, but gained a talent agent in Los Angeles.
Greg Del Duca, Colton’s long-time speech therapist and friend, said that anyone who makes assumptions about Colton on the basis of his intellectual disability would be “completely wrong.” Colton has relationships, travels around town on his own and holds multiple jobs at a time, Del Duca said. “He has smashed through ceilings.”
Colton’s parents, Candy and Javier Vazquez, have encouraged his independence. Colton, who has a 6-year-old sister, Daisy, informed his parents that he wanted to go away to school after a close cousin left for Kent State University in 2017.
“I thought it would be fun,” Colton said in his soft-spoken voice.
He and his parents researched programs that offered what he is most interested in: living in a dorm, exploring different types of careers (in addition to theater and culinary arts, he’s interested in early childhood education and animal care), and a comfortable mix of independence and personal support with items such as time management and study skills.
Last summer, Colton began a college tour that took him to Slippery Rock, Millersville and East Stroudsburg universities in Pennsylvania; Western Carolina in Cullowhee, North Carolina; and the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
As the family posted photos from their college visits on Facebook, word spread quickly among families of other Pittsburgh-area teenagers with intellectual disability. Many people didn’t know about the programs and wanted to know more, Candy Vazquez said.
By the end of their visits, Colton had narrowed the field down to four: Slippery Rock’s “Rock Life” program, Millersville’s “Integrated Studies” program, Western Carolina’s “University Participant Program” and the “Inclusive Education Services” initiative at the University of Central Florida. After much consideration, Colton recently committed to his first acceptance, Slippery Rock, and withdrew his application from the other schools.
“Self-advocacy has always been our alpha goal for Colton,” his mother said. “He will be the decision-maker.”
“I want to be independent,” Colton said.
His vision for his life beyond college: “Get married, have my own place, own a dog, have kids.”
Seeding inclusive programs
The number of inclusive post-secondary programs in Pennsylvania has been growing over the past few years, thanks to increasing demand and the availability of grants and other types of support.
The movement to encourage colleges to offer inclusive programs has been growing slowly but steadily.
In 2012, a group of parents and professionals in the Harrisburg area founded the DREAM Partnership to expand post-secondary options for students with intellectual disabilities in Pennsylvania. To date, the organization has provided $750,000 in program start-up funds and expansion grants, as well as $330,000 in student scholarships. Funding sources include the state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and foundation grants.
“DREAM was given an incredible opportunity through the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation to assist in developing new programs and provide technical assistance,” said Sherri Landis, executive director of DREAM Partnership, wrote in an email. “Over the past four years, we have carried out the mission of the grant and developed seven new programs in Pennsylvania.”
The Pennsylvania Inclusive Higher Education Consortium, based at Millersville University, oversees a five-year $2.4 million federal grant to increase the number of inclusive higher ed programs in Pennsylvania. The grant grew out of the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, which calls for expanded opportunities for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The consortium awards mini-grants of $60,000 for colleges to begin or increase the capacity of their programs.
Building a successful program is a slow and careful process that should grow organically out of how each college operates, explained Licata of the consortium. “Each program is different, just like no two colleges are exactly alike. The challenge is integrating the program within the structure of the university’s current departments. This promotes sustainability over time.”
Across Pennsylvania, programs vary from a one- to two-year offering at Mercyhurst to four-year programs at Millersville, Slippery Rock and Temple. Some programs offer housing; some are only for commuters. Most programs accept students with autism and other types of developmental disabilities. But they all share the same vision: an inclusive experience, not a segregated program on the campus.
Licata said there are waiting lists for some programs. New programs usually start out with one or two students and build up to the capacity that is right for the school. For example, Millersville’s four-year program has 23 students.
“It takes awhile for programs to get going,” Licata said. “There are lots of moving parts – housing, developing natural peer support, how professors work with students, admissions.” Some programs are integrated with opportunities for students in disability-related majors. However, Licata said “peer support on campuses come from all departments — business, theater, sciences — and not just the professional programs of education, social work and psychology.”
Support from top administration is essential to a successful program, Licata added. “They identify the stakeholders and help build a culture of support.”
The two-year-old Rock Life program at Slippery Rock University not only had the organic start Licata referred to but also a highly respected champion in Bob Arnhold, professor of health and physical education and coordinator of the university’s Adapted Physical Activity graduate program, which focuses on the health and wellness of people with disabilities.
Arnhold, with 32 years on the faculty, is renowned for launching thousands of students into careers that emphasize the abilities of people with disabilities. Many of Arnhold’s former students populate leading programs in the region and beyond.
Three years prior to starting the Rock Life program in 2016, Arnhold helped Slippery Rock launch the Transition Achievement Program (TAP), which brings students ages 16 to 25 to campus for jobs and skill-building activities. The Rock Life program evolved when a few TAP students expressed the desire to remain on campus. Originally envisioned as a two-year program, Rock Life students may now attend up to four years. They may also transfer to a degree program.
Rock Life has eight students this semester, five of whom live on campus. Each student has a career coach, has an opportunity to work a paid job (on or off campus) and takes at least one class (two, if they live on campus). Students can audit or take for credit any class they wish, as long as they have the prerequisites.
Arnhold sees the personalization of the program as one of its greatest strengths. Students’ individual interests, needs and ambitions lead the way. The ultimate goal, he says, is job readiness.
Tuition and fees per year range from about $1,300 for a commuter taking one course to about $16,000 for a dorm resident taking three courses. Rock Lifestudents, like most students at other inclusive programs, use a combination of funding sources for their tuition and other costs. The Dream Partnership also offers scholarships.
Nicolette Fenello, a 21-year-old from Cranberry Township, was one of Rock Life’s first students in 2016. Fenello’s interest in child care has attracted her to classes in education as well as a job in the campus child care center.
After completing the program, she plans to find a job as a paraprofessional in a child care center.
After two years in the program, Fenello said her parents have gotten used to her living away from home. “They like to tease me that freshman year was hard for them,” she said, laughing.
Fenello said she has grown as a result of the program, reflecting that she was “kinda immature” her first year. “Now I’m mature,” she said, making better decisions and understanding her strengths and weaknesses. In the two courses she’s auditing this semester, she said she does all the work the rest of the class is doing. “I prefer that.”
Donny Lund, 21, is a new student this semester. After only a few days on campus in January, he said he was enjoying the freedom of living away from his Upper St. Clair home for the first time and the prospect of auditing his first college classes in film appreciation and sociology.
“I’m enjoying myself,” he said. “It feels nice. I’m in the real world now.”
Arnhold said feedback from faculty about Rock Life students has been positive. “They are used to students with disabilities,” he said. “We tell them they don’t have to do anything special for our students. One professor said he did not even realize one of his studentswasa Rock Life student.”
Crystal Evans, transition coordinator for the Program for Students with Exceptionalities at Pittsburgh Public Schools, said she’s thrilled that one of the district’s recent graduates entered the Rock Life program this semester. “Being with typical peers. College and work. That’s what all the kids talk about. To have the same opportunity is amazing,” Evans said.
“It’s great that more and more colleges are doing it,” she added. “They take our 18-to-21 programs to the next level. I’m excited to hear about our students’ experiences and find out what we can do to help prepare our students for the programs.” By federal law, students receiving special education are eligible for services until age 21.
Evans said it would be nice to have an inclusive college program closer to the city schools. She may get her wish: Duquesne University’s director of student life assessment and co-curricular community engagement, Alia M. Pustorino-Clevenger, reports that its program “will start in the next few years, if not within the next year.” The planning team commenced formal planning this academic year after a year and a half of preliminary research.
The planning process, she said, reflects the time it takes to establish strong campus support, identify best practices and seek input from community partners, “all of which are instrumental in how this program would root on Duquesne’s campus.”
Like all prospective college students, Colton went through a process to determine which school would be the best fit for him. He liked each one for different reasons. Western Carolina has an all-inclusive marching band and the opportunity to learn an instrument. “I would try the saxophone,” Colton said.
University of Central Florida has a “job developer” who previously worked at Disney. The campus’s big outdoor swimming pool was also a draw, he said.
Both Millersville and Slippery Rock are large, friendly campuses that are the hearts of their small towns. Colton enjoyed the people and amenities at each. In the end, he chose the one closer to home, Slippery Rock, for its “good food and good teachers” and where he already knows a few students.
As Colton gears up for college, his mother says she’s certain he’s ready for this next step. She jokes that some people may think she’s crazy for even considering it.
“But what is the alternative?” she said, noting that opportunities such as inclusive college programs were far from a reality when Colton was born 18 years ago. The availability of the programs today, she said, validates what she and her husband have done to prepare their son for an independent life. It was, she said, “exactly what we should have done” because it is what he wants in life.
Freelance journalist Tina Calabro writes about disability issues. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Jeffrey Benzing.
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