Saying Yes to College for Students with Intellectual Disabilities

By Bill Therrien

Jessie always wanted to go the University of Iowa. Going to UI was a family tradition. Both her parents and her two older siblings went there and she spent many a Saturday at Kinnick Stadium watching her Hawkeyes play football. But unfortunately for Jessie she would never realize her dream. She grew up in a time when people like her didn’t get to choose what they wanted. They were excluded from pretty much all of society. In fact if it wasn’t for Jessie’s mother spurning her doctor’s advice, Jessie wouldn’t have even been raised by her parents at all. She instead would have grown up and likely spent most of her adult life in an over capacity and understaffed institution. This was the fate of many individuals with intellectual disabilities until not so long ago- up to the mid-1970s.

Why would a society systematically ostracize and exclude a whole group of people? For Jessie and people like her, they simply were not worth society’s time and effort. In fact many doctors didn’t even think they were worthy of the time and effort of their own parents. “Jessie will take too much time away from raising your normal children.” “You should place Jessie in an institution where they know how to deal with children like her.” This was common place advice to parents of children with Down syndrome and many others during the 1950s and 60s, events chronicled nicely in the documentary “Unforgotten: 25 Years after Willowbrook.

Thanks, though, to the hard work of parents and disability advocates, times have changed dramatically for people with intellectual disabilities. Today no one would think about pressuring parents to give up their child and thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), schools are required to provide a meaningful education to all our children–no exceptions.

Of course things are still not perfect for individuals with intellectual disabilities; they are still excluded and marginalized by many people and institutions in our society, including most of our universities and colleges. College is not right for everyone, we hear. To this I’d say, well, of course, college is not right for all! But are we comfortable as a society excluding a whole category of people, carte blanche? We have a regrettable history of making these types of decisions in the past, excluding African Americans, women, and others from colleges well into the 20th century. Is excluding all people with intellectual disabilities the same as excluding all women and minorities or do we feel it is morally defensible because ‘these’ people can’t get anything out of college? They aren’t smart enough. They are not like us. I don’t know about you, but this line of reasoning makes me feel uncomfortable and sounds awfully familiar to the line of reasoning used to exclude minorities and women in the past.

Not convinced? OK. Let’s think about the purpose of college. Why does anyone go to college? Training in a profession is one reason for sure, but along with that what else? How about obtaining a well-rounded liberal arts education? How about developing leadership skills, learning to become a life-long learner, figuring out how to get along with others, being exposed to different cultures and races, even learning to do the laundry and manage a budget? Aren’t these all skills and dispositions we hope students learn in college? Aren’t these softer skills the reason why students, especially traditional undergrads, come and live on campuses instead of taking all their courses online from a computer in their basement? Mastering these skills are primary, not secondary, reasons why we welcome large classes of first years to live and study on Grounds each year.

So what about people with intellectual disabilities? Are these softer skills things they can acquire while attending a residential university? These are questions I, along with my colleagues, have been exploring ever since the opening of the University of Iowa Realizing Education and Career Hopes (UI REACH) program–a two year residential program for students with intellectual disabilities who live and learn alongside their peers.

Well, guess what we found? Using the same assessments higher education researchers use to explore traditional ungraduates growth on these softer skills, we find year after year that UI REACH students make significant growth. They become more independent, they develop leadership skills, they make friends and learn how to deal with conflict and on and on. And that rate of growth? Well, it is the same as the rate obtained by everyone else. UI REACH students benefit tremendously from a residential college experience. Oh, and lest I forget, people with intellectual disabilities who attend college programs are also much more likely to be employed than their peers and they make on average 73% more. They too can go to college to learn a profession.

So while it is too late for Jessie, due to changing attitudes and findings like ours, many college aged people with intellectual disabilities across this country are finding universities opening up to them. Colleges do have something to offer to people with ID. People with ID are indeed more like us than not.

Bill Therrien is a Professor of Special Education in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. You can read more about other college programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities at the Think College website


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *