More Intellectually Disabled Youths Go to College

October 18, 2010

WARRENSBURG, Mo. - Zach Neff is all high-fives as he walks through his college campus in western Missouri. The 27-year-old with Down syndrome hugs most everybody, repeatedly. He tells teachers he loves them.

"I told Zach we are putting him on a hug diet - one to say hello and one to say goodbye," said Joyce Downing, who helped start a new program at the University of Central Missouri that serves students with disabilities.

The hope is that polishing up on social skills, like cutting back on the hugs, living in residence halls and going to classes with non-disabled classmates will help students like Neff be more independent and get better jobs.

In years past, college life was largely off-limits for students with such disabilities, but that's no longer the case. Students with Down syndrome, autism and other conditions that can result in intellectual disabilities are leaving high school more academically prepared than ever and ready for the next step: college.

Eight years ago, disability advocates were able to find only four programs on university campuses that allowed students with intellectual disabilities to experience college life with extra help from mentors and tutors. As of last year, there were more than 250 spread across more than three dozen states and two Canadian provinces, said Debra Hart, head of Think College at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston, which provides services to people with disabilities.

That growth is partly because of an increasing demand for higher education for these students and there are new federal funds for such programs.

The federal rules that took effect this fall allow students with intellectual disabilities to receive grants and work-study money. Because details on the rules are still being worked out, the earliest students could have the money is next year. Hart and others expect the funds to prompt the creation of even more programs.

"There is a whole generation of young people who have grown up under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and to them it (college) is the logical next step," Hart said.

The college programs for these students vary. Generally the aim is to support the students as they take regular classes with non-disabled students. Professors sometimes are advised to modify the integrated classes by doing things like shifting away from a format that relies entirely on lectures and adding more projects in which students can work in groups.

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