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An 'obligation' to serve students with disabilities


Students in the Transition to Independent Living program at Taft College in California.
Community colleges across the country are seeing a significant increase in students with intellectual and other disabilities, and that is creating challenges for colleges struggling with the higher costs of serving these students in a tight budget climate.
Despite the costs, however, many college leaders believe they have a responsibililty to serve this population.
Wayne Burton, president of North Shore Community College (NSCC) in Massachusetts, calls the surge in this population a “tsunami.” Of the 10,400 students with disabilities in 27 public colleges in Massachusetts, 7,400 are in community colleges.
He said NSCC spends about $250,000 a year to provide accommodations—such as notetakers in class, staff support, and voice recognition software—to students with disabilities.
An increasing number of students with disabilities have been enrolling at NSCC every year, said Susan Graham, director of disability services. There were 313 such students last year, she said, compared to 243 in 2006.
Graham noted that she is seeing more students with autism and more veterans with brain injuries and mobility issues.
“More people are comfortable with disclosing” psychiatric conditions like depression and anxiety and requesting more time for taking exams or other accommodations," she said.
Advocating for students with intellectual disabilities  
In addition, advances in assistive technology have encouraged more people with disabilities to go to college, Graham said. According to a U.S. Education Department report issued in June, more than half of the 707,000 students with disabilities enrolled in institutions of higher education in 2008-09 were in public two-year colleges.
Life skills training
Many colleges, such as Lewis and Clark Community College (LCCC) in Illinois, view education and job training programs for students with intellectual disabilities as a key part of their mission.
“These students started coming to college before we had any money or staff to serve them,” said Linda Chapman, vice president of academic affairs at LCCC. “We had a choice. We could say we can’t serve them, or we could learn what it would take to develop a program. We felt we had an obligation to serve these students.”
LCCC’s College for Life Program serves about  60 students with severe developmental disabilities, ranging in age from 18 to 57. Students take non-credit courses in topics such as art, exercise, computers, and popular culture.
Most of the students read at the fourth-grade level, said Kathy Haberer, LCCC's director of student development and counseling.
“These students will never get an associate degree. But they will all learn and grow,” she said.
Project Access at NSCC offers non-credit vocational and enrichment classes each semester to about 80 to 100 students with disabilities. The eight-week courses cover such topics as basic cooking, healthy living, career exploration, computer basics, social skills for the workplace, and acting and singing.
These courses, which are priced at $30 for students, “fulfill a need in the community,” said Ellen O’Donnell, dean of human services. Some of them are taught by students in NSCC’s associate degree program in developmental disabilities.
Working with K-12
Highline Community College (HCC) in Washington state is using a $271,000 federal TPSID (Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities) grant to support its Achieve program, which provides credit and non-credit courses and services to prepare about 40 intellectually challenged students each year for employment and independent living.
HCC has formed a partnership with 12
K-12 school districts and the state’s vocational rehabilitation department to provide transitional services to youths ages 18-21, many of them still receiving public education services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, said Achieve program director Jennifer Sandler.
HCC developed individual college plans for the students, who take non-credit courses at HCC in workplace communication, learning styles, and self-advocacy skills. They can also take regular, credit courses related to their career goals.
The program is open to anyone, regardless of level or functional ability, as long as they are “able to navigate the campus independently,” Sandler said. “If they can do that, they can learn to navigate a workplace.”
Achieve also helps participants explore the social aspects of the campus and provides intensive advising, tutoring, peer mentoring, and help with assistive technology and course-management software.
A residential approach
Taft College in California’s West Kern Community College District offers something unusual for a community college—a residential program for students with intellectual disabilities or autism to prepare them for living on their own.  
The college’s Transition to Independent Living program, which received a $497,000 TPSID grant, serves 51 students from throughout the state, most of them in their early 20s, said Jeff Ross, coordinator of student support services. Students live in a dorm the first year and live independently the second year.
Students take courses in meal planning and preparation, interpersonal relations, budgeting, and self-advocacy and the rights of individuals with disabilities. The money students earn in work-study helps them pay their room and board, which is about $710 a month.
The California Department of Developmental Services funds the program, including staffing and facilities, which comes to about $32,000 a year per student, Ross said.
Since the first graduating class in 1997, more than 95 percent of the students who completed the Taft program live independently and 89 percent have jobs, Ross said. Among the general population of people with intellectual disabilities and autism, the employment rate is just 14 percent, he said.
The college recently added a third year, when students are placed in jobs with the program’s corporate partners. Five students are currently employed at Frito-Lay, working toward certificates in merchandising while earning about $13.25 an hour. Other students have jobs as a dental assistant, child care worker, and an office clerk.
These are real jobs with a future, Ross said. Without this kind of program, the typical scenario would be a group-living situation and a job in a shelter workshop that pays minimum wage or less.
In the long run, programs like Taft’s are cost effective, Ross said.
“At the end of the day, these graduates will be successfully employed and living independently," he said. "The state won’t have to support every aspect of their lives.”​