Bridging gaps for students with intellectual disabilities

The After 22 launch event at Richard J. Daley College in January included students who were part of the program’s first cohort, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (right) and other officials. (Photo: Pyszka/City of Chicago)

For many young adults with intellectual disabilities, a postsecondary education is out of reach. However, some community colleges are partnering with outside organizations to ensure people with intellectual disabilities can reach their goals.

Richard J. Daley College – one of the City Colleges of Chicago (CCC)– has always had a focus on inclusivity and “keeping the doors open as wide as possible,” says President Janine E. Janosky.

Editor’s note: This article is one of two focusing on how community colleges serve students with intellectual disabilities.

During the college’s recent reaccreditation process, Janosky and staff examined who was missing from the college and realized individuals with intellectual disabilities weren’t coming through Daley’s wide doors.

A new program called After 22 is remedying that. The program provides young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to continue to receive educational services after they age out of the Chicago Public Schools system. In Illinois, these individuals are on their own at age 22, forced to seek out their own social services and put on long waiting lists to received support. After 22 is a bridge between high school and adult services.

CCC partners on the project with Anixter Center and Special Olympics Chicago/Special Children’s Charities.

At Richard J. Daley College, students in the After 22 program receive a college experience. They attend college courses, meet with advisors and counselors, join clubs on campus and participate in internships based on their interests and goals.

“They are Daley students,” Janosky emphasizes.

The 12 students in the spring pilot recently completed their first semester. They took a career-and-college readiness course and started to build their skillsets and pathways to the future – as well as their confidence.

“They take ownership of their education and their pathway,” says Silvia Villa, interim director of continuing education. “We ask, ‘What do you want to do in five years? Figure out what you like and learn it.’”

For this summer’s internships, one student interested in art helped to run a summer art camp. Another student spent 20 hours a week with a community organization, assisting at health fairs and community events. A couple students interned at private companies.

An evolving program

After 22 doesn’t just benefit the students – it’s “an experience for the whole family,” Villa says. There are one-on-one meetings with students’ parents to put them at ease.

It’s also an evolving program.

“We were meticulous in how we designed it and we continue to learn,” Villa says.

For example, a digital literacy course was added to help students learn how to navigate Zoom and other applications.

In July, there was news that students in the program were eligible for financial aid, which expands access to the program.

“This is a tremendous win for current students and generations to come,” Villa says.

For Janosky, supporting students with intellectual and developmental disabilities is all part of “living our mission.”

Helping students prosper

In Nebraska, Metropolitan Community College (MCC) is collaborating with the Autism Action Partnership (AAP) on the new Prosper Academy. The program helps young adults with autism lead independent lives.

Like Chicago’s After 22 program, the Prosper Academy fills a gap, providing resources for young adults with autism after they graduate high school.

MCC has a history of supporting students with disabilities and currently has five full-time disability support counselors on campus. Julie Langholdt, MCC’s dean of advocacy and accountability, sees MCC’s role in the academy as a “continuation of our efforts to help students with disabilities.”

AAP, an Omaha-based nonprofit, recruits students for the program. MCC, meanwhile, provides space on campus and ensures those students are integrated into the college community.

Participating students live in dormitory housing near campus, living alongside other college-aged students.

“Students are really stepping into what every college student gets to experience,” says Emily Sutton, a program director with AAP.

At MCC, participating students take non-credit courses – as a cohort – designed to increase independent living skills and social interactions. The classes, taught by AAP staff, use an evidence-based curriculum called Learning for Independence.

While on campus, Prosper Academy students benefit from being a college student, with access to the amenities and clubs and support from student services. 

“If our students decide they want to pursue a degree, they’ll already be embedded in the campus community,” Sutton says.

Though the Prosper Academy just launched, MCC and AAP were in talks about the program prior to the Covid pandemic.

“The college tries to be a very good partner in our community in many initiatives,” Langholdt says.

Expanding access for students with disabilities was a priority for MCC’s president, Randy Schmailzl.  Sutton says Schmailzl was “enthusiastic and supportive” from the start.

“This experience ultimately has roots because of the support we have from MCC,” Sutton adds.

Covid delayed the program, but it remained a priority for the groups involved. 

“Now, we’re finally at the stage where students will be on campus,” Langholdt says. “I think it’s going to be very exciting to see the opportunity for growth for these students have.”

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
Tabitha Whissemore is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.