Why post-secondary education for young adults with intellectual disabilities?

08/23/2010  |  SUSAN GRIFFIS
special needs

To answer the question “Why post-secondary education for young adults with intellectual disabilities?” we first need to look at the purpose of education. As John F. Kennedy said, “Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.”

The opportunity to continue one’s education should not be exclusive to only those students on the honor roll or those with IQs in the triple digits. The need to learn new things, to expand abilities and to succeed in social spheres is deeply engrained in all of humanity. To deny these needs, or to not provide opportunities to meet these needs is to limit personal growth and strip people of hope for a fulfilling future.

Education is the Means of Developing Our Greatest Abilities

The faculty at Shepherds College, a three-year post-secondary program for young adults with intellectual disabilities, believes that all people have the potential to reach a level of independence that is appropriate for their level of ability. Ability should not be defined by a person’s disability, but discovered and developed through the teaching, re-enforcing, reviewing and testing of the education process.

Sometimes, it is easier to do things for people with disabilities than it is to teach them to do it themselves. By educating them, we are empowering that person with new skills and, ultimately, the self-respect and confidence to succeed in this world. Post-secondary education provides additional training and experience beyond high school in order to gain meaningful employment in fields that require more advanced skills. Encouraging on-going education for adults with intellectual disabilities may mean the difference between a job as a busboy and a career as a line cook—a skilled position that could be perfect for a person with intellectual disabilities that thrives doing repetitive work. The goal in continuing education for all people is the fullest possible development of human capabilities.

Education Fulfills Private Hopes and Dreams

Parents have dreams for their children — go to college, get a good job, get married ... Parents of children with intellectual disabilities are no exception. Not long ago, parents were discouraged to dream for their children with disabilities and they in turn felt the need to suppress their hopes and keep them from future disappointments. Before the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), public schools were not required to teach these kids, so more than one million children in this country had no access to the school system. Many of these children were institutionalized where they received limited or no education at all. If they did attend a school, they were placed in separate facilities where education was not a priority. There was no room for creative dreams in this stark and hopeless landscape.

Now the EAHCA has been replaced by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and reinforced by the No Child Left Behind Act. As a result, doorways to the hallowed halls of academics are now opened to people with intellectual disabilities. People affected by disabilities are dreaming again — that is, until the student ages out of the public school system.

Several years ago, Shepherds conducted nationwide research to find out where the students with intellectual disabilities ended up after high school. They found them ... on their living room couches. Parents and teachers were unaware of post-secondary options for the students and not sure of where to find information or assistance. Currently, there is a ten year transition between high school and the time parents complete the search for other alternatives for their child’s future.

The situation does not have to remain this way. There are many colleges now including students with disabilities in their classrooms. There are also new programs like Shepherds College that are designed specifically to accommodate students with intellectual disabilities by incorporating inventive teaching methods, customized supports and opportunities to practice life skills on a residential campus. These programs are helping students find their purpose in life and offering hope beyond high school.

Students with intellectual disabilities, with post-secondary options opened to them, can now share the dreams of their siblings or schoolmates — living away from home for the first time, training for a career that interests them and envisioning an appropriately independent future bright with possibilities.

Education Benefits Everyone and Strengthens Our Nation

Koïchiro Matsuura, the former Director-General of UNESCO, sees education as the primary vehicle by which economically and socially marginalized adults and children can lift themselves out of poverty and obtain the means to participate fully in their communities. With an unemployment rate of 90 percent and living well below the poverty level, often with only Social Security Disability Insurance payments to sustain them, people with intellectual disabilities truly qualify as economically and socially marginalized. Training for a meaningful career, including life skills preparation in the areas of public transportation, cooking, personal hygiene, financial planning and health management, can elevate a person with intellectual disabilities from menial labor at minimum wage to a satisfying career earning a living wage. A study by the Institute for Community Inclusion supported this finding and also discovered that individuals with disabilities who continued their education required fewer supports, had increased self-esteem and benefited by expanding their social networks to include people without disabilities.

The students themselves are not the only people to benefit from their post-secondary education:

Parents of these students are greatly relieved as the stress of wondering what will happen to their child in the future is reduced.

Employers profit when they hire a person with intellectual disabilities that has gone through a post-secondary program. They gain employees with positive work ethics, high retention rates and lower than average absenteeism, finding they increase in overall productivity as a result.

Communities grow stronger as all members contribute to the common good and build a solid social structure educationally, relationally and economically.

When we keep post-secondary programs open as options for students with intellectual disabilities, it makes the statement that society believes in their potential for success, and they will believe too.

Why post-secondary education for young adults with intellectual disabilities? The real question is “Why not?”

Susan Griffis is the Director of Marketing for Shepherds College in Union Grove, WI. For more information about Shepherds College, a faith-based, three-year post-secondary program for young adults with intellectual disabilities, visit www.shepherdscollege.org.
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