Everyone Belongs: How College Campus Communities Can and Should Support Students with ID

This guest blog post was written by Michelle Mitchell, Disability Learning Specialist Professor at Lehigh Carbon Community College and member of AHEAD (Association of Higher Education and DIsability). Think College and AHEAD work together to ensure that disability services professionals are familiar with supporting students with intellectual disability in college and that inclusive higher education staff include disability services professionals in their campus partnerships. 

As important aspects of inclusion and diversity have been thrust to the forefront of everyone’s talking points, we must consider how colleges and universities support all individuals with disabilities on their campuses. For most students with disabilities, this is accomplished through disability support service offices. But what about students with intellectual disabilities (ID)? Too often, students with ID struggle to obtain appropriate services from disability services on their campus, for a variety of reasons.

Properly engaging with and supporting disability service professionals to be effective partners in the support of students with intellectual disability is a way to ensure that these students receive the support needed, while also providing additional capacity to support other diverse learning groups as well. Creatively developing reasonable accommodations, maximizing campus partnerships and building capacity are some of the ways disability service providers have imaginatively opened the door for many. Let’s take a look at each one of these individually.

Creatively Developing Reasonable Accommodations

Students with ID who attend higher education institutions have the right to receive reasonable accommodations just as any other student with a disability registered with the disability support office. With these types of accommodations, students with ID have demonstrated the ability to be successful whether taking classes for credit (with reasonable accommodations) or for audit (with modification/reasonable accommodations). Some accommodations are more traditional in nature such as extended test time, distraction-reduced environment, use of text-to-speech software, and other such examples. However, more innovative reasonable accommodations can include the use of manipulatives when taking exam/quizzes, supported decision-making when completing projects, collaborative assignments, and creating a PowerPoint rather than writing a five-page paper. If the student is taking the course for credit, accommodations cannot lessen the academic rigor or requirements of the course. However, a meeting with the course instructor can identify the required core competencies and determine other ways to assess them.

Maximizing Partnerships

There are a number of offices at any given institution providing supports and services to the general campus population. These same personnel can be (and dare I say should be) utilized to provide the same supports and services to students with disabilities, namely those students with ID. Typically the only obstacle holding back individuals from providing the same supports and services as other students is the feeling among IHE staff and faculty that they lack competence when it comes to issues related to students with intellectual disability and other diverse learners. This level of confidence can be enhanced through trainings and other professional development activities whereby individuals in a variety of offices are provided with training on meeting the needs of diverse learners. Many hands make light work, and this truth is all that much richer in institutions where offices are staffed by a single person wearing multiple hats. Nevertheless, having this type of understanding and competence makes for a fuller, more diverse, and inclusive experience for all students!

Building Capacity

Building capacity is not just an institutional endeavor. In higher education, it is our role to raise up students ready for what comes tomorrow. What comes tomorrow, is working with a variety of individuals of all beliefs, colors, and abilities. Faculty who have had students with ID in their classroom report benefits they did not expect. Some describe needing to reframe their teaching style, leading to more successful outcomes for all of their students, such as the adoption of universal design for learning principles. Others describe the benefits of collaborative learning and how their students grew in learning by demonstrating their knowledge to others. These same universal design principles taught to staff in the finance office, admissions, financial aid, etc., leads to the creation of a unified system of supports for all students, benefiting students with ID.

The point is, persons who have ID are a part of our community and must actively be involved in service to that community. As students in higher education, they seek to learn the skill sets necessary for competitive employment that will allow them to offer service to the community. Let us be the institutions to transform the lives of any individual who graces our doorstep by providing the high-quality, equitable, and accessible education needed to prepare them to meaningfully participate in community.

About the blog author: Michelle L. Mitchell, M.Ed.,CRC, is Disability Learning Specialist Professor and Program Director at SEED at Lehigh Carbon Community College. Michelle has worked over her lifetime to liberate others from barriers and provide a sense of belonging. Throughout Michelle’s story, she has impacted these two causes both personally and professionally: through advocacy in her K-12 school years, barrier removal in her higher education experience as she obtained her Baccalaureate and Master's degree in Rehabilitation counselling, to creating a culture of belonging by implementing the first IPSE program at a community college in Pennsylvania. Michelle does not shy away from hard work, and is a “bulldog” when she passionately believes in something. To Michelle, creating a meaningful experience that leads to a meaningful existence for ALL people is essential to our society’s survival. As a result, her nickname is the “Velvet Hammer”.