Inclusive Higher Education Takes the National Stage

Twelve years ago, the thought of a college football-related event focusing on inclusive higher education was unheard of, laughable even—“People with intellectual disability going to college? Why?” Not that long ago, doctors were still telling families to institutionalize their babies born with Down syndrome. Many teachers thought students with an IQ below 70 couldn’t learn in a typical classroom alongside their peers.

Over the past 15 years, parents have advocated for their children with intellectual disability to attend college. People like Stephanie Smith Lee who insisted that her daughter Laura attend George Mason University because high school didn’t have to be the end of her formal education: “Laura made it very clear that she was going to go to college like her brother and friends.”

Around the same time, the federal government started funding opportunities to research inclusive higher education. The Institute for Community Inclusion, in collaboration with several other University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDDs), was awarded one of the first grants to establish a Consortium on Postsecondary Education for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities and another grant to conduct a national survey of inclusive higher education programs. Since then, the federal government has invested over $70 million in higher education for students with intellectual disability.

Now in 2022, staff at Think College along with others from around the country have done groundbreaking work in inclusive higher education. Thousands of students with intellectual disability have attended college, joined fraternities or sororities, lived independently, secured competitive employment, made friends, and given back to their communities.

On Thursday, September 1, the field of inclusive higher education was on a national stage at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta, GA, where the National Down Syndrome Congress held an awareness-raising, fundraising event focused solely on inclusive higher education. There were tuxedos and cameras and awards and so much enthusiasm, all for the outstanding opportunities that exist for students with intellectual disability to go to college. (My colleague Clare Papay wants me to point out here that there were also a lot of sequins – some of which she was wearing). 

The National Down Syndrome Congress (NDSC) acknowledged Think College as the non-profit honoree for the work we’ve done to promote and support inclusive higher education.

Our dear friend and “godmother of inclusive higher education,” Stephanie Smith Lee, received the Individual of Impact Award.

Caden Cox brought the college football theme into focus. Caden, the winner of the Self-Advocate of Distinction award, was the first individual with Down syndrome to score in an NCAA college football game.

The NDSC also recognized three universities for their postsecondary education programs enrolling students with intellectual disability: Clemson University (ClemsonLIFE), Georgia Tech (Georgia Tech Excel), and the University of Georgia (UGA Destination Dawgs).

One of the coolest moments of the night was a video acceptance speech from the University of Georgia president, Jere Morehead. In his speech, he said:

“To our students in the Destination Dawgs program, congratulations on your remarkable achievements as members of the University of Georgia family. And to the Destination Dawgs staff, I want to thank you for your work to enrich the lives of these extraordinary students and for making the University of Georgia a better, more inclusive place for all of us.”

It was an incredible feeling to hear those words from the highest level of the university administration. We have come so far to see students with intellectual disability being recognized on a national stage as important members of the campus community.

Words cannot describe the feelings of pride and joy for being part of this work and being able to celebrate with several hundred others who are equally committed to changing expectations and increasing opportunity for students with intellectual disability.

About the blog post author: Rebecca (Becky) Lazo is Knowledge Translation Manager for Think College. She gets the privilege of creating and sharing information about the good work being done by her co-workers on the Think College team via the website, social media, publications and resources, and more. She is super excited about some new projects underway at Think College!