Accessing Disability Services: Program Responsibility

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Section 3: Roles and Responsibilities of Programs for Students with Intellectual Disability

Meet Vanessa, a student at Florida International University. “In Panther LIFE I have a support team and a project coordinator. I have an academic mentor, faculty advisor, peer coach, and tons of friends that support my dreams and me. They all support me and help me succeed. Since I joined Panther LIFE, my reading and spelling have improved. I feel blessed … and from here on out the sky is the limit.”  Find Vanessa’s story in the sidebar.

While there have been some opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities to attend college for the past twenty years or so, the passage of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, in 2008, had a very positive impact on the growth of these opportunities. For the first time, students with intellectual disabilities were specifically addressed in the Act.

Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA)
A postsecondary paradigm shift began in earnest on August 14, 2008, through passage of the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) (PL 110-315), a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA). Improved access to inclusive postsecondary education for students with intellectual disabilities was one of the new priorities identified for action by Congress in the HEOA provisions. A definition of programs for students with intellectual disabilities was included, along with provisions for students attending these programs to be eligible for financial aid even if they did not have a standard high school diploma or were not formally degree-seeking. Included in the HEOA was grant funding for Transition Postsecondary Education Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID), and a National Coordinating Center. Think College serves as the National Coordinating Center for the TPSIDs and provides training and technical assistance, disseminates information, and conducts research on current and promising practices relating to postsecondary education for students with ID.

Features of Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities

Over 240 postsecondary education programs for students with ID exist across the United States (as of June, 2015). While these progran do not all operate exactly the same way, they share several common features.

  • Offering educational as well as social and employment opportunities and supports to students with intellectual disability that may not otherwise be able to access a college education
  • Providing an alternate pathway into college. See a graphic that illustrates this alternate pathway in the To Learn More sidebar
  • Arranging additional supports above and beyond reasonable accommodations
  • Maintaining the program and providing the additional supports students may need with program staff and peer mentors

Key Responsibilities for Staff of an Inclusive Postsecondary Program

Program staff includes several supporting personnel. As Vanessa mentioned in her story, she reaches out to a support team of several people, including a project coordinator, faculty advisor, mentor and peer coach. Some of these individuals are specifically employed as part of the program staff while others may be volunteers or individuals already part of the IHE. Programs that form partnerships with local school districts or community agencies may also have specific personnel assigned as liaison staff. Part of the responsibility of program leadership is to secure needed staff and describe their duties accordingly.

Program staff ensures the day-to-day operations of the program. The role of inclusive postsecondary program staff is to guide and nurture the education and growth of students with ID by facilitating a person-centered approach to the student’s own goals for academics, social skills, employment, and independent living. This growth occurs in an inclusive college environment alongside peers without disabilities. Program staff maintains daily student schedules, monitors student needs, arranges necessary mentors and other resources, answers student questions and concerns, and refers students to appropriate IHE contacts as needs arise.

Program staff educates administrators, faculty, staff, parents, students, and community. The program staff also has the job of educating administration, faculty, staff, and students about the program; educating the community about the need for partnerships, internships, and employment opportunities; and educating the parents and family members concerning the young adult’s new roles in postsecondary education and person-centered planning goals for the future. The role of the program is to support students with ID, but also to assure that the program fits successfully into the college and community culture.

Program staff provide unique supports and services for the students. While in most respects students with ID are similar to other college students, some may have additional needs for support and instruction that goes beyond reasonable accommodations and general college supports. Since many students with ID are likely auditing college courses, different arrangements might be made for their participation. However, if the student with ID is taking the college course for credit, then the student is responsible for all course assignments, with reasonable accommodations, just like every other college student.

Program Staff: Liaison with Student, College and Community

Support students in the program Collaborate with the college Reach out to the community
Collaborate with disability services so that students have access to the supports and services benefiting all other students. Understand the appropriate role for DS by not requesting more than is done for any other student Collaborate with various college departments to access all aspects of the college campus, including such things as graduation ceremonies, student clubs, all campus facilities (Disability Services can be a strong ally and supporter for this!) Reach out to community organizations to form program partnerships to enhance student socialization and community outreach
Communicate with parents when needed Reach out to campus departments for possible internship/employment opportunities Explore community options for career development and internship/employment opportunities for students
Identify and arrange for learning opportunities that support student independence Arrange for tutoring and additional academic support (through existing tutoring services on campus whenever possible) Coordinate with transition services from a variety of resources including school districts, adult agencies
Act as an on-campus resource for unexpected issues that arise with students in the program Recruit, train, schedule and supervise peer mentors and other supporters by reaching out to campus resources (e.g. student government, classroom same-aged peers, campus clubs) Introduce students to community service and local activities
Propose alternative assignments for audited courses (in partnership with professors whenever possible) Be involved when there are behavioral issues related to the campus code of conduct Explore community transportation options available to students

A Note on Standards for Practice

There is not currently an existing accreditation process for programs of this type. However, the Think College Standards for Inclusive Higher Education, (see To Learn More sidebar to review the Think College Standards) offers guidance across eight standards areas for programs to use when designing and improving their programs. In addition,  the HEOA has defined a Comprehensive Transition Program (CTP), which outlines what programs must do in order to be approved to offer federal financial aid to the students attending the program. The CTP requirements offer another means by which programs can begin to align their practices with established guidelines.  Review the Think College Learn module on Becoming a CTP Program for more information on these requirements.

To Learn More: 

Watch as administrators, faculty, program staff, and students share their thoughts about the possibilities and impact of their ACHIEVE program for students with ID at Highline College in Des Moines, Washington....Read more

A Think College Story by a student in Florida who describes her learning experiences in the Panther LIFE program.Read more

Profiles and Promising Practices in Higher Education for Students with Intellectual Disability describes the background and practices of five postsecondary education programs, and identifies promising practices that were observed during site visits conducted in 2012.  Practices are discussed using the...Read more

Think College has developed Standards, Quality Indicators, and Benchmarks for Inclusive Higher Education. Institutes of higher education can use these standards to create, expand, or enhance high quality, inclusive postsecondary education to support positive outcomes for individuals with intellectual disabilities...Read more

This graphic compares traditional pathways to college to alternate forms of access to postsecondary programs for students with intellectual disabilities, including financial aid, entrance requirements, extracurricular activities, etc.Read more