Robin Nelson

Life together

Back to School | College-level integrated learning for the disabled helps everyone

Issue: "Rocks in their heads?," Sept. 11, 2010

When Kennesaw State University's education department invited Chris Hunnicutt, 23, to share his experiences as a college student with Down syndrome, he created his own 25-slide PowerPoint presentation. He and his classmates took their presentations to three classes and spoke to 100 students with a self-confidence they couldn't have just out of high school, said program director Jill Sloan. During her 30 years of working with special needs high-school students, Sloan saw students who-like Hunnicutt-wanted more education but had no way to get it. In 2009 in Kennesaw, Ga., she began KSU's Academy for Inclusive Adult Education with Hunicutt and two other students. Last year, Hunnicutt sat with other freshmen in required classes, studied and worked with the rest of the college population. Disabled students with even a few years of college are twice as likely to find employment and less likely to receive government support as those without college courses. At the end of one year, Hunnicutt has started a job in the recreation center. At the end of two years, he'll have a college certificate.

Programs like this may proliferate now that the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 offers rewards to colleges that have programs for the intellectually disabled. The Office of Postsecondary Education has offered $11 million in competitive grants to both new and existing programs like KSU's. Debra Hart-director of Think College, an initiative that promotes college for the intellectually disabled-said there are about 250 college programs for special needs students, but few of them integrate students as KSU does. Full integration is harder for program directors to coordinate, but it's worth the social maturity the students gain. Integration benefits nondisabled students, too, Sloan says-like Hunnicutt helping to educate the education students: "Students who learn together, learn to live together."

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