Gaining Momentum in a Post-Secondary Education Inclusion Program with Innovative Supports

College inclusion programs are continuing to develop for an increasing inflow of graduating high school students with developmental and intellectual disabilities (Paiewonsky, et. al., 2010). At AHRC New York City, higher functioning students on the spectrum are engaging in learning and sociality in a special education program, at the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems of Pace University, offering special supports and technologies. The program is improving employment opportunities for further inclusion of the students into society.

Engaging in College Experiences

The emphasis is on students with disabilities on the spectrum who have individualized education plans (IEPs) and an aptitude and a passionate interest in college experiences.

The essence of the program is for the students to be in courses and experiences in the Seidenberg School, and if desired in the curriculum of liberal arts in the Dyson School of Arts and Sciences, and in extra-curricular experiences in the university, with other students without disabilities.

The courses are at elementary and intermediate levels and may be generalized or specialized subjects, such as Intermediate Computer Technology or Multimedia User Interface Design and Programming with Web Technology in the Seidenberg School, and even Communication and Popular Culture in the Dyson School. “The focus of the program, in eclectically mixing information systems and liberal arts, is on learning and on sociality that facilitate holistic opportunities in life planning skills,” according to Ms. Goldfard, AHRC New York City. The full inclusion of the students in interactions with instructors and other students without disabilities is a highlight of the program.

The courses and the experiences match person-centered plans (Holburn, Gordon, & Vietze, 2007) prepared for the students by counselors of AHRC New York City, a community partner of the university since 2007. The plans are prepared with the families of the students and the students themselves, with the plans corresponding to potential vocation visions. Free from disruptive disorders, the students are referred to the Seidenberg School by AHRC, based on eligibility from the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD).

Funded initially by grants of AHRC in a pilot period, and by Pell grants of the United States Department of Education eventually, 12 higher functioning students on the spectrum have completed 14 courses cumulatively in the schools with other students. They have engaged in 96 events of extra-curricular programs of recreation and sociality with other students. They have been graded at an average A- level since 2013. The number of students is incrementally integrated into the schools at 3 students in a semester. The numbers are limited but are the norm in programs for this population (Hart, Grigal, & Weir, 2010).

Facilitating Learning with Program Supports and Technologies

Especially exciting about the program are the supports and technologies offered to the students.

Mentorships

Each student is helped by a mentor, who is an existing or former student without disabilities. The function of the mentor is to help the student with disabilities on the spectrum with the assignments in the courses and the interactions with instructors and the other students. Funded by AHRC, the mentor is involved several hours before, during and after a course session with the student bi-weekly. The mentor is further involved in the events of recreation, sociality and sports with the student. Socialization is indicated to be often of higher interest to students on the spectrum (Papay, & Bambara, 2011). The mentor is important to the student on the spectrum in experiencing life in a big university.

E-Portfolio Supports

Each of the students is given a documentation e-portfolio facility. The e-portfolios are facilitating a journey of learning. The e-portfolios are furnished with “digital learning objects”:

 

  • Blogs expressing how they are learning in the courses;
  • Journals reflecting on what they are learning in the course disciplines; and
  • Projects showing what they were learning in the semesters.

The e-portfolios are electronic resumes of the students, reflecting increased learning as they progress in the semesters. The portfolios are even evidence of potential occupational skills. These e-portfolios are important in the personal pride of the students.

Micro-Blogging Supports

Each student is supported by easy-to-access micro-blogging internet sites, such as BlogSpot, Tumblr and Twitter, which are enabling further interactions with instructors, mentors and other students on projects in the semesters. The sites are expanding friendship, individualized networking and information sharing. Importantly they are increasing full inclusion of the students in new learning spaces at the university.

Mobile Computing Supports

Each student is further supported by personalized iPad tablets. Funded by AHRC, the applications (apps) on the tools are for facilitating learning and socialization:

Everyday Skills facilitating interactions with instructors and other students;

  • It’s My Future facilitating self-advocacy and vocational skills;
  • Next Dollar Up helping in money management with bookstore and cafeteria staff;
  • Snipbase helping in preparing “to do” project semester tasks with interactive text; and
  • TouchChat HD AAC helping in providing increased motor and speech skills when with other students.

Other technologies include Alexicom AAC speech tools and WatchMinder: Vibrating Watch and Reminder System and Activity Tracker wearables. These mobile computing tools are important in managing personal progress in the semesters, and, interestingly, the students are already proficient in the tools.

Networking Spaces

Finally, the students are supported by “exemplars” or the other students on the spectrum. They meet on program progress, or problems, at “lunch and learns” bi-weekly. They meet in remedial seminars with other students without disabilities monthly. When not in courses in the spring and fall semesters, they are involved in seminars in the summer, such as a STEM Collaboratory of creative critical thinking and problem solving on state-of-the-art technological topics, joining a mix of student teams. These networking spaces are important in more socialization of the students.

“It is important to note that these supports and tools did not require increased internal resources of the school or the university, as the incremental but limited number of the students was manageable in existing infrastructural and instructional resources, such as in an office of disability services and in policies on standards of universal design for learning and transition,” according to Dr. Lawler, organizer of the program in the Seidenberg School.

Improving Employment Opportunities for Inclusion Students

The program, in individualized plans for employment (IEPs) prepared by AHRC New York City, is molding the students on the spectrum for employment opportunities, as other programs are in the country (Heasley, 2015). Though the initial intent of the program was to integrate merely more qualified students on the spectrum into the life of the university, the supports and tools furnish a foundation for the students to be more independent, motivated and prepared for life opportunities. “The program is noted by the [organizational] staff and the students to be offering pronounced skills,” according to Ms. Goldfard. The students have marketed their strengths through the e-portfolio resumes that they prepared in the semesters. Since 2007 most of the students have moved into meaningful positions as semi-professionals in organizations, such as Brooklyn Roasting Company, Cooke Center and SANYS (Self Advocacy Association of New York State), participating more in society.

Overall, the initiative is benefiting the students with increased learning and socialization that is enabling opportunities in society. The initiative is planned as a certificate-for-credit non-degree program of 12 courses of 36 credits to be completed by the student in 3 years. The program is modeled on the national Think College! Post-Secondary Education Options, in order to be eligible for Pell grants, and is recommended by the authors to institutions interested in pursuing a full inclusion program sponsored by a non-profit organization and a post-secondary university.

This initiative of partnership of Pace University with AHRC New York City has been locally recognized with the AHRC New York City Community Partner Award and nationally recognized with the Jefferson Award Bronze Medal for Community Service, awards for projects that enhance the quality of life in the community.

For disability advocacy institutions, and also educational institutions, interested in the methods of program supports and technologies for post-secondary programs, they may contact Professor James Lawler at lawlerj@aol.com.

 

Hope Goldfard, MS, is a Community Support Specialist at AHRC New York City, and James Lawler, DPS, is Professor of Disability Studies and Information Technologies at Pace University. AHRC New York City is a chapter of NYSARC, Inc. and ARC, national organization for helping individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities; and Pace University is a leading institution of higher learning in New York City and Westchester County of New York State.

References

Hart, D., Grigal, M., & Weir, C. (2010). Think College! A snapshot of postsecondary education for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Think College! Fast Facts, 1,1.

Heasley, S. (2015). Study finds postsecondary programs boost outcomes. Disability Scoop, January 20, 1-2.

Holburn, S., Gordon, M., & Vietze, P.M. (2007). Person-centered planning made easy. Brookes Publishing Company, Baltimore, Maryland.

Papay, C.K., & Bambara, L.M. (2011). Postsecondary education for transition-age students with intellectual and other developmental disabilities: A national survey. Education & Training in Autism & Developmental Disabilities, 46(1), 2,5,8.

Paiewonsky, M., Mecca, K., Daniels, T., Katz, C., Nash, J., Hanson, T., & Gragoudas, S. (2010), Students and educational coaches: Developing a support plan for college. Insight: A Think College! Brief on Policy, Research, & Practice, 4, 1.

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