Do students with intellectual disabilities like Down syndrome belong in college?


CORRECTION 7/31/2012 – All it is for now is a faculty member’s dream. Lynn Stansberry-Brusnahan, a special education professor at St. Thomas whose son has autism, wants to start a program at the university tailored for students with autism.

She would set up structured social time for students whose disability makes them struggle to find a place among their peers. She would offer supportive housing, nested within mainstream dorms. And advisors would help students with the time management caveats that tend to trip up students with autism. Ideally hers would be a program inclusive of individuals with intellectual disabilities that would normally disqualify them from attending St. Thomas.

That piece of Stansberry-Brusnahan’s vision is a nod to a growing conversation around the U.S. and now in the Twin Cities, arguing that individuals with intellectual disabilities, including Down syndrome, should have opportunities to attend college classes alongside mainstream students, even if they cannot pass college entrance exams, write papers, finish assigned reading, or complete course requirements. They would likely audit classes and complete modified assignments without a letter grade. Advocates say that although they would not earn a degree, students would leave college more employable.

What is an intellectual disability?The term “intellectual disability” describes individuals who are limited in their ability to do things like problem-solve, learn, interact socially and live independently. Down syndrome and fetal alcohol syndrome are associated with intellectual disabilities, and some individuals on the autism spectrum have an intellectual disability.

This still-new idea is a challenging one for resource-strapped institutions already struggling with the changing demographics of today’s college students. It’s a piece of a wider conversation about what college is for, how much it’s worth and who should go.

Although some see the idea as a step towards a society inclusive of individuals whose abilities lie outside the norm, others question whether it will work and if colleges are ready for it.

Think College

In 2010, the federal government distributed $10.9 million in grants to fund college programs for students with intellectual disabilities around the United States. The grants are part of President Obama’s push to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

ThinkCollege, a coordinating organization based in Massachussetts, works with the 27 grantees who are charged with running 5-year demonstration projects to help researchers figure out what works. The University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration is one grantee.

The goals of the programs are employability, independent living and, most challenging, inclusion of individuals with intellectual disabilities in a society that often forgets them.

“All too often they end up sheltered, or in daytime habituation programs, or sitting at home. The purpose of this is to circumvent that path to nothing,” said ThinkCollege director Debra Hart.

“It should be a really authentic college experience that’s not a substitute special program for only students with disabilities,” Hart said. “A program that you wouldn’t notice was a program.”

In Minnesota

ThinkCollege counts 250 college programs around the U.S. that serve the students in question, including two in Minnesota.

Central Lakes College in Brainerd and Ridgewater College in Willmar are using $365,363 in federal grant money to implement the lauded Check and Connect model, which was born at the U of M’s Insititute on Commmunity Integration. The community colleges were chosen because they already had strong occupational skills programs that admitted students with intellectual disabilities.

A designated staff person monitors participants’ progress and checks in on them regularly so that any problems – academic, social or otherwise – can be addressed before the student disengages or drops out.

Central Lakes College’s occupational skills program now requires students to take at least two mainstream elective classes. Interim coordinator Brian Miner expects many students will take fitness classes or vocational courses such as CPR/first aid training or food service management. He said he plans to work with other departments to expand course options for students in the future.

Does it mean employment?

Whether or not attending such a program translates into a job has an answer as fuzzy as the one given when the same question is asked of mainstream programs.

An often-quoted Georgetown Center for Education study predicts that 70 percent of Minnesota’s jobs will require some college by 2018. But according to a recent Associated Press story, of the 30 jobs that the government projects will have the most openings by 2020, only three require a degree.

Hart said ThinkCollege is collecting data now to find out how a handful of audited college classes impacts employability for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

The Bureau of Labor statistics said that in 2011, 69.9 percent of the non-disabled U.S. population between ages 16 and 64 were employed, compared to 27 percent of people with disabilities. Of individuals with disabilities who completed some college but did not earn a degree, 31.5 percent had a job. Those numbers include people with non-intellectual disabilities.

Coming to a school near you?

Twin Cities professors interviewed by the Daily Planet were open to including students with intellectual disabilities in their classrooms, but they saw challenges.

“A lot of what our students say at MCTC is, ‘Yeah I got a lot out of learning the content of the course, but I also got a lot out of being in a class with someone I didn’t know had autism,’” said Shannon Gibney, chair of Minnesota Community and Technical College’s English department. “’I had to figure out, how do I work with this person effectively?’”

Danielle Hinrichs, who teaches writing classes at Metro State University (but does not represent the institution’s position), agreed. “Part of what I’m trying to teach is not just grammar and punctuation but critical thinking and trying to look at different issues from different perspectives.” [NOTE: Hinrichs is speaking as an individual and not on behalf of Metro State University.]

Hinrichs said she sees some logistical hurdles to doing this on a large scale, though. She said she suspects that the students would require extra individual attention. As a salaried employee with benefits, that’s fine with her, but many of the institution’s courses are taught by adjunct faculty who carry a heavy course load for modest pay.

Gibney said she already struggles to serve some of the students with disabilities in her classrooms, but it’s social, not intellectual skills that she finds most challenging. “If you’re teaching in your math class, and this student just blurts out something completely inappropriate that might be offensive to such and such person, how do you deal with that in a way that’s respectful to that person?” she said. Before the institution admits a wider swath of students with disabilities, she said there needs to be mandatory, practical training.

“Every school has a disability services office, and typically those are too busy or don’t have enough staff to provide services that are already in demand,” the U of M’s Timmons said.

Not so worried about content

Educators interviewed were less worried about modifying content. “Our pedagogy is going to have to be more accommodating if we’re going to see success rates increase,” Gibney said. “That’s a major bone of contention.”

“The students that were coming to college in my era and my colleagues era, that was a pretty elite group of folks and a much smaller group of folks,” she said. As college campuses become more economically and racially diverse, the mode of instruction has to change, too. “I think the meaning of a degree is something that is constantly changing, and I hope as the needs of the economy change, as the needs of our student population changes, as the needs of our culture change that continues to be true.”

Stansberry-Brusnahan’s inspiration

The inspiration behind Stansberry-Brusnahan’s idea is her 21-year-old son, Colin, who has autism and attends a life skills training program called Minnesota Life College.

In his freshman year of high school, Stansberry-Brusnahan insisted that Colin take one of those English literature class where you read old classics, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as well as contemporary fiction such as “The Secret Life of Bees.” Her son read at a fifth or sixth grade level. School staff were unenthusiastic about the idea but relented.

Stansberry-Brusnahan and her husband helped their son through “Romeo and Juliet.” He read a page, then they read a page. They got the book on tape.

Colin probably didn’t get that Romeo and Juliet’s families were feuding, or that Juliet’s potion made her only appear dead, but he understood the feeling at the end of the book. Months after Romeo and Juliet had been forgotten in the household, Colin, who cares little for outings, requested that his mother take him to his high school’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“I figured he knew someone in the play,” she said. But when she asked him who it was, he replied, “I don’t know anybody in the play.”

“I go, ‘Why are we going?’

“He said, ‘It’s a work by Shakespeare. Shakespeare is a great author.’”

“When people talk about Shakespeare, he knows who they’re talking about. Had he not had that experience, he would be lacking that social information, which would separate him further from our society,” she said.


CORRECTION: It’s Down syndrome, not Downs syndrome.