Once virtually unheard of, students with intellectual disabilities are making strides nationally in reaching institutions of higher education.
Federal appropriations under the Higher Education Opportunity Act were approved about two weeks ago for 27 model institutions providing education for these students. New provisions added to the act have made it possible for the first time in history for students with these disabilities to access Pell Grants, work study funds and other kinds of financial aid.
Although MSU currently does not have an academic program for students with intellectual disabilities, the university has been a leader for other universities in terms of providing resources for students with less severe intellectual disorders, said Stephen Blosser, assistive technology specialist for the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities.
“If you have a disability today, we welcome you here at Michigan State University to take your interest to a higher level and make your contribution to society,” Blosser said.
The center works with almost 1,200 students with disabilities annually. Recent information on how many of these students have intellectual disabilities was unavailable.
Much has changed throughout the last 10 years in terms of how people think about the possible achievements of those with intellectual disorders, said Meg Grigal, a senior research fellow for the Institute for Community of Inclusion, a national group that promotes inclusion of those with disabilities.
“Ten years ago, there was a smattering of institutions serving kids with intellectual and cognitive disorders but now that number has grown extensively,” Grigal said. “Through the work of parents and advocacy organizations — sometimes school systems, students and higher education systems — we’ve created intellectual options for students with intellectual and other disabilities.
Recent provisions in the Higher Education Opportunity Act are the first in history to address the needs of these students, Grigal said.
A great part of the issue depends on how one defines an intellectual disorder, said Virginia Thielsen, a senior research associate for the Office of Rehabilitation and Disability Studies. Potential students with IQ limitations are much different than students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, for example, but both potentially could be considered to have an intellectual disorder, Thielsen said.
“(Students with minor disabilities) are now and have been for many years accessing college,” she said. “They might need special accommodations and support to function in college, but they can access that.”
Technology plays a big role in helping students with disabilities access classes and educational materials, Blosser said.
MSU has worked to incorporate e-books in the classroom and student volunteers work to scan and edit textbooks that do not have an online copy into PDF files to be accessed by students with disabilities that prevent them from being able to read small print, he said. Text-to-speech textbooks also are used to help students who have trouble reading, he said.
“Through technology, individuals that experience these types of disabilities are able to overcome those challenges and go on to participate in higher education, which enables them to find better opportunities for meaningful employment,” he said.
Limitations of students with intellectual disabilities aren’t necessarily about a stigma anymore, Thielsen said, but more about meeting entrance requirements to colleges and universities.
“My hope is that if we can get the right technology in place, students can advance in both education and career choices,” she said. “If these students are willing to work, especially at a school like MSU, which provides great support for students with disabilities, there is not a limit as to where they can go and what they can do.”
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