Down syndrome barriers falling
College opportunities expand for disabled
December 11, 2005
By Bonnie Miller Rubin and Grace Aduroja
Chicago Tribune staff reporters
This story contains corrected material, published Dec. 12, 2005.
By anyone's measure, Bridget Brown has had a successful high school career. At
Now, like so many of her peers, she is focused on continuing her education. But unlike them, she was born with Down syndrome.
"I love to learn and I don't want to stop," said Brown, 19, who graduated last spring and still proudly wears her letter jacket. "That's why people go on to college."
In the past, the educational road for students like Brown came to an abrupt halt after high school. But in recent years, young adults with developmental disabilities are finding a burst of opportunities--from
What sets these programs apart is the focus on academics and campus life. While the curriculum may be modified and practical skills--resumes and job interviewing, for example--are usually part of the mix, the choices are far more challenging than the menial labor and sheltered workshops of an earlier era.
"This population is desperate for better," said Cynthia Johnson, director of a program at
Johnson compared the inequities to "the colored schools of the 1950s," when African-American children were put in separate classes and not expected to learn. "This is a civil rights issue and a moral issue," she said. "Its time has come."
Just a year ago, only 35 programs existed for these students. Now there are more than 90 at two- and four-year colleges, according to the U.S. Department of Education, including one at
Each program is different. Though the courses are demanding, they are taught differently. Less "chalk and talk," more hands-on experiences and technology, such as voice-activated computers.
"This isn't some watered-down curriculum," Johnson said. "We push our students somewhere between frustrating and challenging ... that's where true learning happens."
In addition to scholastics, some of the programs are residential and include cooking and money-management skills, while others are geared to commuters. Most students receive certificates. Some programs promise a standard degree; all offer a hefty dose of self-esteem.
Critics fear goals too high
But a handful of experts fear that the new academic emphasis is setting students up for failure.
The major factor driving the change: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975, the federal law that became known as "mainstreaming" in K-12 schools. And "No Child Left Behind"--President Bush's sweeping educational reforms that hold districts accountable for the performance of all students--only strengthened the mandate.
Research shows that students with developmental disabilities--those who in the past were called mentally retarded--are more likely to hold a job, have friends and live independently if they get into a post-secondary program.
But a more typical scenario has been a world of low-wage employment, such as fast-food or custodial jobs. For parents who have advocated for their disabled children since preschool, that's unacceptable.
"This is a unique experiment that is coming from the bottom up," said Troy Justesen of the U.S. Department of Education.
Family donates $250,000
Steve Riggio and his wife felt so strongly about continuing academics for their 17-year-old daughter born with Down syndrome that they recently donated $250,000 to develop post-secondary models at two
The availability of programs after high school was like "going from a cruise ship to a dinghy," he said. "My daughter had the benefit of a wonderfully inclusive educational environment," said Riggio, chief executive officer of Barnes & Noble Inc. "Why should that end?"
The program at
The program's 11 students pay regular tuition rates of about $20,000 a year but will receive a certificate with a transcript instead of a diploma at commencement.
They're as likely to participate in theater, the bowling team or multicultural club as any other undergraduate. But unlike other students, fewer than 10 percent of students with developmental disabilities go on to college.
"The hard, stark ugly reality is that current statistics equal unemployment, poverty and isolation," said Madeline Will of the National Down Syndrome Society.
Bridget Brown's prospects are brighter. The
"I am really good at advocating for myself," she said with a broad smile. "Hopefully, the rest of my life will be as fun and exciting as high school."
Last month, she toured
She is not afraid to "ask for help when I need it and try new things.... I'd even try living in the dorm if I could do it with a friend."
Student living his dream
ELSA freshman Patrick Hartmann already is living his dream. Not only is the River Forest resident attending a four-year school--where his course load includes math, science, technology and English--but the picturesque suburban campus reminds him of the East Coast school where his twin brother is enrolled.
"It looks similar and the people are the same," said Hartmann, 21, who was born with spina bifida and wants to work with computers. "I like being able to be in a four-year college."
Hartmann yearned to continue his education after graduating from
After trying several local schools, where both helpful instructors and a social network were elusive, he has found his niche at
ELSA coordinator Nancy Cheeseman would like to see the program go to another level, with on-campus housing similar to the
But some critics question the usefulness of degree-granting programs, saying they saddle disabled students with unrealistic expectations and provide them with skills that don't necessarily lead to employment or independent living.
"A degree is not a life. A degree is an accumulation of academic credits, but other parts of the person need to be considered," said Carol Burns, director of the PACE program, a course for disabled students at
The debate has reached Justesen, head of special education for the Department of Education, who takes umbrage at critics who say such programs are setting up students for a fall. He points out that plenty of young adults enter college with improbable hopes and struggle to find a job after graduation.
"When a [non-disabled] 13-year-old boy says he wants to be a football player or a rock star, no one says `Oh you can't do that. Oh, it's not realistic,'" Justesen said. "What's wrong with allowing children with intellectual disabilities to experiment with what they want to be?"
The federal government isn't promoting these new programs, "but we're watching it," he said. "It's definitely at the leading edge."
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