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Support for Students with Cerebral Palsy Academic Programs, Funding and Support Services to Achieve Success

More than 760,000 individuals in America currently live with cerebral palsy (CP), with approximately 1,200 to 1,500 school-aged children being diagnosed with the disability each year. Until recently, few colleges in the country offered inclusive programs tailored to the individual needs of this population, but all that has started to change as more and more schools roll out specialized offerings. The following guide offers guidance on some of the programs that are changing the face of education for students with cerebral palsy, it and also includes helpful details about financial aid resources and support mechanisms.

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College Programs for Students with Cerebral Palsy

Finding a school that is inclusive and caters to the individual needs of students with cerebral palsy is key to having an enjoyable and useful college experience. While there is certainly no rule that disallows this student population from attending college, some schools are doing more to ensure students with cerebral palsy have quality programs from which to choose. Two of the best options in the nation are highlighted below.

Project FOCUS, University of Arizona

The University of Arizona’s Project FOCUS (Focusing Opportunities with Community and University Supports) operates as a transitional program for students aged 18 to 22 who have intellectual disabilities. In addition to 25 academic credits, seven of which relate to an internship, students also complete a certificate in service learning and gain valuable volunteer experience and job skills designed to propel them into meaningful work upon graduation. Ensuring students are engaged in campus life is a significant component of the program, as is the instilling of technology skills in both academic and campus life activities.

Cutting Edge, Edgewood College

Wisconsin’s Edgewood College was the first institution in the state to offer inclusive programs for students with significant disabilities and continues to lead the charge in innovation and support. Upon acceptance to the program, students can choose from three paths: non-degree, certificate or degree seeking. Regardless of the path chosen, all students spend the first year focused on developing self-advocacy skills and building independence. Students typically take eight to 12 credits per semester for credit or audit. Students also have many opportunities to engage with other students on campus and take part in clubs, organizations and events.

Individualized Education Plans & IEP Transition Planning for College

Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, are legal documents that are created by schools and signed off on by parents. They help high school students plan their futures and take steps to reach their goals. These documents are required under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and must be started by the time students are 16 years old. Often, IEPs can be carried over and adjusted from high school to college to help learners maintain their focus and continue receiving support.

Preparing for College: IEP Transition Planning

IEPs are beneficial to many types of students, including those with cerebral palsy. Because these students often encounter unique learning limitations and require individualized support mechanisms to meet their goals, IEPs help administrators, faculty and other campus staff understand how to best support these learners while also providing concrete measurements for success.

Even while still in high school, students and their families need to be planning for the future. The special education department is typically responsible for creating IEPs, so families should work with professionals to create this plan and update it periodically to reflect current needs.

Getting accepted to college is a long process for all students, and those with cerebral palsy are no different. Things that make a difference on college applications are community service, extracurricular activities, good grades, passable scores on the ACT or SAT and good recommendations. Students should start thinking about their options and ensuring their activities mirror their aspirations.

Like any other student, those with cerebral palsy may need outside funding to attend college. The federal government provides a range of grants and loans to offset costs, but there are also many private scholarships and grants to consider as well.

Many colleges now offer specialized certificate, degree and non-degree postsecondary options for students with cerebral palsy who want to continue their education after college. Start researching these early to find the perfect fit.

Accommodations & Modifications in College

Cerebral palsy is a disability that has many common ways of affecting individuals, yet how each person experiences it is different. According to the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, one in three people affected by CP is unable to walk, one in 10 experiences severe vision impairment, one in four has epilepsy and one in two has an intellectual impairment. Because cerebral palsy affects each person differently, finding ways of providing assistance and support in college must be on an individual basis.

One of the most common forms of assistance for college students with cerebral palsy is the use of accommodations. Some of the typical forms of accommodations are highlighted below, along with examples of each.

Devices such as text readers, specialized keyboards and voice-to-text machines help students who may find taking notes or reading textbooks difficult.

These types of accommodations focus on how information is presented. Examples of presentation accommodations may include a closed-circuit channel, allowing students to receive lesson outlines, or using an audio book.

These accommodations focus on how assignments or tests are completed. Examples of response accommodations include providing samples of finished assignments, breaking assignments into smaller components and using a keyboard rather than hand writing an assignment.

These accommodations focus on the environment in which a student learns. Examples of setting accommodations include being allowed to take a test in a separate room or smaller group, being able to take a test home to complete, or providing ambient music or lighting to help students focus.

These accommodations relate to the constraints placed on students in regard to completing assignments. Examples of accommodations include being given additional time to turn in homework and to complete tests or taking fewer classes per semester.

Scholarships & Financial Aid for Students with Cerebral Palsy

When considering college, one of the first thoughts that often pops into the minds of students and their families is how to pay for it. As costs of higher education continue to rise, the U.S. Department of Education and countless other private foundations, businesses and organizations provide funding avenues to help with the financial burden.

The Department of Education provides a range of financial aid opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities, including federal Pell Grants, federal supplemental educational opportunity grants and federal work-study programs. To qualify for these funds, students must meet a number of requirements, including the following:

  • Being enrolled or accepted into a comprehensive transition and postsecondary (CTP) program that caters to intellectual disabilities. These schools must participate in federal student aid programs for learners to be eligible.

  • Meeting and maintaining satisfactory academic progress as outlined by the Department of Education.

  • Meeting and maintaining federal student aid eligibility requirements. Under the IDEA law, individuals with intellectual disabilities are not required to have a high school diploma or GED to qualify, and they don’t have to be pursuing a degree or certificate program.

Advice from an Expert

Kim Kolk joined the University of Notre Dame’s Office of Housing as the Assistant Director for Summer Housing in February 2017. Kim is originally from Fort Wayne, IN, and moved to South Bend by way of Nashville, TN. Kim received her Bachelor of Science in Public Relations and Advertising from Florida Southern College, and her Master of Higher Education and Student Affairs from Florida State University. Previously, she worked at Belmont University in Nashville for four years where she served as a Residence Director, Summer Conferences Manager, and Assistant Director of Residence Life.

Why is it important that students with cerebral palsy find support in college?

The transition to college for any student is difficult, and requires support from parents or guardians, professors, and student support staff. Students with CP face unique, complex challenges on top of those experienced by any new college student. As such, it becomes imperative to student success that individuals with CP looking at pursuing higher education find resources of support, both on campus and at home.

How can students with cerebral palsy overcome challenges in college?

I think the two most effective ways to overcome challenges in college are to utilize resources and support given by the institution, and to develop a social circle or a community. Professors, disability support staff, residence hall staff, academic advisors, financial aid – all of these people can be great partners and advocates for you to overcome challenges that may be a part of the college experience. Additionally, finding a community on campus is critical to overcoming challenges any student, regardless of whether or not the student has CP. Engagement in clubs and activities, building positive peer relationships, and exploring the college and local community are all great ways to build resilience among college students, which helps students who face obstacles in their college journey bounce back more quickly and fully.

What advice do you have for students with cerebral palsy and their families when considering college options?

I believe it is really important to consider the various needs of the student when considering and comparing colleges and universities. Most people consider academics to be the top priority when looking at the offerings of a particular institution: Does this school offer the program/major/minor I want to pursue? Is this school known for prestigious academic performance? However, it is important to balance practical, day-to-day needs with academic needs when selecting the school that will be the best fit for each student: accessibility of residence halls (should you choose or desire to live on-campus), routes and navigation around campus, and support services offered are all just as important to collegiate success as academic rigor and performance.

Additionally, make good use of any support or disability services offered by the institution – these staff exist on college campuses for the sole purpose of aiding students towards achieving academic success. Don’t be afraid to utilize their services and to lean on them as advocates when you run into obstacles on your journey, and make sure you do your research on what options each university has available as you’re discerning between schools. Finally, do not accept “no” for an answer – any student has the potential and the ability to attend college and be incredibly successful, and while having CP may present additional or different obstacles to that success, determination and a desire to advocate for yourself will be your most powerful tool for success.

Additional Resources

Aside from all the resources and support mechanisms discussed throughout this guide, students with cerebral palsy can find additional services through a range of national and local organizations that exist to champion and encourage individuals living with CP.

  • Homeroom

    The official blog of the Department of Education recently shared an article on how college programs for students with disabilities are changing the culture, emphasizing a student who has cerebral palsy.

  • Life as a College Student with Cerebral Palsy

    Cerebral Palsy Group provides this informative article for students wondering what college life entails.

  • United Cerebral Palsy

    This national organization provides a range of helpful resources and services alongside a network of local affiliates to promote education and support in local communities.

  • United Cerebral Palsy Association

    This non-profit functions as an advocacy organization and provider of services to people throughout America living with CP.