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Support for Students with Intellectual Disabilities College programs, funding, and other key resources to ensure success

Intellectual disabilities, also known as Low IQ, exist within the larger spectrum of developmental disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, cerebral palsy and down syndrome. As the number of academic programs for students with these types of disabilities grows, it’s important for learners and their families to have access to details about their options. Read on to learn about various college programs and funding opportunities to support this population of students, and see what our expert has to say about available support services and resources on today’s college campuses.

Meet the Expert

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College Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities

Even if a student with intellectual disabilities isn’t yet prepared for the rigors of a full degree program, that doesn’t mean there aren’t countless other paths offered at college campuses to help them transition into independent adulthood. In addition to the two offerings highlighted below, students can use the map to find similar programs in their area.

University of Delaware – Teem

The University of Delaware’s Transition, Education and Employment Model (TEEM) is a comprehensive program for students with disabilities that enables them to build self-esteem, develop life and communication skills, strengthen job skills, enhance interpersonal skills, and practice many of the abilities needed to live and work independently. The program is individualized to every student, creating a uniquely personalized experience that helps build on existing skillsets.

University of Nevada, Reno – Path to Independence

P2I, or Path to Independence, is a two-year, non-degree certificate program that allows students with intellectual disabilities to receive a true college experience while also gaining the skills and knowledge needed to transition to independent adult roles. The program is divided into three areas: academics and campus activities, employment, and independent living. On-campus departments involved in this program include the Center for Excellence in Disabilities, the Extended Studies Department, the Center for Independent Living, and the Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation.

In addition to the programs highlighted above, students throughout the country can find a range of supportive and innovative degrees and program resources to help them succeed at the postsecondary level. Learners can use the tool below to find tailored programs in their state.

Financial Aid for Students with Intellectual Disabilities

Students with intellectual disabilities are not invulnerable to the rising costs of college, and finding governmental financial aid and/or scholarships and grants from private institutions and postsecondary schools can make all the difference in their attendance. Aside from funds earmarked specifically for this population, there are many generic sources of funding for which students with intellectual disabilities can apply.

Federal Financial Aid

By filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), students with intellectual disabilities may be able to take advantage of numerous financial aid options. The most common funding sources and requirements for receiving them are highlighted below.

  • Federal Pell Grant

  • Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant

  • Federal Work-study

To receive these funds, students must be:

  • Enrolled or accepted to a comprehensive transition and postsecondary (CTP) program for students who have been diagnosed with intellectual disabilities. The program must be at an accredited college or vocational school that has been approved to receive federal student aid.

  • Maintaining satisfactory academic progress toward a degree or certificate, as defined by individual school requirements.

  • Meeting the basic requirements of all FAFSA applicants, with the caveat that students with intellectual disabilities are not required to have a high school diploma or GED and don’t have to be pursuing a degree or certificate.

For a CTP program to be approved for federal student aid, it must be:

  • Offered by an institution approved by the U.S. Department of Education

  • Specifically designed to provide support to students with intellectual disabilities, with explicit support in areas of continuing academic, career, and/or independent living instruction

  • Proactive in providing regular academic advisement and a structured curriculum

  • Required for all students to spend at least half the program enrolled in credit-bearing courses with students who have no diagnosed disabilities, to audit or participate in classes that don’t offer regular academic credit, and to complete an internship or work training program with students who have no diagnosed disabilities

Scholarships and Grants

A range of scholarships and grants, specific to students with disabilities, are available to help them lessen the financial burden of higher education.

  • The Dallas Foundation: The Tommy Tranchin Award – $1,500

    This award is given to students with intellectual disabilities who demonstrate interest or passion for their chosen discipline. The deadline is March 4.

  • Ruby’s Rainbow: Scholarship – Up to $5,000

    This scholarship is awarded to individuals with diagnosed Down Syndrome who are at least 18 years old and plan to enroll in a class or program that increases their employability or independent living skills.

  • D.R.E.A.M. Scholarship Program – Varies

    The D.R.E.A.M. Partnership provides block grants to colleges to support students with intellectual disabilities. Applications and funds are disbursed directly by participating colleges, and students can see a list of those on the organization’s website.

Transitioning to College & Finding an Inclusive Campus

For students with intellectual disabilities, it’s important to know how to best transition to college and to find an inclusive campus. Choosing a quality program can make all the difference for students with intellectual disabilities, so it’s worth their time and effort to research fully. Inclusivity can look different for every student, but specialized housing, disability services, social opportunities, and academic accommodations are all common offerings. The following section answers some of the most common questions students with intellectual disabilities have about selecting the perfect college or university.

Aside from federal funding, additional student aid depends on the individual state and postsecondary institution. Many learners with intellectual disabilities may qualify for general need-based scholarships at their chosen college or university, but they may also qualify for governmental funds offered by their state. As an example, Tennessee’s STEP UP scholarship was created specifically for individuals attending a program designed for intellectual disabilities within the state.

Academic While some programs focus on moving students through credit-bearing coursework that counts toward an eventual degree, others allow students to move through classes and gain a certificate. The decision of which to pursue is up to the student and their family, but many options exist to suit individual needs.

Social Developing and enhancing social and interpersonal skills is a significant component of programs tailored to students with intellectual disabilities, as is creating the opportunity for students with and without disabilities to interact in social and academic settings.

Employment The main focus of most programs is to help students build job skills that are transferable to numerous roles and help them develop the financial responsibility and independent living tools needed to gain – and maintain – employment.

Like many other aspects of such programs, the availability of housing or programs that build independent living skills depend on the program. Edgewood College’s Cutting Edge program offers both on- and off-campus housing options that include a housing peer mentor to help students learn living skills while enrolled.

The level to which a campus’s disability services office participates depends on individual programs, but many are intricately connected. Clemson University’s ClemsonLIFE program works closely with the student disabilities services department to plan events and ensure students receive the best support possible.

Quick Tips:

  • Speak with administration.

    If you aren’t sure what’s offered, make a list of questions and call or email program administrators and/or admissions officers to gain clarity.

  • Visit the campus and meet the staff?

    If possible, try to visit campus to see the available facilities, sit in on classes, get to know staff, and have any outstanding questions answered.

  • Learn about alumni’s experiences with the program.

    Still not sure? Ask the program administrator for a list of past students who would be willing to talk about the pros and cons of the program as they see them.

Key Resources

Resources provided on college campuses are great, but sometimes students and their families need support outside the classroom. These national resources provide various types of services to ensure students with intellectual disabilities are able to thrive.

  • DO-IT.

    Housed at the University of Washington, DO-IT provides relevant resources to students throughout the country with disabilities while also promoting inclusion.

  • State-Specific Resources.

    Organizations like Texas Project FIRST are great local resources for students who want to find out about services and support systems offered at the state level rather than nationally.

  • Think College.

    This national organization exists to ensure students have information about and access to college-level programs designed specifically for students with disabilities.

Expert Interview

Alexandra Allred is a professor at Navarro College in Texas who teaches a number of courses each term, including College Success Skills, a mandatory freshman class. She has worked with the intellectual and developmental disability student population for the last three years, including teaching free fitness classes. She holds a master’s in kinesiology, with special emphasis in functional movement for those within the special needs population. With more than 650 million people living with a disability, Allred believes it’s crucially important for professors and other individuals to understand how to best support this population.

In the most basic terms, a student with intellectual disabilities is one who learns and develops more slowly than others. For many, the term intellectual disability is code for down syndrome. Not so. The diagnosis of ID is vast, from dyslexia, ADHD, anxiety and/or learning disabled (processing at a slower rate than an average learner) to autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy or a combination of medical issues, to name but a few examples. Even then, it is so important for educators to understand that a person with cerebral palsy or autism, for example, are brilliant but simply learn, process and apply information differently.

Like everyone else, those diagnosed with ID are members of our society who deserve the opportunity for education and success in their professional and personal lives. On a moral stance – it is our jobs as educators (and citizens) to mainstream everyone. But for those who are not sold on the ‘it takes a village’ idea, I also point out that there is yet another reason to support everyone. I work everyday with young adults with ID who live on welfare. They are amazing, inquisitive, engaged young people who were written off as ‘unable’ and have 1) a life without direction or purpose and 2) are on taxpayers’ dime. If you don’t care about quality of life, care about your own pocket.

On a personal note, watching young people diagnosed with ID discover their own potential, overcome learning obstacles and excel is wonderful. How these students engage in class among their peers brings two things to the classroom: their peers are often very aware of those with more significant ID issues and learn how to react and respond appropriately. More often than not, however, those diagnosed with ID bring fresh perspective to learning and expand learning/perception in the classroom. It is a win/win for everyone. The reality is our ‘typical’ college student will be working with, living with or near someone with disability in their lifetime. The college setting is ideal in mainstreaming and training all populations how to succeed together.

There are many tools readily available in college. College advisors can help direct families/students in the right direction. The student learning center may or may not be sufficient for a particular person but each campus has a set up for those diagnosed with any learning, developmental and/or physical disability from auditory to visual, from dyscalculia to dysgraphia for one-on-one learning, specialized testing centers that allow for more time on tests and provide a student with a greater beneficial learning environment.

I recommend that students with an ID diagnosis work with these learning centers on adaptive learning/studying skills. Each student is different. Finding the way in which each students learns is key to not only retaining information but enjoying the educational experience. Listening and then writing notes may work well for some; writing and then re-writing notes make work for another. Finding out how a student best listens and retains information is truly half the battle.

The student must also have confidence. ‘I do belong here.’ ‘I can do this.’ ‘I am smart.’ ‘I will graduate.’ ‘I deserve this.’ Finding a mentor on faculty but also joining support groups on campus are absolutely essential for gaining trust, confidence and a sense of belonging to the educational experience.  When they own the experience, they will work harder to keep it.

Many families, despite great intentions, will often hinder the learning experience (and success of) the student with ID. Worried about failure or disappointment, the student is often held back. Remarkably, less than 20 percent of students with the diagnosis of ID or LD (learning disabled) do NOT use the resources made available on campuses across the country. Colleges WANT success for their students, so why not use all the resources? Many parents (again, well-meaning) worry that if their child is identified as ID or LD or ID/DD, they will somehow be further labeled or diminished. While this can happen in the ‘real world’ among those who are not educated and do not understand the real world (oh, the irony), the college campus is the absolute best place for those with ID/DD to flourish as so many resources are available. Not signing up, not exploring options, not utilizing these tools is far more detrimental to the student.

On a final note, I was diagnosed at Texas A&M University with dyscalculia and, at one time, almost dropped out of college, believing I was the dumbest person on campus. I was embarrassed and ashamed. Today, I am the author of more than a dozen books, do motivational speaking, work with college freshman, mentor, and work with the special needs population. I am living testament that rehabilitation and testing centers work.