Creating Postsecondary Education Opportunities for Individuals With Intellectual Disabilities

The Tennessee Task Force for Postsecondary Education for Students With Intellectual
Disabilities was formed in May 2007 to increase awareness about the need for postsecondary
opportunities in Tennessee, to gather information about postsecondary programs in other states,
and to develop a pilot program on a Tennessee college campus.

Securing employment can be a necessary and fulfilling milestone in a person’s life. Receiving a college education that leads to the securing of employment is an opportunity every person should have. Historically, individuals with intellectual disabilities have not had many postsecondary education opportunities. However, as science and as self-determination help to improve the quality of life and skills of these individuals, the college experience becomes a more desirable option and the need for programs becomes more apparent.

The Tennessee Task Force for Postsecondary Education for Students With Intellectual Disabilities was formed in May 2007 to increase awareness about the need for postsecondary opportunities in Tennessee, to gather information about postsecondary programs in other states, and to develop a pilot program on a Tennessee college campus. The task force is comprised of representatives from State and local agencies, self-advocates and family members, representatives from colleges and universities in Tennessee, and business owners who are potential employers for these individuals.

“This task force will effectively plan and implement steps to begin programs in Tennessee that will meet the needs of today’s secondary school students who have an intellectual disability and who are seeking a postsecondary education,” said Wanda Willis, Executive Director, Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities. “There are several complex areas of discussion that the task force has tackled, including eligibility criteria for a pilot program, and the risk of unintended segregation of students with disabilities by creating a special collegebased program. Open and thoughtful discussion of these and other issues help to clarify and firm up goals and desired outcomes for postsecondary programs in Tennessee.” There are approximately 121 existing postsecondary programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities across the nation. Some are 2-year or 4-year degree programs, while others issue certificates for completion of a course of study. Some offer individual courses for credit, and others offer auditing courses as the sole option. Currently, there are no postsecondary programs on a college campus for students with intellectual disabilities in Tennessee.

Gathering Information

The members of the Task Force have investigated and explored many postsecondary programs across the United States. One such program is Pathway at University of California, Los Angeles Extension. Pathway is a 2-year certificate program that emphasizes educational enrichment, career exploration and work readiness, life skills, and transition to independent living through its research-based curriculum. In 2007, Pathway had 17 students enrolled, 16 of whom requested housing in the program’s dormitory. All were between the ages of 18 and 25 and had completed a high school program.

Interested students enroll in the program and go through a typical University application process. They also are required to interview, as are their parent(s), and to undergo an independent living skills assessment. The program has no public funding for the program and out-of-state tuition applies. Outcome measures are competency-based and are constructed around the students’ strengths. Courses support the development of these competencies, and students leave with a comprehensive portfolio and a college certificate. “The Task Force has looked at many postsecondary programs,” said Sheila Moore, Executive Director, Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee. “All have pros and cons. It is our hope that by holding conversations with representatives from existing programs, we can learn what has worked and what has not. As we continue to work toward developing these opportunities in Tennessee, we must not lose sight of the fact that our work is fueled by individuals with intellectual disabilities who want the same opportunities as their siblings and their typically developing peers. They want to live in the community, be meaningfully employed, and have their dreams come true.”

Developing a Pilot Program on a Tennessee College Campus

“Both individuals with disabilities and the postsecondary institutions have much to gain by developing these programs,” said Garret Westlake, Coordinator of Disability Services at Volunteer State Community College. “Individuals with disabilities who attend college gain the opportunity to improve their academic, social, and vocational skills. These are the same opportunities that any student gains by attending college. Nearly all colleges and universities across this country stress the importance of diversity as well as the values of teaching and learning in their mission statements. By accepting and educating students with disabilities who have unique talents and personalities, and who have a strong desire to learn, colleges and universities are simply fulfilling their missions. It is a win-win situation.”

While the structure of the program still is in question, the mission of the Task Force is to create a program that provides meaningful college experiences that also may lead to a greater variety of career opportunities. It is a fact that a college degree affords more job opportunities. For individuals with intellectual disabilities this may be doubly so.

“Individuals with disabilities need every competitive advantage in the job market that they can gain,” said Andrea Cooper, Assistant Commissioner, Division of Rehabilitation Services. “This is especially true with the unfortunate attitudinal barriers that exist in many workplaces. We see a lot of success at the community college level in developing job skills that can be applied directly and immediately at work. Making college opportunities accessible to individuals with intellectual disabilities makes a lot of sense in making these individuals competitive in the employment market.”

Members are eager to see a planning grant awarded to a Tennessee college or university in the coming year.

“In other states, pilot grant funding has been very successful in the development of new programs,” said Elise McMillan, J.D., Director of Community Outreach, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and Co-Director, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center For Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. “We are eager to see that same development in Tennessee.”

The Tennessee Task Force for Postsecondary Education for Students With Intellectual Disabilities is made up of representatives from the following organizations:

Autism Society of Middle Tennessee, The Arc of Williamson County, Belmont University, Boling Center for Developmental Disabilities, David Lipscomb University, Tennessee Department of Human Services, Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee, Holiday Inn Select at Vanderbilt, Metro Nashville Public Schools, Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, Tennessee Department of Education, Tennessee Division of Mental Retardation Services, Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee Technology Center at Nashville, Monroe Carell Jr. Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, Vanderbilt University, Volunteer State Community College, Williamson County Transition Academy, and families of individuals with intellectual disabilities.

A Tips and Resources fact sheet, “Postsecondary Education for Individuals With Intellectual Disabilities,” has been developed. The fact sheet is a tool for educating individuals and families with and without disabilities, service providers, students and trainees, and for anyone interested in learning more about postsecondary education opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities. It is free and available for download here:

Last Updated: 8/14/2008 10:05:45 AM

Go to the news and video index