Kathryn Anderson sums up her disability this way:
“I can learn what a normal person can learn. It just takes me a little bit longer to learn it.”
In December, Anderson reached a milestone not just for her own education but also for the way in which Virginia Commonwealth University provides academic access to students with intellectual disabilities.
Anderson, 24, and Eddie Lee Lewis, 21, became the first two students to complete a 30-month, five-semester certificate program through VCU’s School of Education called ACE-IT in College.
VCU is one of 27 universities, and the only one in Virginia, awarded a U.S. Department of Education grant in 2010 to explore postsecondary education opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities.
Through the five-year, $2 million demonstration grant, students who in the past might have been steered to segregated programs instead attend classes with other VCU students.
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Some of Anderson’s classmates knew she had a disability, she said. “Some of them didn’t know. It really didn’t make a big difference for those who did know. They treated me the same.”
Currently 13 students are enrolled in VCU’s program, which requires them to complete nine or 10 classes, or 21 credits, for the certificate of completion. They have the help of education coaches — other students who attend classes with them and help them keep track of their assignments.
They also participate in campus activities and internships to explore employment opportunities. They pay the same tuition rate per course as other students, but ACE-IT students audit their classes and do not receive grades.
The ACE-IT program is not new itself but has evolved over the years from earlier models providing access to students with intellectual disabilities, autism and traumatic brain injury, said Elizabeth Evans Getzel, director of postsecondary education initiatives in the School of Education.
The new program, which enrolled its first students in August 2011, is open to people ages 18 to 26 with a documented intellectual disability. It’s a competitive admission process, but “we don’t look at IQ,” Getzel said.
VCU’s program builds on the inclusive opportunities that students with disabilities have in high school, she said.
“As an outgrowth of that, students themselves have higher expectations of what they should be doing or want to do when they exit high school,” she said.
Families and teachers have higher expectations, too.
“This groundswell really came from families,” said Dana Yarbrough, program leader with VCU’s Partnership for People with Disabilities.
Families no longer want children with disabilities to be placed in segregated, specialized programs on college campuses where “they are together all day and they’re doing functional living stuff,” Yarbrough said.
ACE-IT in College is “bumping up those expectations that they can actually sit in the classroom with their peers without disabilities” and take part in the college experience, she said.
The goal of the program, Getzel said, is to provide the students “access to competitive, real employment” so they can live as independently as possible in the community.
Anderson has already found work as a part-time receptionist in the dean’s office of the School of Education, where she had interned as part of the program. She also works part time helping monitor children at a fitness center in Chester.
Through ACE-IT she gained experience as a teacher’s assistant at an elementary school and at the VCU Child Development Center.
Her goal is to get a full-time job with benefits so that she can live on her own, she said.
Anderson, who finished L.C. Bird High School, said she had always wanted to become a teacher but struggled with schoolwork. “I kind of did not think I was going to be able to go to college.”
Now, ACE-IT has given her the confidence to eventually pursue a degree, she said.
“I was happy that I had the help that I had,” Anderson said of the support she received in the program. But she thinks now she could do the work herself.
“Now that I took some college classes and I know I’m capable of it, I know I can do it,” she said.
Lewis, who finished Meadowbrook High School, said the program gave him a chance to “meet people and try different things” — such as an introductory drawing class that revealed his artistic ability.
He is looking for a job, and as a result of the program his résumé includes work experience at the Cary Street Gym and an orthotics company, where he helped make plaster casts.
ACE-IT, he said, “was a wonderful experience.”
VCU’s program is one of several models around the state providing postsecondary education for students with intellectual disabilities.
George Mason University’s LIFE program offers a four-year residential program for about 50 students.
J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College’s Program for Adults in Vocational Education, or PAVE, provides training for people with intellectual, physical, emotional and learning disabilities.
Sen. David W. Marsden, D-Fairfax, has introduced a resolution for a state study of strategies for improving access to higher education for students with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
The study, requested by the Virginia Disability Commission, would look at existing programs, their costs and their impact.
“We don’t ordinarily think of developmentally disabled people going into higher education,” Marsden said. “But some of them are quite capable of learning additional skills that will help them to live independently and not in need of public assistance.”
Kathryn Anderson’s mother, Erika, said the VCU program will help her daughter do that.
Everyone needs a degree or a credential now to get a job, she said. The VCU certificate will show employers that, “yes, this college says she can learn.”
Anderson said the program’s inclusive goals are important to students with disabilities as well as the larger community.
Segregating students into separate programs pushes “them off to the sideline even more than their disability does already,” she said.
“I think more people need to realize young people with learning differences will reach as far as you expect them to reach,” she said. “They will do what you expect of them. I think sometimes we don’t expect enough.”
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“Now that I took some college classes and I know I’m capable of it, I know I can do it.”
Kathryn Anderson, ACE-IT graduate