We talk a lot about inclusion at Update Friday. And why not? Successful community integration and belonging is the dream for many people with intellectual disabilities. Who doesn’t want to find a social group they really belong to? Or meaningful work? Or to move into a home of their own? One sector that has far-reaching implications on all of these areas of life, and more, is post-secondary education. The right university or college program can make a world of difference for such a person, opening up both career and social opportunities.
While often well-intentioned, some schools are ill-equipped to negotiate the unique needs of every individual that comes their way. Improperly-handled special education support can cause major problems—lower grades, frustration, heartache, and a loss of self-esteem that is often already fairly low. It is important to get to know the specific issues a person brings to the table and to create a plan to help them succeed. Two people who can attest are Concordia University student Stephanie Boghen and yours truly, Daniel Share-Strom.
The two of us have experienced firsthand, in different ways, the effects that individualized methods of teaching can have on people with varying learning needs. Boghen, 37, has Down Syndrome, and has been studying at Concordia since 2012. When she first came to the school, she was overwhelmed. In a video put together by Mariella Castillo, a Concordia Human Relations student, Boghen says that, when she “…first came here, I was totally lost. In a big school like this, you don’t know what’s going to happen to you.”
That’s a sentiment that I, a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, can understand. Going to university for the first time is daunting for anybody, but when you factor in challenges like unprecedented organizational requirements and discomfort in new social situations, it has the potential to be a nightmare. Finding ways to adapt the learning process to the needs of the person plays a big role in helping them to shine.
Boghen and Castillo see this need, too, and have worked to make the process easier for people with Down Syndrome. In her paper on the subject, titled “Stages of Learning Development for Adults with Down Syndrome When Pursuing Higher Education,” Castillo describes the areas that an inclusive education can improve for someone with Down Syndrome, though it really applies to any intellectual disability. It allows access to “…The richness of real life experience…authentic problem solving opportunities…a wider curriculum…a naturally increased social network…[and] developing a wide range of vocabulary and background knowledge.” For the past three years, they have been developing a Reciprocal Learning method that plays to the abilities of people with Down Syndrome.
“This method,” Castillo writes, “highlights that each person possess [sic] a unique way of recording and processing information regardless of his or her intellectual disability.” She highlights that people learn through a model of ‘Input, Process, and Output.’ This means that we gather information by asking ourselves questions, take action to receive a certain end, and then create a program which “…meets the participant’s standards and hopefully achieves their goals.” The project is adaptable, designed around creating individualized Action Plans depending on the needs of the person. Through a series of interviews and self-assessment assignments filled out by the individual and their parents, and gathering various pieces of data, facilitators discover how to best work with each person in order to maximize their potential and create a safe, non-judgmental environment.
This approach has allowed Boghen to thrive, saying, “Nothing stops me when I have a disability. I have dreams—I have all kinds of things. I would encourage other people with disabilities to be here, as well.”
If only my own university experience had been so accommodating. Make no mistake—I made lasting friendships with both fellow students and professors during my time in the University of Ontario’s Communications program, and I received high honours for my academic prowess. Those achievements came, however, largely in spite of my dealings with the school’s Special Education Department. My Individual Education Plan noted difficulties with organization and time management, and yet every time I wanted extra time on a test, the process was this:
- Obtain a request form from the Special Education Department.
- Fill out the same accommodation requirements you’ve filled out for your entire post-secondary career.
- Deliver one copy to the testing centre.
- Deliver another copy to the professor administering the test.
- Do all of this at least one week in advance.
Having to do this with every test for six years (I was in the Video Game Development program for the first two) was the cause of many meltdowns over the years.
Support staff were quite inflexible when a problem arose, as well. In order to combat the isolation a person like myself often feels in such situations, my mother and I requested their help in forming a social group for people on the Autism spectrum at the school. We received a blunt, “We don’t do that.” Do what? Be creative? Help people who are struggling? My IEP also allowed for me to be excused from tests or exams—to be retaken at a later date—should I suffer an anxiety attack while writing. Yet, the one time this occurred, I had to wait half an hour until my support worker arrived, took me for a brief walk, and returned me to my station. It was a subject I knew inside out, yet because I couldn’t think clearly enough at the time to remind them of my legal documentation, I nearly failed the final exam.
This is not a pity party, though—through help from family, friends, and a few understanding professors, I graduated with Distinction and forged lifelong relationships. The point is, a great deal of aggravation and misery could have been spared if the school had been able to flexibly adapt to the needs of each person with an intellectual disability.
We have the potential to thrive in school when the right supports are in place, moving into meaningful careers and meeting people who will be important to us. Just ask Boghen, who concludes “We were always followers. We were never leaders. But then, as time goes on, even though I’m a follower, I feel like I’m also part leader, as well. There are so many things that are beneficial, being in the surroundings of university life. I am doing it, and I hope others will follow in my footsteps.”