The Change We Need So Disabled Students Have Equal Higher Education Opportunities


I’ve seen a lot of things in my life thanks to Williams syndrome. I’ve seen tiny lives lost, tears from parents and friends and the community at large. I’ve felt unearthly things like grief and loss and despair.

I’ve felt the powerlessness of segregation and discrimination that still runs rampant in today’s public special education system.

In the eighth grade, our daughter came home stating she’d like to attend college after high school. What parent wouldn’t be thrilled? I nodded and began the task of researching her options. Lucky for me the trend in post-secondary education is inclusion, and many colleges are extending opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities to attend college alongside their peers. Some students even qualify for federal financial aid.

It wasn’t until our family attended our daughter’s freshman year IEP that we felt the push — the shove of a curriculum down our throats that assumed she will be living in a group home rather than independently, and that’s not the path we want for her future. For some, a life skills curriculum is more appropriate than all academics, and I understand that, but when you’re asking – no begging – when your begging a school to help a college-bound student with special needs fulfill their dream of attending college, why won’t they always help you?

Among the things we were told is that she was ineligible to be mainstreamed into general education classes for safety reasons. What? Students in that school also eat lunch with aides standing over them to make sure there are no safety issues. It seriously looks like something you’d see in jail. I know because I exercised my right to observe. Don’t even get me started on what adaptive physical education looks like.

Vocational testing is typically open to everyone, yet I can’t get a soul to answer my emails, and when my child had her junior meeting with her guidance counselor to discuss the colleges she’s applying to, they re-scheduled… three times. She kept up with it though and went right in there and advocated for herself.

I’ll probably never understand a system that fails a student so desperately trying to achieve. I will never understand adults who could choose to empower yet don’t. It’s always been my goal for my daughter to become as independent as she possibly can. I don’t know what that looks like, and I don’t know what the future holds, but I know I’ve done my job to prepare her as much as I can for what’s next according to the goals she has set for herself — not the goals I want her to have nor the goals the school thinks she should have.

I stand up and out because I want other parents and students to understand they do have choices in their children’s education.

I believe advocacy should be free and best practices shared among the special needs community. I also believe the system is in need of oversight of a compliance auditing function that’s independent in nature. It’s only then that the needs for change can be assessed and made.

I hope with my whole heart these issues are brought out into the limelight and addressed in legislation. The disability population is at risk. These are individuals who need access to careers, not jobs to escape poverty and substandard wages. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Their American dream is no different than anyone else’s. They just may need a little more help in achieving theirs.

This spring break we took our daughter on several college visits and shared her story via the hashtag #includemeincollege. It’s our hope that we can inspire action and foster much needed change.

Image via Thinkstock.

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