School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Different path but same destination (part 2)

In a previous blog post I wrote about the challenges families face preparing their children with special needs for transition to adulthood. After a survey of the landscape of transitional services for young adults with disabilities, I came away with a positive outlook for the future of transition. Many programs now in their infancy are laying the foundation for a system of supports to help students with disabilities make that critical leap to adulthood.

First, some common themes from my survey. As is often the case in advocacy for children, parents are the driving force behind many of these initiatives. One parent went door to door until she found someone willing to help her start a first-of-its-kind program for students with cognitive disabilities at a state university in Florida. Another parent in Flint, Michigan fought to ensure her disabled son received the same education as his peers in public school. Both mother and son now are enrolled at the same community college, where the son who once struggled academically during his K-12 years now has a 3.0 grade point average.

Second, the types of transition programs available vary greatly, reflecting the diverse nature of the needs of students with disabilities. Some job programs and internships are (surprisingly) competitive. Others focus on the mentoring process and teaching general job skills. Still others aim to help demystify life at college or the workplace for those who might have some requisite job skills, but cannot handle the complex social skills demanded on a college campus or in the job market.

Third, resources and ideas for these programs come from many sources. In some instances legislative changes are needed, such as refining teacher training so that faculty can learn how to help students with transition planning. Private industry can also play a vital role, especially in terms of job training and hands-on, apprentice-style experience in the workplace.


At Florida International University, the Project Panther Life program kicked off this fall as a way for students with intellectual disabilities to attend college. As reported by WSVN-TV, through this program a group of eight freshman students, all with cognitive disabilities, enrolled in their first college classes this year. According to its founder, parent Liliana Demoya, the program was the first in South Florida to give access to college courses to students with intellectual disabilities. Her son attends the program. Demoya described the challenges she faced:

A program like this one was not available . . . so I started to knock on doors and meet people at universities and meet presidents and put together proposals.

Each student is paired with two mentors whose job is to teach them about life on a college campus, and help them stay on top of assigned work. The program’s ultimate aim is for students to learn how to interview for and land a job.


Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan set an enrollment milestone this fall when 274 students who self-identified as having autism, developmental disabilities, or learning disabilities signed up for classes. In a Flint Journal piece, Beata Mostafavi profiled Nicholas Pentecost, a student with autism who endured “vast academic struggles” in his traditional K-12 public school, but has thrived in a community college environment. Colleges are responding to students like Pentecost, considered by some as unqualified for college, with an increased focus on related services and extra help for this expanding community. For example, at some colleges students can request a private room for exams, a note taker, audio books, specialized software, or even weekly counseling sessions. 

At these schools, disability outreach is viewed as part of a broader mission of diversity. University of Michigan-Flint’s accessibility services coordinator, Zachary Tomlinson put it this way:

We talk about embracing diversity and maintaining diversity, and I think it’s important to offer these kinds of accommodations because it creates a level playing field for people. Disability doesn’t always come across people’s minds when you talk about diversity but it’s a huge piece.


Next up, how companies like Google and others are discovering untapped talent in the disability community.

Beth T. Sigall

December 7, 2011


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