Students with intellectual disabilities will attend KU under new program

'We want to make sure that they are fully included in all aspects of KU life'

Next fall, a small cohort of students with intellectual disabilities that normally would exclude them from college will attend Kansas University for the first time.

Their experience will look a lot like it does in K-12 education, where youth with disabilities such as Down Syndrome or autism are mainstreamed.

“We want to make sure that they are fully included in all aspects of KU life,” said Mary Morningstar, associate professor in KU’s department of special education. “They will be in general education, they will be in the regular academic classes as they relate to their career plans. They may not be in microbiology, but they could be in the career development class, and they’ll definitely be in the First Year Experience.”

Enabling these students to be mainstreamed at the university is the new KU Transition to Postsecondary Education for Youth with Intellectual Disabilities program, or KU-TPE. KU received and announced this fall a $1.5 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education to develop and launch the program.

KU’s program appears to be the first of its kind in the state. Morningstar, principal investigator on the project, said three other Kansas colleges have programs for students with disabilities but that they are substantially different in that they’re not fully inclusive.

Morningstar said she expects five to eight KU-TPE students to enroll in fall 2016, with more in ensuing years.

The ultimate goal — as for any KU student — is for participants to exit the program with paid jobs.

Morningstar said parents of young adults with disabilities have been asking her for a program like this for a decade.

“There is a drop-off when students graduate from (high) school,” she said. “If you have an intellectual disability, you don’t have a lot of options … the expectation is that you don’t go to an adult center. The family’s expectation is that their young adult is going to continue to learn and grow and be a contributing member of society.”

Many logistical details of the KU-TPE program still must be worked out before the first students begin classes in August.

Here are points that are decided:

• Students won’t be full-time or degree-seeking. Instead, the plan is for them to earn different recognition, possibly Experiential Learning certificates.

Morningstar said the goal is to fit into existing campus offerings as much as possible rather than creating new things.

• In class, students will be expected to participate but may have modified assignments, such as listening to a book on tape instead of reading or preparing a PowerPoint presentation instead of writing a 10-page paper, Morningstar said.

They also may have personal adult support. Morningstar said that might be a co-teacher that assists professors, or perhaps a KU student set up through a peer mentor program. Those helpers also could be paid with grant money.

• Next year’s students won’t live in dorms, as they are all local students who will have dual enrollment at KU and public schools, which goes until age 21 for some students with intellectual disabilities.

However, the plan is to expand the program by fall 2017 to allow students who have exited the K-12 system. Morningstar said students who have the necessary skills may live in the dorms.

• Unlike K-12 where the state must pay for all students’ education, including students with special needs, these KU students will pay their own way.

“It’s not special education, and it’s not free,” Morningstar said. “You do what you do when you’re planning for any one of your children to go to KU. You look at financial aid, and you look at out-of-pocket payment, and you look at getting a part-time job.”

• In addition to educating and preparing the students with disabilities, Morningstar said the program is envisioned as a “learning laboratory” for education and social science students at KU, which boasts the No. 1 special education graduate program among public schools in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Before KU learned it had been awarded the large federal grant, the KU Student Senate voiced its support.

A Student Senate resolution passed earlier in the fall lauded KU-TPE as a way to “build bridges across multiple student populations” and “increase access, opportunity and diversity on our campus.”

Student Senate’s director of diversity and inclusion, Omar Rana, excitedly announced at an October Senate meeting that KU won the grant. In a statement, he said, “I had the privilege to work with some amazing individuals at the School of Special Education, including Dr. Mary Morningstar, over the summer and am ecstatic that KU has been granted this wonderful opportunity.”

Morningstar expects challenges, including navigating KU policies to work in the new students, and getting faculty members on board with involving the students in their classes.

She is optimistic, based on conversations she’s had so far.

“Nobody has said, ‘Absolutely not,'” Morningstar said. “People have raised concerns. To me all concerns are valid concerns, so we’re going to have to listen and reach some compromise.”