USA – An increase in the number of students with Down syndrome taking college classes

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College Students Not Limited By Down Syndrome

More people with intellectual disabilities are pursing higher education than ever before. Meet a few who are following their dreams.

Right about now, 20.5 million college students around the country are recovering from finals. Caryn Croll is one of them.

The New Jersey native studies American Sign Language at Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg, NJ. She also takes a career development class to improve her job interviewing skills.

“I always wanted to pursue my passion of learning sign language and be able to teach little children to communicate better,” Caryn says. “Babies can learn to sign before they can talk.”

In between classes, Caryn interns at a nonprofit where she does office work, fundraising, and event planning. She also enjoys bowling and competitive swimming.

In many ways Caryn is just like the rest of the undergrads at school. But she’s also part of a much smaller, but growing, part of the college population: students with Down syndrome. In fact, in 2015 she become the first student with an intellectual disability to enroll at Raritan.


According to a 2011 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, from 2008-2009 (the last year data is available), college students with disabilities accounted for approximately 11.1 percent of all undergraduates. Of those students, about three percent, or 67,266, had an intellectual disability. (It’s important to note that these numbers are just best estimates – the federal government doesn’t collect statistics in this area, and there is no data on what percentage of those students with intellectual disabilities have Down syndrome, specifically.)


College student Caryn Croll works with children at Gigi’s Playhouse. Photo courtesy of GiGi’s Playhouse Hillsborough.

Because there is often confusion around the term, an intellectual disability – which is discovered in children before age 18 – makes common activities, such as reading writing, understanding language, managing money, interacting with people, and developing routines, harder to learn. Down syndrome, otherwise known as trisomy 21, is an example of a condition that includes intellectual disability as one typical characteristic.

Those who work with college students with disabilities say they’ve noticed an increase over the last 10 years in the number of students with Down syndrome who are taking college classes, thanks in part to the inclusive higher education movement – the push to get colleges and universities to allow students with intellectual disabilities into general academic classes. Students with intellectual disabilities participate in typical college courses (often by auditing the course), and prepare for a career after college just like their peers without a disability.

Cate Weir, Program Director at Think College, a University of Massachusetts Boston project dedicated to developing, expanding, and improving inclusive education options for those with an intellectual disability, says she has seen an increase in people with Down syndrome going to college.

« Often kids with Down syndrome and their parents…work to get opportunities started at a college in their county or state, » says Weir. « The energy of the Down syndrome community has maximized this movement and students with Down syndrome are participating more and more in college. »

A New Generation of Students

With the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA), which was a reauthorization of an amended version of the Higher Education Act of 1965, there was a federal commitment to ensuring that more people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities have a chance to pursue postsecondary education. The act helped provide access to federal financial aid by removing the requirement that students with intellectual disabilities have a standard high school diploma or pursue a degree to be able to access aid.

Those enhancements, coupled with the shift to include more special needs children in regular education classes through models of inclusion (where special needs students are virtually always in a regular education classes and receive accommodations where needed) from the more antiquated mainstream models (children are educated in both regular and special education classes), have resulted in a new generation of young adults with disabilities who have been around regular education students their whole lives. It’s no wonder these students want to attend college just as their “typical” friends do.Wendy Harbour, Associate Executive Director for Programs and Development at the National Center for Students with Disabilities (NCSD), says the reasons people with intellectual disabilities give for going to college vary, just like with any other college student. “Some of them want to go because they’re focused on a job and want to have a career,” she says. “Others go because they really love learning or they think it sounds like fun and they want to have a good time. One of the biggest reasons I hear is that everyone else at their [high] school or in their family is going to college. They want to go, too.”Weir estimates there are around 270 inclusive programs at colleges and universities around the country that have students with Down syndrome attending. In 2004 there were only around 25 – and they were hard to discover.

Getting a “Real” College Experience

Caryn, who is 30, didn’t go to college straight from high school – she attended a job program where she helped train therapy dogs and worked at a daycare. After Caryn discovered sign language, her mom Carol tried to find a college program that would be a good fit for her daughter, but had a hard time finding one. Eventually someone directed her to The Arc of Somerset County, an organization that helps people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Coincidently, the organization was looking to work with a local college and develop a start-up program for people with disabilities. Raritan Valley Community College was eager to jump on board, and after just a few short months developing the program, Caryn started classes there.


Mark Hublar with his certificate of completion from Jefferson Community and Technical College. Photo courtesy of Mark Hublar.

Both Weir and Harbour say the goal is to get more colleges to create inclusive programs, and not stick students with disabilities in general life skills courses. The HEOA says that at least 50 percent of the time students with intellectual disabilities should be in classes with students without disabilities. But “that’s the floor, not the ceiling,” says Weir. “We’d like to see students really participating as much as possible in a fully inclusive campus.”Students with disabilities don’t get a « real » college experience when they’re in programs that don’t focus on inclusivity. “You don’t really feel like a college student,” says Harbour. “I can give you a class on how to take a bus or make change, but if you have to use the bus to get to campus and buy your lunch at the student union, that’s a much better way to be learning your life skills.”And students with Down syndrome want to be included. They have the same goal as many other people without a disability: independence.

Taking Risks

There’s still a lot of work to be done to actually get individuals into colleges. “For kids with intellectual disability, post-secondary education of any sort has really been hard to come by, and actually still is in many parts of the country,” says Weir.

According to Harbour, the pushback is typically from faculty and administrators. “How could a person with an intellectual disability do well in an intellectual environment?” she says. “It’s like assuming that people with learning disabilities can’t learn. I’ve seen people with intellectual disabilities who are very intellectual.”

Fortunately, students with disabilities have the law on their side. The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, ensures that the civil rights of those with intellectual disabilities are protected in an educational setting. Colleges must provide reasonable accommodations for any student with a disability who requests them in advance. Examples of accommodations include notetaking services, additional time on tests, sign language interpreters and large print materials.


College student Brandon Gruber, who is interested in fashion design, shows off the top part of a dress he created. Photo courtesy of Teresa Gruber.

Parents, on the other hand, are typically on board the moment they hear about the programs, albeit with some small concerns. “Part of being in college is taking risks and failing and learning from that,” Harbour says. “It’s very difficult for some families because everything about special education is designed to protect students from taking too much risk or making bad choices. It is very difficult to grow as a college student if you are not taking chances.”(…)Read more…


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