By Daniel J. Vance MS, LPCC
They have a residential, individualized academic program at Millersville University (Penn.) for students with intellectual disabilities, where students right now are working through a two- and soon, four-year program in Career & Life Studies. According to the Millersville University website, this program can “lead to social and professional networks, careers, and a bright future.”
What makes Millersville's program different from most others is that their students live on campus and experience college life, audit regular liberal arts classes, create their own individualized programs, have academic coaches, and make strong vocational connections.
As founder of this particular program in 2014, Dr. Thomas Neuville had an early, influential life connection to people with intellectual disabilities. In a telephone interview, the 65-year-old professor said, “For one, my godmother's daughter, who I grew up with, never left the house because of a (possible) brain injury. The other (connection I had) was with Danny Burke, who all the kids made fun of. Looking back, I clearly now believe he had an intellectual disability.” Neuville eventually earned his Ph.D in special education and human resources at Colorado State before finding his way to Millersville University.
He said, “Our program is designed for students with intellectual disabilities and who have the capacity to get around campus independently. Those really are the only two criteria.” They began with just one student, Daniel Castellanos, in 2014, and a year later added eight. A 2016 graduate, Castellanos addressed 4,000 attendees at this year's university commencement.
Said Neuville, “Daniel built his own (academic and vocational) path. His interests were theater and hospitality management, and he has the ultimate goal of owning a theater that serves dinner. Through community connections, we linked him with a five-star restaurant, who hired him full-time and taught him everything, including bartending, kitchen, and office. He is currently working there as a sous chef.”
Programs for post-secondary students with intellectual disabilities, like ones at Millersville University and other schools, became possible due to the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. The Act also provided funding.
While potentially creating better employment opportunities and higher wages for people with intellectual disabilities, these programs do have critics. Neuville said some believe people with intellectual disabilities really don't belong in higher education at all, while others say these students should have at least a few specialized classes, rather than auditing regular college courses and using academic coaches.
But Neuville said, “Marginalized groups always have their critics.”
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