WASHINGTON – Enrolling in a general undergraduate curriculum is not the only way for disabled students to experience college life.
For students with significant physical,cognitive or learning disabilities,George Mason University in Fairfax,Va.,is one of a few universities offering a non-credit program whose goal is to improve the lives and productivity of young men and women who have finished high school.
“There is a significant group of students who,because the way college works and the [Americans With Disabilities Act] structure,don't qualify for college. … But there are a lot of those kids out there who do want to have a college experience such as their non- disabled peers,so we are a whole different ballgame,but a very important one,” said Carmen Rioux,director of the Learning Into Future Environments program.
In the 2-year-old LIFE program,students attend classes for up to four years and may live on campus for two years. In the fifth and sixth years,plans call for students to live independently or with a family and find a job. Some may attend evening classes.
The classes are substantially separate from others at the university,but LIFE students receive regular student identification cards,participate in campus activities and interact on a regular basis with their non-disabled peers. The program does not lead to a degree.
Rioux said that most of the students will eventually work independently,“but some others will need supported employment or some kind of job coaching to help them,and at least gain employment and learn the job they are getting. And lots of our students will need support to live independently.”
Claire Talbert,LIFE program coordinator,said,“At least right now we don't see ourselves finding them job,but hopefully hooking them up with the people who will.”
Adam Toobin,20,who has cerebral palsy,is one of 12 LIFE program students on the campus of 27,000 students. He audits some classes in the regular curriculum. Even though he loves it and has made new friends,at first he didn't want to enroll. His parents pushed him to try.
“We did feel it would be beneficial to him while giving him a college experience. … He has acclimated beautifully to it,and there is really no more need for any emotional support since he is very enthusiastic about going,” said Adam's mother,Merle Toobin.
She said the LIFE program has been perfect for her son,especially because the faculty members individualize their teaching,allowing students to excel in some subjects and to fill in gaps elsewhere.
The program is self-supporting,although some students get outside grants for the $7,500 per semester tuition. Room and board is extra.
Toobin said some parts of the program are not “challenging enough,because they don't give you any homework. … They do a lot of stuff,but they don't say to go home and do this or that.”
Because he is interested in studying communications,Toobin and his family have talked about the challenges he would face,regardless of his disability.
“That is a difficult field to gain entry into,whether or not one is disabled,” Merle Toobin said. “However,we have talked about the fact that any broadcaster or journalist probably has help working behind the scenes gathering information and data on the computer.”
LIFE's reception at GMU was better than Rioux and Talbert expected,but it also demanded more work than they imagined and more public attention.
Because the program would lose its ability to keep the class work individualized if the program accepts more students,they hope to expand it at other universities in the state rather than on the GMU campus.
“There are so many colleges and universities in Virginia that,if everyone of them had one with 10 to 25 students,then we could take care of demand,” Rioux said.