'Unique Learners'

June 24, 2005

The "last bastion of prejudice in higher education," according to Cynthia Johnson, is the belief that developmentally disabled students don't have a place in colleges.

These students, many of whom would have been called mentally retarded in an earlier era, have a range of skills. And while a growing number of colleges have created a few programs or certificates for such students, Johnson is running a program that is moving to another level.

Johnson directs the Venture Program at Bellevue Community College, which offers a range of courses for developmentally disabled students. This fall, the program will offer an associate degree curriculum, which Johnson and other experts believe is the first college degree program for this group.

"This is a population that has been ignored. No one had thought of them having a college degree before. There is a desire by the students, but no one pushed the envelope to do this," Johnson says.

Steven M. Eidelman, executive director of the Arc, a national organization that works on behalf of people with developmental disabilities and their families, says the Bellevue program is significant because there is a growing population of students who could benefit. In the last 20 years, education programs have greatly expanded and improved for children with developmental disabilities, and more of those students are now ready for a college program, he said.

Eidelman doubts the Bellevue program would be appropriate for all people with developmental disabilities, who have a wide range of capacities. "It's great that this will be an option that will be appropriate for some people," he says. Community colleges are ideal homes for such programs, he says, "because they are really good at working with nontraditional students, and they have experience with literacy challenges and reaching out to people."

Donna Martinez, an Ed.D. student at George Washington University, is conducting research on the transitions faced by developmentally disabled people as they become adults. Martinez, who has a son who is developmentally disabled, says "one of the ultimate goals is for him to go to college."

Martinez says it is important for such programs not to be "some little classroom stuck in the back of a college," but to include interaction with the campus. She applauds Bellevue for having its program offer degrees. "It sends a wonderful message," she says. "There is a validation of presumed competence for these students."

The program at Bellevue features 52 separate courses and the Associate in Essential Studies degree will require 90 credits. The program combines academic courses, life skills and job training. Johnson says that a major goal of the program is to improve job options for graduates. So all courses will require students to demonstrate written and verbal communication skills as well as problem solving and critical thinking.

Whenever possible, students will also be placed in internships so they can learn about job possibilities while finishing their training.

To date, 40 students have been enrolled in the nondegree Venture Program, and Johnson expects that number to shoot up by 10-20 in the fall. Eventually the program, which will take most students three to four years to complete, is projected to have 100 students. "I've gotten several hundred letters and e-mails since we started talking about making this a degree program," Johnson says, adding that because Bellevue is not a residential college, students from outside Washington State may have a tough time with the logistics of enrolling.

"We hope other colleges will replicate this, and we're happy to share what we've done," she says.

Johnson acknowledges that some will question whether all of the instruction is "college level," but she says that such definitions aren't quite as precise as is commonly believed.

"College level is very subjective to every college," Johnson says. "For example, Biology 101 at Harvard is different from Biology 101 here. There is no real definition of college level. It is defined by the college, and I think our program will enhance this college."

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