With college enrollment increasing every semester nationwide, it might be hard to imagine that there are still some students who have been left out of receiving higher education. At UCF, steps are being taken to give a largely overlooked population of students the education they deserve.
Under the leadership of Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner, the state appropriated $8 million in mid-January to fund a new center at UCF called the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities, which will help universities and colleges across the state enhance or develop programs for students with intellectual disabilities.
An important distinction should be made, College of Education and Human Performance Dean Pamela “Sissi” Carroll said, between intellectual and learning disabilities.
“An intellectual disability is a disability that would have been diagnosed by the time somebody’s 18 years old. An IQ is typically 70 or under, so these are students who would be, typically, slower learners, two to three grade levels below their peers,” she explained. “Whereas a learning disability can be addressed by a specific learning strategy.”
Traditionally, Carroll pointed out, these students have been left out of the opportunity to go to college.
“High school has been, for many of them, the last opportunity to go to school or it has been seen as the last opportunity and there haven’t been a lot of post-secondary options,” she said.
The state funding will allow UCF to set up a center for these students that will be used statewide to establish about 30 programs with an estimated 20 students enrolled in each. The number is uncertain right now as officials conduct an audit to see how many high school students would qualify for the program, a number in the thousands. About 16 of these types of programs for students with intellectual disabilities exist in the state currently, and one of these programs is here at UCF.
One of the goals for the center is to build more of these programs, which will give students and parents more options when deciding the right type of program fits best. Some programs might not allow students to live on campus, while others, like the one at UCF, might allow students to live in a dorm, join clubs, go to the gym and generally live like any other university student would.
But College of Education and Human Performance instructor Rebecca Hines, who has been working to help establish the center, said that these programs aren’t about making a lot of modifications for students; they’re about promoting independence.
“We just add layers of support for these students, so everything is highly customized,” Hines said. “Students take classes that he or she wants to like any other student does. They might have a support facilitator that goes to class with them a couple of times and helps instructors identify the best ways to demonstrate what he or she has learned. And it may not look always the same as another student would demonstrate his or her learning, but the focus is on everyone working to his or her peak ability.”
The center is still in the preliminary stages and is currently interviewing for staff positions. A physical building won’t be built, but the center’s office will be set up in the Teaching Academy on campus.
Once it’s complete, the center will serve the entire state and work to identify and distribute $3.5 million in grants to eligible students to help them get enrolled in colleges and universities. It will also identify and assist in helping colleges and universities develop or enhance their own programs to assist these students.
Students can get up to $7,000 a semester of support, and institutions can get up to $300,000 for a three-year grant. The official start date of the center will be July 1, and this coming fall semester will be the first during which students will receive funding and institutions will be eligible for support.
Hines said the reason UCF was picked to host the center was most likely because of the successful programs already put in place at the university.
“First of all, UCF is centrally located in the state, so it makes a nice hub to reach out to partnering universities,” Hines said. “Perhaps, more importantly, Sen. Gardiner is familiar with the work that we’ve done on our campus to make sure that person of all abilities have opportunities.”
This work includes the establishment of UCF’s Inclusive Education Services last year, which supported the enrollment of six students with intellectual disabilities during the fall 2015 semester, and the College of Education and Human Performance’s partnership with the Down Syndrome Foundation of Florida, which includes weekend service opportunities during which children and adolescents from the foundation and their families come to the school and participate in learning activities with UCF faculty.
Soon, with this new center in place at UCF, the university will receive more funding for the IES program, which will improve the program and allow it to serve more students.
Carroll said that she also hopes that this center will give the student population more chances to interact with students with intellectual disabilities and will increase their awareness of diversity.
“I think to be sensitive to other people’s needs and other people’s realities … to have that opportunity enriches us. I grew up with a sister who had a profound intellectual disability. She didn’t have the ability to use language. She couldn’t feed herself. She had to be diapered and she passed away when she was in her mid-50s,” Carroll said. “But still, there were so many things she taught our family about, you know, you love people for what they have, not what they don’t have. So that lesson has always been important to me and it’s helped me look at people in a way that I really am thankful for.”
Jackie Hynek Frisch, a junior pursuing a second degree in elementary education with a minor in exceptional education, has a child in exceptional student education programs. Frisch also works in the ESE community.
Her advice to students interacting with classmates with intellectual abilities is to be friendly and treat them like any other person they might meet on campus.
“Above all, people need to remember they are people first,” Hynek Frisch said. “They are not their disability.”
Deanna Ferrante is a digital producer at the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter @deannaferrante or email her at DeannaF@centralfloridafuture.com.