Oct. 7, 2016
Program provides students with intellectual disabilities an inclusive college experience at VCU
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Ever since he was in middle school in Chesterfield County, Teddy Robbins dreamed of one day getting the opportunity to attend college. But Robbins was enrolled in special education classes in middle and high school, so he figured his chances of getting into college weren’t great.
I’d always wanted to go to college, but I didn’t think it was going to ever happen.
“I’d always wanted to go to college,” he said, “but I didn’t think it was going to ever happen.”
During his senior year of high school, however, Robbins heard about a program at Virginia Commonwealth University, called ACE-IT in College, that provides students with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to attend classes at VCU, work in a job and participate in all aspects of the college experience.
“I feel great about being at VCU. I’m really enjoying my time here,” said Robbins, who is taking courses this fall on forensic science, choral arts and LGBTQIA studies.
In addition to his studies, ACE-IT arranged for Robbins to work this semester at Morrissett Funeral and Cremation Service in Richmond, where he is learning about the funeral industry and making memorial photo slideshows.
“My goal is to become a funeral director,” he said. “I have plans after college to continue my education. I want to go to John Tyler to earn an associate’s degree in their mortuary science program and get my funeral director’s license. That will be after I finish ACE-IT. It’s setting me up to know what to expect in college, because the program at Tyler is a lot of work and I need to be prepared.”
Robbins is one of 13 students with intellectual disabilities participating in ACE-IT this semester, each taking two or three inclusive courses and working in jobs — 10 are paid and three are internships, including one at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.
“VCU really stands as a leader in postsecondary education for individuals with intellectual disability,” said Seb Prohn, Ph.D., program coordinator of ACE-IT. “Our best estimate is, despite the national momentum, that around 4 percent of four-year universities offer a pathway to college and a career for individuals with ID. Traditionally this group, like many others, has been excluded from higher education. The effects of exclusion are apparent in unemployment numbers and many aspects of inclusive community living.”
VCU was one of 27 universities in 2010 to receive funding under the Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities, which provides grants to higher education institutions to create or expand inclusive and comprehensive transition and postsecondary programs for students with intellectual disabilities. Over the several years, ACE-IT has worked in partnership with the VCU RRTC and the VCU Partnership for People with Disabilities in the School of Education to provide an inclusive college experience to 29 students with intellectual disabilities.
“We are so proud of the students, staff and instructors at VCU who make inclusion a reality and do so in a natural, rather seamless fashion,” Prohn said. “Our campus has made bold proclamations about diversity recently, and we feel that ACE-IT is one of the programs that show VCU’s commitment to students of diverse backgrounds, but it has worked so well because it’s been a ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ initiative.”
After graduating from ACE-IT, roughly 88 percent of participants so far have obtained paid employment within six months. Nationally, people with disabilities are employed at a rate of about 32 percent.
“Students, every semester during the program, during the first four semesters where they’re taking classes, they also have paid employment — usually on campus,” Prohn said. “They are learning the relationship between hard work and getting paid. The best predictor of getting a job in the future is having a job.”
Not only does ACE-IT place its students in jobs, it generally seeks to place the students in jobs that align with their long-term career goals.
Curtis Robinson, an ACE-IT student from Richmond, is in his first year at VCU and is interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement. This semester, Robinson is taking classes in homeland security and military science, as well as UNIV 101: Introduction to the University, a freshman transition course.
For his job, Robinson is working as a campus security guard.
“I am a security officer,” he said. “I sit at the front desk [of a residence hall], take the students’ ID, give them back to them, keep an eye on things … I want to get a career in criminal justice or homeland security. I like that they’re very active, and you get to do good things to help out America and make a difference.”
Sarah Lancaster, a second-year student taking part in ACE-IT, was interested in a career in child care upon entering the program, and worked during her first year at the Child Development Center in the School of Education, before deciding to try out some different career options. This semester, she is working at the Cary Street Gym, where she is gaining experience in customer service and other skills.
“It’s kind of fun working there,” she said. “I like helping out.”
In her first year, Lancaster took public speaking and interpretive dance classes, which helped her work on her verbal and nonverbal communication. This year, she is taking another dance class with the same professor, Starrene Foster, a faculty member n the Department of Dance and Choreography in the School of the Arts.
“I like dancing. I dance a lot,” Lancaster said. “I am in my second year. First year was pretty great. I love VCU.”
A key part of ACE-IT is that it provides each of its participants with education coaches — trained VCU students who attend classes alongside them and meet with them for regular study sessions.
Robbins said his education coaches have provided him with excellent support both inside and outside the classroom.
“If you’re a student with a disability, who might get overwhelmed easily, they can help you pull through and get the work done,” he said.
Bethany Coston, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is teaching the Introduction to LGBTQ Studies course that Robbins is taking.
“So far, Teddy has been a great student — actively engaged while in class and always making sure to reach out outside of class when he has questions, comments [or] concerns,” Coston said. “As a student, he wants to not only doing well, but also makes sure he gleans everything possible from the material and our class conversations. Although it’s early in the semester, I can already tell that Teddy is a dedicated student and enthusiastic learner, and I look forward to working with him this semester!”
ACE-IT, Prohn said, is helping to build a campus full of advocates for people with intellectual disabilities.
“When you take a class with someone [with an intellectual disability], you realize, ‘Oh, my gosh. People with intellectual disabilities are hard workers and they can participate in class and they do have good thoughts they can share,’” he said. “And when voting initiatives come up and when students become employers, they might vote for initiatives that help people with disabilities in the future, they might employ someone with a disability in the future.”
Additionally, he said, ACE-IT is encouraging VCU faculty members to consider ways to ensure their course material is accessible to all learners.
“What I’ve seen with professors here on campus, they’re allowing students to express what they’ve learned in a wide variety of ways. And they’re also presenting that information in a wide variety of ways,” Prohn said.
“Instructors understand that students are coming to VCU with a wide range of background experiences, background knowledge, some of them might have English as a second language,” he continued. “So how can you make knowledge accessible to all of those students? Well, really, students with any disability — including intellectual disabilities — fit in on that curve of making classes more accessible for all learners and all different learning styles.”
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