From where I sit: Act of inclusion goes unnoticed

January 14, 2010

In 2008, the US Congress reauthorised the Higher Education Act - after a five-year delay. Back in 2003, the House of Representatives passed a controversial revision to the Act that would have created a politically appointed "advisory board" to monitor the activities of anyone receiving federal aid under a Title VI international-studies programme. The rationale was simple: in the post-9/11 atmosphere, the culture warriors of the Right decided it was high time to go after Middle Eastern studies.

That revision stalled in the Senate, as did the entire Bill, and the Higher Education Act faded from public view.

Then, while no one was looking, Congress did an amazing thing: it wrote brand-new provisions into the Act. These have nothing to do with the Middle East; rather, they cover "comprehensive transition and postsecondary programmes for students with intellectual disabilities", and declare that the Secretary of Education "shall promulgate regulations allowing programmes enrolling students with intellectual disabilities" to receive financial assistance.

You might think that people in disability studies - one of my fields of specialty - would be thrilled. American universities are actually being encouraged to develop programmes for students with intellectual disabilities, programmes that will help them to make the transition to the workplace (where appropriate) and participate in campus life to the best of their abilities.

It is a remarkable thing: many universities, including mine, are struggling to make their campuses more accessible to students with physical disabilities, and we still have a long way to go. But accommodating students with intellectual disabilities, allowing them to take whatever courses they can handle, regardless of whether they intend to get a degree? Now that seems truly radical - and truly visionary. Yet most of my colleagues, even those in disability studies, have no idea that this law is now on the books.

I have a personal stake in this: my son Jamie, 18, has Down's syndrome and will graduate from high school in 2011. After that, he is eligible for two more years of "transition" services, and here at Penn State we have a wonderful programme called LifeLink that allows students with intellectual disabilities to take whatever college classes they can.

Jamie is currently studying second-year French, and because he has an intellectual disability, he'll repeat second-year French next year as well. That's how you "accommodate" students such as Jamie, who take a bit longer than their peers to master the passe compose.

LifeLink is an anomaly, although it has earned national and international acclaim for its innovative approach to intellectual disability. Now, however, the new Higher Education Act suggests that such programmes should be the rule rather than the exception. It's truly staggering that this hasn't generated more fanfare - or more debate.

There's one more nice thing about accommodating students with intellectual disabilities: any university that does so will be bucking the US News and World Report ratings system. One of its measures of a school's quality is its graduation rate. Since most students with intellectual disabilities won't be seeking bachelors degrees, transition/postsecondary programmes throw a spanner in the works. If there are any university presidents in the US who despise the US News rankings as much as I do, here's a golden opportunity for them to do some good.

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