Impact Feature Issue on Postsecondary Education and Students with Intellectual, Developmental and Other Disabilities

How College Benefits Us: Students with Intellectual Disabilities Speak Out


Maria Paiewonsky is the Participatory Action Research Coordinator for Think College, Institute for Community Inclusion, University of Massachusetts, Boston

Staff from the Institute for Community Inclusion, at the University of Massachusetts Boston, asked 50 students with intellectual disabilities who have participated in inclusive college experiences to share how they perceive they have benefited from attending college. Below are some of their comments on six different aspects of college life.

Overcoming the First Day Jitters

Several students admitted that even though they were excited about going to college, the first few days were a little nerve-wracking. In addition to talking about how they felt at the time, three students talked about how they overcame their fears:

  • At first, I didn't know how to be in a college classroom. It's scary in there. Cuz I just started. It was my first time going to college. When you start new things, you're not sure you can do it. Then you just say in your head, "I think I can" and then you just do it. – Adrian, 19
  • It was tough being in a new place and all, but I got by. I joined a club pretty quick and made a lot of friends. – Antony, 21
  • Getting around the campus was so difficult at first. It was so hard figuring out where everything was. Like where the entrances were, what floor my class was on, and where the Braille signs were, if they even had Braille signs at the campus. I got some help from my mobility instructor. She helped me learn routes around the campus and reminded me to listen for new sound cues like the hum of the vending machines in the student lounge. I do it on my own now. – Roberto, 19

Realizing the Differences Between High School and College Courses

A strong theme in the students' responses was the realization they came to that the college courses they take are much more rigorous than classes they took in high school, and that they are meeting higher academic expectations:

  • When you're still in high school, when you're taking math, for example, you think you're taking a hard class. Then, after you finish high school and you sign-up for a math class at college, okay, that's actually a hard math class. – Cassidy, 21
  • College is okay. It's kind of like high school but different. The class is harder. In high school, you can come in late. Here at college if you call your professor, you can come in late, but they don't accept excuses. They tell you that. It's up to you. Class starts on time and you have to be there. It's your responsibility. That's what they tell us. – Fabiola, 19
  • For me, when I was in high school, I didn't have the chance to take classes with regular kids. Now, in college, I'm having to learn to do harder work. In high school I didn't have homework a lot. In college the professors don't baby you like they do in high school. You're responsible for your own work. I like that. – Grace, 21

Learning New Things

Many students talked about what they are learning in their courses, and were especially eager to talk about courses that are related to their interests:

  • I'm taking a course called "Music of the 20th Century." We talked about Richard Strauss and we listened to his Alpine Symphony. We talked about Louis Armstrong. We listened to Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll, and we also listened to Ella Fitzgerald. A whole variety of music and jazz. – Michael, 20
  • I took a mythology class last semester and even found a mythology Web site for the class that lists the gods in alphabetical order and by country. At first the professor was skeptical about letting a student with disabilities take the class. Then he realized I had already read an older version of the textbook he was using for the class and changed his mind. – Crystal, 21
  • I love my painting class and my favorite painting is "The Egg." I put lots of shadow into it, light, dark. My other painting, "The Green Bottle," it was part of the college's Student Art Show. I went to the artist's reception. I feel great that I had three paintings in the art show! – Allison, 20
  • I learned a lot in this class. We read Stephen Covey's book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and we learned about multiple intelligences. I know now I am an interpersonal worker. That means I like to work with people, not by myself. – Adrian, 19 

Appreciating More Freedom and Independence

Nearly all the students commented on how much they appreciated the freedom and independence they felt at college:

  • There's more freedom at college, more independence. It doesn't matter if it's after class, or on the weekends. You come to college and find things to do. In college, it's okay to hang out when you're not in class any time you want to. – Joey, 21
  • I like having time to work out at the fitness center. You can meet people there, get a work out, just hang out. – Antony, 21
  • I like spending free time at the library so I can check sports Web sites and my email. – Wilson, 21

Becoming a Changed Person

Several students described how they have changed as a result of going to college:

  • Here's what college has taught me about myself: (1) I've learned how to be more aware; (2) I learned more about who I am as a person; (3) I've learned how to be an independent and responsible person; and (4) I'm learning to be more focused. – Grace, 21
  • My best class is my Choral Class. It really helped me find my voice. Not just my singing voice. I'm speaking up for myself now in many different situations. I was quiet before but now, here I am, talking about college. It's like, bam! I've got everything under control. – Arielle, 19
  • I feel different now because I'm getting an education and meeting new people. College might be hard, but you can get through it. I know plenty of people who quit college and don't want to get an education. Last year I thought about quitting, but I didn't. I said to myself that the work might be hard, but I know I can do it. And I did it. – Stephan, 20

Some Advice About College

When asked what advice they have for younger students who have not thought about college or are anxious about trying college, the students had a number of encouraging responses:

  • Motivate yourself. Believe you can go to college. You don't have to be the world's smartest student. You just have to try. – Grace, 21
  • You know the thing is, students are thinking that college is going to be tough for them in their future, but you know what? College is more fun for people. They can take more different classes then they were taking back in high school. And get everything done in college, not just be lazy. None of this, I don't want to do this, I don't want to do this, I want to listen to music… No! Go to college and get your education done through college. That's what students have to understand. – Arielle, 19
  • Taking college classes and looking for work when you are still in school isn't easy. First of all, you have to work a lot. And you might miss your friends from school and the classes you had there. It's hard to manage your new schedule. And there are always going to be transportation problems. I worry about working it all out. But if you're thinking is it all worth it? Yes, I think it is. – Adrian, 19