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

Using Individual Supports to Customize a Postsecondary Education Experience


Cate Weir is Project Coordinator for Think College at the Institute for Community Inclusion, University of Massachusetts Boston

With special programs for students with intellectual disabilities now in place on approximately 200 college campuses in the U.S., the opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities to attend college as part of an organized program are greater than they have ever been. While a program may offer classes and social events specifically for students with intellectual disabilities, and for many individuals this may be the route they would like to go, others may want to go a different route. They may want to attend a college that is near to their home or one that offers the courses they are interested in even though it does not have a program specifically for them. It is still possible for people with intellectual disabilities to attend a college of their choice, even if a special program does not exist. This can be accomplished through the creative use of individualized, collaborative supports that are designed around the unique needs and desires of the student.

What Are Individual Supports?

It may be helpful to describe what individual supports are not. They are not predetermined, they are not on a menu to pick from, and they are not packaged together into anything that would resemble a program. Where programs may be developed on a campus with the generic needs of a group of students in mind (for example, those with labels of autism) and then students with this label are directed into that program, individual supports start with the unique needs and desires of the student. A key difference between programs and individual supports is the level of choice one has of which college to attend. Another critical distinction is that individual supports utilize existing college support systems, perhaps supplementing those with additional services such as vocational rehabilitation and other adult support agencies; but it does not create a special support system designed only for program participants.

The essence of individual supports is person-centeredness – the student her or himself is determining the process, and supports are coordinated by the student or a person that student picks. This may be a friend, a case manager, a high school teacher, a vocational rehabilitation counselor or a staff person from an adult support agency. This method requires good communication among the people involved in supporting the student, and that all parties be knowledgeable about how college supports work.

The Process of Creating Supports

To prepare for college while still in high school, students who receive special education services must be assisted to develop independence in the use of accommodations they need, be encouraged to pursue the academic coursework needed for college courses that they desire to take, and have the opportunity to attend college fairs along with their peers. Once a student has decided to attend a particular college, if it is in or near the student's home community the student's school district can assist him or her to prepare for entry to that college by including a college support person on the transition team. The district can also provide the student with a document to share with the college that explains the best learning and teaching strategies for this student's success. In some instances, when a student is under the age of 21 and still eligible for their school district's support, tutoring, transportation or classroom assistance may be provided by the district on the college campus.

In planning for individual supports for attending college, the person with an intellectual disability – whether still in high school or post-high school – and a team of people representing both professional and personal relationships meet to identify challenges the student may face in college and to plan for supports for those areas. Collaboration and person-centered planning are both key features of individual supports for college. The person is supported to attend regular college classes and activities, and supports are provided in much the same fashion as supports are provided to any student who requires assistance. Key considerations in creating individual supports include the following:

  • Resource mapping: Identify all resources available to the person that can offer supports and services to assist at college. Examples of resources that students have used include vocational rehabilitation services, developmental disability agencies, Medicaid funding, private pay tutors, public transportation, college disability services, Americorps, mentor programs on college campuses, family resources, along with school district resources for those under age 21.
  • Creative use of generic resources: It may not be readily apparent that some of the supports a person has can be used to attend college. For example, an adult developmental disability agency may offer staff support to a person to do their shopping or learn to clean their apartment; but that staff support could also be used to help them with homework or learning to use the college cafeteria.
  • Technology: For individuals with disabilities technology can be a critical support in attending college and can also offer long-term independence. Perhaps the best technology solutions are devices that all students are using, such as cell phones, smart phones, iPods, and computers with their many applications that can be used to help support students on campus and improve communication and personal organization. In addition, many campuses have technology centers equipped with special software and hardware to assist students with disabilities in their school work, and vocational rehabilitation services may also be able to help with obtaining assistive technology to help the student be more independent.
  • Person-centered planning: With a commitment to planning that puts the person's dreams at the center, it is more likely that the services and assistance that are designed to support their college education are aligned with the true wishes of the person. It also opens up the type of creative, out-of-the-box thinking that effectively supporting a college education requires. Rather than fitting a person into a pre-existing "slot" the resources can be aligned with what that person wants to do.
  • Coordination: An individual approach to services and supports for people with disabilities seeking postsecondary education requires someone who is aware of all the pieces and can coordinate them to maximize the usefulness of each one. This role can be filled by a transition coordinator at a school district, by a case coordinator at an agency, or sometimes by a parent. Certainly it is sometimes the student himself or herself who does the coordinating. But someone who is always seeing the big picture is a key to success.
  • Collaboration and communication: Many individuals with intellectual disabilities who want to attend college have had less-than-successful experiences when the communication between and among all the players, especially college faculty and staff, is not effective. For many college personnel, their experience with people with intellectual disabilities is limited, and their understanding of why people with significant disabilities want to go to college may be lacking. Many students have found it helpful to identify a "champion" on campus. That "champion" can help college faculty and staff understand the student's commitment to a college education, help address concerns and answer questions, and facilitate collaboration and communication between all involved parties.
  • Knowledge of how college differs from high school: Because a college education is not a guaranteed right like a K-12 education is, there are different ways to approach a college. There are things that are not available to students who are not "matriculated" – not admitted fully into the college certificate or degree programs. Students with intellectual disabilities often enter the college through continuing education divisions and classes, rather than through the certificate or degree application process. Discussions on what courses are available, how to register, and how to obtain services from the disability services office all need to take place before the individual attends. Conversations with the college are critical to laying the groundwork and the understanding between and among all the people involved, and setting the expectations for everyone involved.


Through pre-planning that emphasizes the goals and dreams of the student, creative use of existing resources and a willingness to challenge assumptions about the capacity of individuals with significant disabilities, students with intellectual disabilities are attending college in increasing numbers. Here are some of the supports and strategies students are using to make their dreams of college come true:

  • A student who never received a high school diploma took college classes through the university's division of continuing education. His successful completion of college level courses showed that he was qualified to continue his education. He used support from his family, an adult support agency, and vocational rehabilitation services in addition to the supports provided to him as a student with a disability through the Access Office on campus.
  • The state Vocational Rehabilitation agency financially supported a young woman to meet state licensing requirements by completing two college courses in child development. The agency paid for professional tutoring for the student to supplement the peer tutoring available at the college. The student and her tutor developed grids for the child observations that were required in her class that were adopted by all of her classmates. Child observations had been a historically difficult area for all students, and this approach proved very successful for all students in the class.
  • A course of study was individually designed for a student interested in completing a degree that will allow her to work in the animal grooming field. Together with her academic advisor, the student was able to design a major that highlighted her strengths and interests. For those classes that were particularly difficult, she audited the class first, and then took the course for credit, allowing her more time to learn the essential material.