Feature Issue on Inclusive Higher Education for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities

Perspectives on Equity in Inclusive Higher Education


Sharon Brown is an associate professor and director of the Bulldog LIFE post-secondary program at the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University. She may be reached at sharon.brown@aamu.edu.

Imani Evans is a speech-language pathologist and a doctoral student in special education and disability policy at Virginia Commonwealth University. She may be reached at evansio@vcu.edu.

Regina Watts is the director of special needs and of L.E.A.P. at Albany Technical College in Albany, Georgia. She may be reached at rwatts@albanytech.edu.

Beginning with this issue, Overview articles will include a clear-language summary for readers who prefer a concise description of the article's main points. We value your feedback and welcome any questions at stew0390@umn.edu

We can no longer ignore the fact that our school system has treated some students unfairly because of their race, or other factors. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have played an important role in supporting these students, and they have paved the way in fights for equity and justice. Because of this history, HBCUs are in a strong position to support students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and make sure they have equal educational opportunities.

The Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University (AAMU) is the first and only HCBU to offer inclusive higher education programming for students with IDD. It started the Bulldog Learning Independence Fostering Education and Employment (LIFE) program in 2017, with help from the University of Memphis. These students have gone on to good jobs that pay well after completing the LIFE program.

Another school, Albany Technical College (ATC) in southwest Georgia, is a 2-year technical school that, like HBCUs, mostly serves students from racial and economic populations that have historically been underserved. Many of its students are the first in their families to continue their education after high school. It offers a program called Leveraging Education for Advancement Program (LEAP) for students with IDD who are 18 and older. Students take classes for credit that are approved by the Technical College System of Georgia. They receive support as they complete the classes and work toward a certificate or diploma.

A group of technical college students, mostly wearing red t-shirts, stand together.

LEAP students at Albany Technical College.

HBCUs’ Role in Increasing Options

By Imani Evans

There has never been a more pressing time than now to address access and equity issues. The events of recent years have made it impossible to continue to ignore the many social injustices and systemic disparities that have plagued our nation for decades. This has reopened the door to ensuring our country’s educational system is inclusive and equitable for all. Part of the renewed commitment to strengthening the educational system in the United States must include efforts to increase access to higher education for individuals with disabilities who belong to underrepresented minority populations.

Colleges and universities across the country have begun to develop and establish inclusive higher education programs for students with intellectual disabilities. At this time, however, only one such program exists among the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) institutions. Since their founding, HBCUs have played a vital role in serving students who are minority, low-income, or first-generation. First designed to provide higher education options to individuals of African or Black descent who were not permitted to attend existing institutions of higher education, HBCUs have a legacy of paving and leading the way in fights for equity and justice. To this day, HBCUs are committed to student success, providing supportive faculty, and creating strong community ties for underrepresented minority populations. Given their history and current status as institutions who stood and continue to stand at the forefront of causes for equity and access, HBCUs are uniquely positioned to provide inclusive higher education options to individuals with intellectual disabilities. The establishment of inclusive college programs at HBCUs would contribute to the diversity already present in these college and university communities.

It is incredibly important for campuses founded with the purpose of providing opportunities to those from underserved and historically excluded populations to prioritize individuals with disabilities within their communities. HBCUs hold a legacy of being pioneers for enhancing equal educational opportunity for all students. Individuals with intellectual disabilities must not be left out of this legacy.

Life as a Bulldog

By Sharon Brown

As the first and only historically Black college or university in the United States to offer inclusive higher education programming for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University (AAMU) has provided leadership to this programming and critical support for efforts to reduce disparities that exist among young adults with IDD, in Alabama and beyond.

The Bulldog Learning Independence Fostering Education and Employment (LIFE) program began in the fall semester of 2017, with the help of the Alabama Council on Developmental Disabilities and our sister school, the University of Memphis. Since then, despite the pandemic, Bulldog LIFE has graduated six students. In the fall of 2022, the program expects to enroll six students, for a total of 10 on campus.

AAMU has a large African American population of matriculating students without intellectual disability. Young adults with IDD are over-represented in the African-American population as a whole, so bringing IHE programming to a university such as AAMU was an important step for our state. AAMU was supported and mentored in the creation of its IHE programming by faculty and staff of the University of Memphis Institute on Disability (UMID), which has offered this programming since 2012. Since 2013, it has offered Tiger LIFE, the largest minority-serving program in the United States. UMID worked with the AAMU faculty and staff to create a program that meets the national standards set by Think College and the U.S. Department of Education. 

AAMU has developed partnerships with the State of Alabama Vocational Rehabilitation agency and the local educational authorities in the greater Huntsville area to support and recruit young adults with IDD to the program. The lives of persons with disabilities and their families have improved because of this program, as has public perception of young adults with IDD, both on the AAMU campus and in the larger Huntsville community. These young adults have engaged in competitive, non-segregated employment, paying at or above the minimum wage, and will become significant contributors to their communities. With the emerging development of postsecondary programs for students with IDD, the need for diversity and inclusion for this population is essential. Giving these students the opportunity to matriculate on campus and be treated equally is paramount to the overall college experience.

A Leap for IDD

By Regina Watts

Albany Technical College, (ATC) located in southwest Georgia, is a public, 2-year institution committed to providing higher education and life-long learning opportunities that promote self- sufficiency, economic development, and community growth and sustainability.

The Leveraging Education for Advancement Program (LEAP) at ATC is an Inclusive Postsecondary Education Program (IPSE) that is designed to provide students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, ages 18 and older, an inclusive college experience. As Georgia’s only technical college with an IPSE program, ATC’s LEAP program focuses on developing academic, personal, and self-advocacy skills that lead to employment self-sufficiency. Along with being afforded the opportunity to enroll in credit- bearing classes, students participate in career development options and social integration. Of theseven LEAP graduates who have received a recognized college credential, five are competitively employed. 

Virtually all students who enroll come from historically underserved populations, and several of our students are also first-generation college students. This requires careful attention to providing resources that will help us retain students until they successfully complete their programs of study. This includes intensive advisory services, quality contact throughout the semester, and ongoing, individualized services. Through a mentor program, we connect students with peers who share their interests.

LEAP is unique in that it offers for-credit credentials that are approved by the Technical College System of Georgia, which are also available to all Albany Tech students. Students enroll in only one course per semester, and can choose from a list of 15 certificates or one diploma program, which can be completed in 12 to 24 months. Each student receives one-on-one instructional aid from LEAP staff as they engage in college-level courses taught by ATC faculty. In addition to the academics, students participate in hands-on training in their areas of study. Reasonable accommodations, modifications, and services are provided, empowering the students while promoting equal access to educational opportunities. Additionally, Georgia residents attending a technical college earn a college education with no out-of-pocket costs to the student by qualifying for PELL, the Georgia HOPE grant, funding from the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency or an annual grant awarded by the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities. In alignment with ATC’s strategic plan, LEAP alsopartners with high schools and transition specialists, who are strong referral sources. We also participate in a disability-focused community collaborative. These relationships broaden ATC’s community relations efforts and enhance our ability to attract students from all backgrounds.

Our challenges include having to overcome below-average reading comprehension levels and the effects of students’ lack of self-confidence. Many of the LEAP students were told and believed that there were no options for them after high school. With the implementation of the IPSE option, however, students with IDD have a restored confidence and hope in the possibilities.

One of the first students to enroll was extremely shy and timid. “This program has given me self-confidence. It makes me feel good to be in the LEAP program,” he said. “I want everyone to know that people like myself can do anything they set their mind to do if they believe in themselves.” Along with four of the other graduates, he has acquired and maintains competitive employment to this day.

The program contributes to the creation of a caring campus community and a productive learning environment that helps the students thrive academically and socially while learning life skills. The students are encouraged to say what is important to them and to build the confidence to voice their needs. “I won’t have to rely on other people (after graduating). I’m being prepared to go into the real world,” said one student who is working on a diploma in early childhood education.

The LEAP program is an option for students who have historically been underserved by our higher education system. It sets the tone for what possibilities are available to this population of students, and shows them that they can achieve greater heights. Students leave the LEAP program determined, self-aware, and better prepared for obstacles they may face. They, too, are future leaders of tomorrow.