Pomp and Special Ed: An Exclusive College Education

I’ve heard some people tell rising college students, “College will be the best time of your life.” Well, I don’t know about best time of one’s whole life, but college certainly is a great experience and, I think, should rank right up there. But too often, for students with disabilities, that doesn’t happen. Sometimes, it’s because parents and teachers mistakenly think students with disabilities, intellectual disabilities especially, cannot benefit from college, or can’t handle it. This, however, just perpetuates the view of people with disabilities as permanent children whose purpose is to be cared for more than contribute.

But what about the parents and teachers who do believe students with disabilities can attend college? They’re right, and those students should have a college experience, just as their peers without disabilities do. The sad reality, however, is that even though many universities now admit students with significant disabilities, they don’t allow those students to have a real college experience. Instead, they are placed in programs similar to the special education ones they just left in public school. They are largely segregated from other students, and the environments in which they move have an artificial, childish, condescending tone and feel.

I have mentioned college and special ed (as if they should really go together!) in other posts, but now it’s time for us to get specific, down and dirty. We’re going to put these “inclusive” programs under the microscope, and then really meditate on what we see and how to react to it. Ready? Let’s go.

First, the obvious question: where do these programs exist? According to thinkcollege.net, a site dedicated to students with intellectual disabilities (those who are often caught and placed in these programs in colleges’  figurative nets), and their families who are considering colleges, several states and universities employ the programs. These include Vanderbilt University of Tennessee, UCLA (ironic, isn’t it, considering California’s open, liberal reputation), and the College Connections program of Louisville, Kentucky. More exist, but we’ll just focus on these for now.

Second: what’s so bad about these programs? Ah, so glad you asked. As I have mentioned, according to the articles of disability advocate Kathie Snow and other activisits, a few negative aspects are:

  1. Students are generally required to sign up for SSI, yet turn over all their funds to a mentor or aide who is paid to live with them, help them, and in essence, be their friend. And what does that say? The unspoken message is, even in college, people with disabilities are incapable of making friends or socializing “appropriately,” so they must be given friends–indeed, must earn them by paying for them! Think about it, parents. What would you do if that happened to your son or daughter without a disability? If someone spread a vicious rumor around school that your son or daughter had to pay a date to go out with him or her? You’d be livid. So why do so many parents consider this “mentoring” arrangement acceptable?
  2. Students are required to “earn” free time. I’m not saying anything else about this one. If you read yesterday’s post, you know exactly how I feel about the phenomenon that says, “people with disabilities have to earn everything they get.”
  3. Students are required to spend a set number of hours per semester in “required voluntary” activities, such as job training–for menial jobs–or learning how to use public transportation. How can it be voluntary if it’s required?
  4. Some programs, such as Kentucky’s College Connections program, do not allow students with intellectual disabilities to take classes for real credit. In other words, “You have to earn the grade, but it won’t count because poor thing, you’re too dumb.”

Let’s dig deeper, shall we? We’ve hit the muck–ready for the big nasties? Take a deep breath of fresh air, tighten up your rubber gloves, turn on your headlamps, and pull your boots up as high as they’ll get. Ready?

Okay. I did some research on these programs last night. I found such nuggets of caca as:


A recently written article about College Connections (2010), describes a class this way: “But the six students in this class are not typical college students. They have Down’s Syndrome.” The article also quotes the teacher, who begins her class by holding up a piece of paper and asking: “Who remembers what this is?”

“A syllabus,” a student says.

“Right. This is what you have to use so you can get another A.” (Yeah–but that A won’t even count!)

Down’sSyndromeofLouisville.org’s webpage states of their college program for students with Down’s Syndrome: “A certificate path is currently being developed for this program.” Okay, so in the meantime, what do these students get?

The same website claims part of its mission is to help people with DS “reach their full potential.” Yeah, keep working on that, folks. You haven’t met your goal yet. No grants, money, or chocolate cupcakes for you!

Jefferson Community and Technical College (the one the article was about): Classes have names such as “Employment Readiness.” The teacher suggests “good” employment opportunities. For example, she says, “You may say, ‘I don’t want to be a janitor,’ but if I could do work at the baseball stadium, I’d do anything.'” In other words, as long as it’s at a venue the student with Down’s Syndrome likes, sweeping up after “regular” people is still “good enough.”

Back to the syllabus discussion: Amber, a 24-year-old student with DS, is quoted as, after the teacher’s “get an A” comment, “[giggling and looking] at her paper, [saying] ‘This is cool.'” I suppose it’s cool if you’ve never had the opportunity to get an A, or even any real grade, but…oh, wait a minute…

In her Employment Readiness class, the teacher at JCTC plays games with students, role-playing or pantomiming a specific skill they can do, like sweeping. Excuse me? I wasn’t aware this was Theater 101. To quote Tom Hanks: “You’re role-playing? You’re role-playing? There is no role-playing in college!” In Kathie Snow’s words, “Life is not a dress rehearsal.”

A spokesperson for JCTC says of these classes, “The goal is not to get an A…the goal is to be included….” Okay, so where are the students without disabilities. Just in case you’re confused: Inclusion does NOT mean putting a person with a disability into a separate class or program and then essentially saying, “Okay, we put you in here, you’re included, we’re done.”

The student I mentioned earlier, Amber, is described in the article as having placed her bus pass on the corner of her desk the first day, which I took to mean she then forgot it. What happens now? Her mother comes every day to pick her up. (????!!!!)


A New York Times article describes Katie Apostolides, a 23-year-old college woman with Down’s Syndrome, as she begins another day of her “inclusive” college education. She is described as “peppering” a professor with questions before class, such as whether she will have to take notes and whether there will be homework. The unwritten message? “Kate is not smart enough to understand homework and notes are an everyday part of college.” The article also makes a point of Katie’s not remembering her SAT score (unspoken message: “She’s too dumb”), and quotes the professor as “kindly” explaining, “Katie really is a devoted student.” Unspoken message: “Even though she asks me repetitive questions and takes up my time.” (This professor was also described as encouraging Katie “not to spend all her time waiting with her” (the prof).

In the article, students with disabilities like Down’s are described as “more challenging…colleges must not only deal with how students learn, but the limit on what they can absorb.”

In this article, it is admitted that most of these programs “do not have a residential component”–how, then, are these students supposed to have a “normal” college experience? Also note the unspoken message: “We’re not sure yet how to make our residential aspects workable for these people.”


This program is a little better. It appears to be inclusive, according to the same article, because students with intellectual disabilities participate in classes with peers without disabilities, are required to read, write critiques, watch films, and other standard college activities, and can work toward a real associate’s degree in 66 fields. But “they must first pass so-called foundation courses in reading, math, and writing.” There’s that earning thing again: Prove to us you really are literate and able to do math, or you can’t be here. The program at MCCC is also called the Dream Program, which is somewhat demeaning.

The NY Times article also points out the “struggles” of 24-year-old John McCormack, a student with DS who goes to MCCC. The writer points out that among students without disabilities, John “needed help spelling ‘orange’ on a form…got confused by a copier machine sign, thinking it read $1 instead of 10 cents…and was afraid to ask for help ordering a cheeseburger.” But, the writer says, “A get-to-know-you session with just the Dream group went much better.” The writer seems to be pointing out a still-existent line between “us” and “them” where John is concerned, and points out many of his weaknesses unfairly.


Vanderbilt’s “Next Steps” program for students with intellectual disabilities costs $10,000 a year for two years, but only admits six to eight students a year. Can we say “disproportionate?” Plus all the other crap I have described in the above numbered list. Students are also required to sign an Independent Learning Contract (I don’t see students without disabilities required to sign contracts, do you?)


UCLA’s Pathway Program for students with intellectual disabilities features a Web page. “Student Stories” is one of its links, but only one student story is featured. The student, Lauren, has a disability, although it is not visible and not specified in her video presentation. Her presentation includes slides captioned with, “I learned about riding the bus” or “living in my own apartment and doing chores.” One slide also has a caption: “At first I had issues with my roommates and getting upset.” The unspoken message: “Of coruse she got upset at roommates; she has a disability!” I also noted that Lauren herself does not talk to viewers at all in the presentation. Riding the bus, learning to do chores, and menial jobs such as filing are painted as major accomplishments, whereas a student without a disability would naturally learn to use public transit on his or her own, not be “coached” on “not getting upset,” and would consider chores a natural part of the day.

One program (may not be UCLA), allows viewers of its Web pages to see a student’s schedule. It includes transportation via paratransit (no need to say more).

The College Connections website gives tips to students with disabilities such as:

  • Behavior problems will NOT be tolerated
  • Try not to fall behind on your assignments (unspoken message: We know you will because you’re disabled and incapable, but do us a favor and don’t act like it)
  • Budget your time (2 hours a day for TV) Yes, all students need to learn time management, but nobody ever told me when I could and could not watch TV.

Now, I’m not saying that all these programs are 100% bad. As noted, some of them do allow students with disabilities to get real degrees. And my research shows that students with intellectual disabilities who do go to college can earn 1.7% more money than those who don’t. (But then again, considering the kinds of jobs they’re often still pushed into–one college programs requires training at an on-site campus food-packing facility, for instance), is that a real accomplishment?

We can do better. In the movie Mona Lisa Smile, Wellsley was described as “a finishing school disguised as a college.” Well, these programs are holding pens disguised as colleges, people.

Thank God, literally, I never had to go through the indignities of these programs, although mild disabilities have indignities of their own, which I will explore later. But just because I never went through them doesn’t mean I don’t care. I care. STOP THE POMP AND SPECIAL ED. Let’s get really inclusive–even if it gets our hands dirty. Parents: if you have a young adult at home approaching college age, don’t be fooled by what these programs promise. Unless your young adult really wants to be in them, don’t just dump them there. Do your homework, and push for real inclusion and real educations.

Give us all a real college experience! Then, you will have truly graduated from the school of inclusion.


  1. Thanks for this. My son is graduating high school this year, and I’ve had the same discomfort with the “special” college programs, one of which is starting up at the community college he will be attending. Several people have suggested that this would be a great option for him, but … after years of working to get him out of a self-contained class and into inclusion, I can’t see putting him back into a self-contained setting in college. (Plus, the application for the program is unbelievable — the hoops you have to jump through for the honor of getting your kid placed in a program that charges you money for no degree.) Your post confirms my feeling that he should have his shot at making it in the mainstream, just like every other confused and overwhelmed college freshman.

    1. Good for you! Yes, “special” programs can sometimes be so full of hoops, you wonder if they’re worth it. Besides which, all these people telling you what a great option self-contained college is, aren’t your son’s mother. You are. It’s your decision and his, not theirs. Good luck to him!

  2. An objection to foundational courses, yet you want inclusion? People WITHOUT disabilities have to take foundational and pre-requisite courses (or test out of them). Without them higher level courses would be meaningless mumbo jumbo. Sounds like you are arguing for special treatment in an article that says you want full inclusion. Which is it?

    1. That’s a fair question and I’ve contemplated carefully how to answer it.

      I don’t object to core courses if what you mean by that is, basic and educational courses. What I object to is the use of foundational information, such as how to read a syllabus, being used as a way to further a college-level special education curriculum. In other words, I don’t think that students should be expected to parrot back foundational information over and over just because they have disabilities (i.e., “What is this?” “A syllabus,” “And what is it for…” over and over again). I also feel that in most of these college programs for students with disabilities, legitimate foundational coursework such as how to read college textbooks, how to study, how to conduct basic biology experiments, and so forth, is unnecessarily dumbed down.

      I wrote this post when I was very new to the world of advocacy, and every day I must reconcile myself to the fact that while I do want full inclusion, not everyone else does. I don’t think students with disabilities should receive “special treatment,” but I am aware that each college’s responses to their needs will be different. What I am objecting to is the tendency of these programs to treat these students like imbeciles, and to subject them to expectations no other student would have to meet (i.e., turning over money so that they can have help, being required to “earn” free time, being required to sign behavior contracts). There is so much of that going on that I’m honestly unsure how our college students with disabilities are focusing on classes or being educated. That is essentially what must change, and if it does, I believe coursework will follow.

  3. Looking at you response to cognitive, I have to point out that college readiness courses are also becoming de rigeuer for regular admit students – and research shows they do better (student success) than those who don’t have them.

    And your questioning of pedagogical method may be a facet of your higher ability than more severely cognitively disabled peers. As an intellectually atypical person – I feel for you- as this is a common experience for people in my situation. But when teaching a class of many – one can’t edit for every ability level. Syllabus isn’t a common word outside of academe – K-12 has lesson plans as a rule, or assignment planners.

    Behavior contracts are fairly common on residential campuses. I can see the reasons for the money system. Special admits have special rules. If not, cognitively impaired students would be regular admits, right?

    1. Dear Andrew,

      Thank you for your response. I always carefully contemplate how to respond to comments containing criticism, and you do raise some valid points.

      Before I respond to your specific comments, may I suggest taking a look at my response to the commenter “cognitive,” who said I objected to foundational courses? That might shed some light on what I was trying to express (and truly, what we try our best to express in writing or speaking sometimes doesn’t come out the way we want).

      I’ve been a teacher and a college comp instructor, so I understand you cannot cater to every ability level. Because of that, I will concede it may sometimes be better for college students with disabilities to attend classes in which the majority of students have similar disabilities. At the same time, attending those classes or that program should not keep them from having a normal college experience (meeting new people, living in a dorm, choosing how to spend leisure time, dating, etc.)

      You say, “Special admits have special rules.” Yes, they do–but why are students with disabilities “special admits?” We would no longer treat a black, Jewish, LGBT, or Asian student as a special admit. We no longer treat women that way (unless you voluntarily choose to go to a single-sex school, and from what I understand those are not so common anymore). Here, you bring up the sticking point of, where do we draw the line between including students with disabilities and treating them equally, yet assuring they have what they need?

      I have never claimed to have all the answers, but I think any “special rules” that are made should speak only to the disability, not someone’s personhood and dignity. In my opinion, when you pull aside an adult and say, “You can only attend our college if you stick to this behavior plan,” it demeans that adult. Many, many college students with disabilities have spent their entire school careers on behavior plans, their every word and move strictly monitored. Because these plans are often not kept confidential, other students know about the plans and use that information to target classmates with disabilities. My question is, why would a college student want more of that? Moreover, placing an adult on a behavior plan sends the message, “You are not a real adult and I/we don’t trust you to behave like one.”

      I remind you of an example I gave in the post to which you responded, wherein a student named Laura was scolded and told she was in violation of her behavior plan because she “got upset with her roommate.” Other college students are allowed to be upset without this fuss; why are students with disabilities so different? Why are they not allowed to feel anything unless it’s sanctioned?

      You may say to me, “But some college students have legit behavior problems.” Yes, and those should be handled. For example, a friend of mine has a college-age son with Asperger’s whose behavior makes it hard for him to organize, get to class on time, and so forth. But he is not on a behavior plan, nor consistently monitored. Like many other students without Asperger’s, this young man has been set up with an academic counselor/aide. He goes to this person periodically for private appointments, and his goals/mods are adjusted according to what he needs. Unlike students on behavior plans, he is not scolded or disciplined like a younger child for doing certain things the wrong way. Bottom line? Even if a student has a cognitive age of 10, he or she is physically 18-21. *With supports*, that student deserves to be treated like an 18-21 year-old.

      You also mentioned you “understand the money system.” I’m curious as to what you think is good about that system and who it benefits. From what I have read and understood, being forced to turn over SSI funds benefits able-bodied people, not people with disabilities. In fact, it makes students with disabilities more dependent and helpless, when college is supposed to be about independence and interdependence. This system also sends the message that, “Your only ‘friends’ are helpers and you must pay for them.” The argument there might be, “Well, they’ll have to pay for services eventually.” Maybe–but in the meantime, what is the justification for turning over all your money to a stranger, without getting to use any of it yourself, just so you can access the care and mods you need to succeed in college? There has to be a better way, and there are other ways. Many colleges that open their doors to students with disabilities, including cognitive ones, do not insist on using this system.

      Finally, you pointed out in your comment that because students with cognitive disabilities cannot take the same literature or math courses as other students, they can’t be equal and to expect that is unfair. I understand where you’re coming from but disagree. The colleges I wrote about seem to be engaged in all-or-nothing thinking (and maybe I am too, actually, but I’m doing my darndest not to be). These colleges and their faculty/administration seem to think the choices are:

      A. Standard courses
      B. Repetitive courses which teach students with cognitive disabilities to parrot basic information, role-play, and clean up others’ messes.

      Choice A is often not the best for cognitively affected students; I will concede that. Yet Choice B sets them up to be treated like second-class citizens, and *that*, above all, is what I object to. We need to start teaching students with cognitive disabilities that they, like their temporarily able-bodied peers, have a plethora of options. We need to make those options happen. And, even if such a student can only realistically clean up after others and needs help with the basics? Well then, that still doesn’t preclude a normal social college experience, nor should it include being treated with dignity and respect. I see little or no dignity or respect in what I described.

      Thanks again for making me think; have a nice day.

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