Seattle College Program for Special Needs Adults

A community college outside Seattle has launched the nation's first degree program for developmentally disabled adults. The program is tailored for high-functioning students with Down Syndrome, autism and other issues. KUOW'S Phyllis Fletcher reports.

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A college in the Seattle area is opening new doors for learning disabled students. If offers a degree program for special ed students with Down syndrome, autism and many other issues. From member station KUOW in Seattle, Phyllis Fletcher reports.

PHYLLIS FLETCHER reporting:

Cynthia Johnson had a dream. In the dream, she was sitting in the back of a bus.

Ms. CYNTHIA JOHNSON (Director, Venture Program for Unique Learners): There was a cafe that said, `The Rosa Parks Cafe.' I walked off the bus, and someone said, `You need to come in now to the cafe.' And I woke up thinking, `Oh, my gosh, something big is going to happen.' And I knew it would have to do with civil rights.

FLETCHER: A week later Johnson, a longtime educator, became the founding director of the Venture Program for Unique Learners at Bellevue Community College. Johnson says her students are dismantling the last bastion of prejudice in higher education.

Ms. JOHNSON: Our students have felt discrimination. They have wanted to go on and be in the general population, and that has been very difficult for them. This mirrors civil rights during the '50s and '60s.

FLETCHER: Many special ed students find themselves on a vocational track to the service industry by the time they hit ninth grade, she says. But with this program, they're taking math, literature and science. The goal is a better shot at a better job. It's also about self-knowledge.

Amanda Bates is taking a trip down the hallway at school in wax-papered sunglasses. Her disability awareness class is learning what it's like to have a visual impairment.

Ms. AMANDA BATES (Student): You've gotta tell me...

Unidentified Man: OK.

Ms. BATES: ...what I'm running into.

FLETCHER: Soon Bates will start an independent study project on a disability she has, DeGrushy syndrome I(ph).

Ms. BATES: It's just something that I want to understand better, and it's really a unique opportunity to learn about it.

FLETCHER: The disorder has left Bates with some physical and learning disabilities. She took college classes after high school, but it was hard for her to learn in class until she hooked up with the Venture Program. Now she says she can read and understand American classics like "Fahrenheit 451," thanks to a vocabulary exercise. Every day her class would open up the book and get out stacks of Post-It notes.

Ms. BATES: And then we would tape them onto the word that we didn't recognize, and then we would make an educated guess what it meant.

FLETCHER: Most of the time Bates found her guesses were right.

Ms. BATES: I'm starting to understand some of the words that I didn't recognize in the book we were reading. In high school, I don't think I had that experience.

Mr. TROY JUSTESEN (US Department of Education): We're now at the precipice of discussing, as a national community in higher education, the ability of children with intellectual disabilities as to whether they can move into higher education.

FLETCHER: Troy Justesen heads up special ed programs at the US Department of Education. He says what Venture students are doing is exciting, but he's not sure it's about civil rights.

Mr. JUSTESEN: Earning a degree is not a fundamental right that anyone has. We're all entitled to the opportunity to reach forward, but we're not entitled necessarily to the end result being equal in all cases.

FLETCHER: Justesen questions whether the value of the Venture students' degree is the same as any other associate's degree. Bellevue Community College has answered that by creating a course of study that's rigorous for its students, but the credits are non-transferrable to other schools. Still, degree status means Venture students can qualify for federal financial aid. Program founder Cynthia Johnson says it's something her students are entitled to.

Ms. JOHNSON: Now is the time to change. If not now, when? If not these students, who? We've had 50 years of K-through-12 special education. It is now time to move on to higher education. There's just no question in my mind.

FLETCHER: Johnson has fielded admission queries from parents across the country. Also curious are other colleges and universities who want to replicate the program. For NPR News, I'm Phyllis Fletcher in Bellevue, Washington.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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