BOONE — Nicholas Curry just wrapped up his first semester at Appalachian State University. It’s a moment to celebrate for any student, but for Nicholas, the victory is particularly meaningful.
Nicholas has cerebral palsy and is classified as intellectually disabled. His mother, Gretchen Bivins, said that when he was accepted into the university’s Scholars with Diverse Abilities Program, or SDAP, she knew he’d found a place where he would fit in.
“We dropped Nicholas off in August and I felt just at peace,” Bivins said. “He has made so many friends. He told me after the first week that he loved his classes, he knew how to ride the Appalcart, and not to worry about his spending because that was one of his goals he was going to be working on this semester.”
SDAP is a non-degree two year program and celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, helping those with intellectual disabilities attend college and gain skills to live and work independently. It’s funded through a grant from the Department of Education and is designed for young adults who may not be eligible to apply to college.
“The purpose of the grant was to jump-start programs to help the students gain skills to be employed in competitive integrated employment, meaning they are employed in a job with their peers and earning minimum wage or higher,” said Susan H. Hedges, Ph.D., director of SDAP.
There are 200 similar programs across the country, including at UNC Greensboro and Western Carolina.
“All of the programs are similar,” said Hedges. “We have had guidance from the Department of Education’s technical assistance center called THINK College. They have been developing a set of accreditation standards that in the future these programs will likely follow. We have been looking at those standards and have pretty much modeled after them.”
The students attend and audit classes with their peers, with most taking 6-12 credits. Hedges says the college picks some of their classes, but a lot of the students choose their courses including gospel choir, paleontology, recreation management, personal finance, introduction to social work, public speaking, and physical education classes.
“Some people think college is just about academics but that is only part of it,” Hedges said. “Our students make gains in their literacy skills, reading comprehension, writing abilities, and technical literacy. They gain lots of academic, social, and life skills.”
Research and data collected about the programs, including the one at App State, demonstrates the outcomes for the students are much better than for the students who do not attend these programs and have the same intellectual disabilities, including rates of employment, social interaction, and independent living. Students in the program live on campus in a dorm among their peers.
“College for any student is transitioning into adulthood,” Hedges said. “Some parents think it is to get them a job and develop skills to get a job, and yes, that is part of it and obviously part of our program. But it is also being away from your parents, gaining a sense of independence, making decisions on your own, developing a sense of self and self-determination, learning how to socialize in certain situations.”
The SDAP also benefits the entire student body.
“So often we contextualize this is something beneficial for the students with the disabilities, but I would say this is equally beneficial for everyone on campus to have a diverse student body,” she said. “It’s the real world.”
The program does depend on support from ASU students outside of the program through internships and volunteer work by those majoring in social work, special ed, psychology, and music therapy.
There have been about 30 graduates from the program and Hedges said a lot of the students’ parents are alumni of the university, as is Nicholas’ mother, Gretchen.
Nicholas is a graduate of Starmount High School in Yadkin County where Bivins is an Exceptional Children’s teacher. He is a twin who has always wanted the “college experience” but Bivins said she knew he wouldn’t be able to go the traditional route and earn a degree with his multiple disabilities. She said she wishes SDAP were a four-year program with an internship but otherwise thinks it is a wonderful experience.
“Every student needs to have an opportunity to follow their dreams and this program provides that opportunity,” Bivins said. “Inclusion has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go.”
Hedges encourages parents to investigate these programs early in their child’s high school career because getting into them is competitive.
“All of the programs get more applicants than they can select,” she said. She advises that applicants apply to all similar programs in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia because the likelihood of being selected is very low.
SDAP students who are eligible for federal financial aid and Vocational Rehabilitation Services of NC will consider supporting the cost of the program for students whose families qualify.
“They recognize the value of these programs in developing work skills,” Hedges said. “Any student with a disability who has an IEP or special education services at the high school level should have an active case with VRS.”
A 10-year celebration is planned this spring for its alumni, faculty, and community members.
“If you have never been to App State, come and visit us,” Hedges added. “Boone is beautiful and the App State campus is beautiful. I think parents feel it is a very safe environment. It’s a strong sense of community at App State.”