Breaking the stigma of students with intellectual disabilities – Kristy O’Connor

Rhode Island College has introduced a new program to combat the misconception that individuals with intellectual disabilities do not attend college.

When the Sherlock Center received a five year grant, it allowed RIC to introduce a new program with an employment focus. Individuals who are enrolled in this program will receive a certificate of undergraduate studies in college and career attainment (CUSCCA) after two years. Along with the structured classes, students also have the opportunity to take other courses that interest them, and these take place in an integrated classroom.

The program places an emphasis on gaining work experience, as well as finding the students internships within the campus and their own community. Allyson Durkin, employment coordinator, and Deb Arenberg, academic mentor coordinator, teach the employment classes, and currently have four students enrolled. Durkin also organizes the on-campus and off-campus internships for students, allowing them to gain experience.

“There is a stigma that students with disabilities do not go to college, and I think it is the best thing for them. A lot of students are motivated to be here and happy and excited and giving them the opportunity to be college students and give them the live they want to live is important,” Durkin said.

Within the introduction to vocational exploration class, students get the opportunity to participate in mock interviews to prepare them for future job interviews. This class is essentially a work readiness class aiming to prepare students to have a job of their own someday. The class also covers resume development and familiarizes students with the career development center and other similar services.

“We are looking for them to grow as people and find employment they enjoy and they might not have known they liked. We hope that they can make new friends on campus and find whole new community by being a RIC student,” said Durkin.

This program is not a certified transition program yet, which means that any student who is enrolled has to pay their own tuition. The program is working on obtaining its certification for next year, so students can be eligible for financial aid.

Students in the program also have a mentor, which means that there is a one-to-one student-to-instructor ratio. For RIC students who would like to mentor, you can email adurkin@ric.edu or darenberg@ric.edu for more information. Freshmen are not able to mentor, but sophomores, juniors and seniors are all welcome to participate. The time commitment is at least ten hours a week, and the time must be booked in two-hour blocks. It is recommended that mentors have a background in education or social work, but members of every major can mentor.

For those interested in applying for the program, you can go to https://www.ric.edu/cuscca/. Applications for the spring semester are due by Nov. 15, and those applying must have an interview and meet the various requirements such as having reliable transportation and being able to abide by the RIC code of conduct. Students who are accepted get the whole college experience, including the official letter of acceptance. They will also have a meeting with disability services to discuss any accommodations that are needed, and those needs are also communicated to their professors.

Durkin hopes that by next semester, they can have over 40 mentors, 10-12 students and continued growth over the next few years. This program is a great step toward helping individuals with intellectual disabilities attend college.