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Davis, California

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

UC Davis establishes four-year program for people with intellectual disabilities

Groundbreaking program is first on west coast to offer a residential component 

The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, in partnership with the UC Davis MIND Institute, recently received a $2.1 million grant to establish a four-year college program for individuals with disabilities on the UC Davis campus. 

The MIND Institute focuses on researching neurodevelopmental disabilities like autism, Fragile X, Down Syndrome and ADHD, among others. It also provides support to families affected by these disabilities. 

“This is about opening UC Davis to all the citizens of California and beyond,” said Len Abbeduto, the director of the MIND Institute, in a video for the broadcast media about the new program. “Disability is not often thought about when we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion.”

The grant will facilitate the Redwood Supported Education to Elevate Diversity (SEED) Scholar program. UC Davis hopes that similar programs—geared towards students with autism, Down Syndrome, Fragile X Syndrome and other types of genetic disorders, for example—can be implemented on other college campuses in California.

The grant—funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID)—will be used across five years. TPSID program grants were originally established in 2010 under the Obama Administration.

At the time, awards totalling $10.9 million were provided for 28 grants under two federal programs. Some of the first grant recipients included California State University,Fresno and Taft College. The grants are designed to facilitate academic enrichment, socialization, independent living and professional skills for people with intellectual disabilities.

Renetta Garrison Tull, the Vice Chancellor of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), highlighted the importance of the program’s connection to DEI. 

“While a lot of other programs haven’t been connected to DEI, Dr. Len Abbeduto wanted it to be a part of DEI,” Tull said. “When we think about inclusion, we want to think about it as a campus wide initiative.” 

Tull added that DEI and the MIND Institute will be “thought partners” in the implementation of the Redwood SEED Program. Personally, Tull has two adult cousins with Down Syndrome, and said she was excited to learn about the kinds of services that the Redwood SEED Program would be offering. 

“One of the things we have found is that there is a lot of philanthropic interest [in this program] for people whose family members have been affected by [disabilities],” Tull noted. 

According to Beth Foraker, a supervisor and lecturer at the UC Davis School of Education, the program at UC Davis—which will be implemented in Fall 2021—will be the first of its kind on the west coast because it includes a residential component. 

 Foraker explained the need for such a program.

“The impetus [behind this] is if you look at the data for adults with intellectual disabilities in the state of California, 97% do not make a living wage,” Foraker said. “They are living in poverty. That is an absolutely untenable statistic and people should be upset by it. What is the reason behind that? And what can we do to change it?” 

Foraker is the mother of a 21-year-old son with Down Syndrome. 

She said that flaws in the current education system have ensured the de facto segregation of disabled students in California schools. 

“When you have a baby with intellectual disabilities, you don’t know that’s going to happen,” Foraker said. “You don’t realize that your child is going to be segregated and separate throughout their schooling. Right away, [people with disabilities] are bumped into programs, into special-ed preschools and they don’t interact with [other kinds of] people.The vast majority of people with disabilities don’t graduate from high school, they don’t even have a certificate—they just age out. The whole system has perpetuated their separation, and it keeps these people oppressed.”

Abbeduto expressed similar concerns about the opportunities available for young adults with intellectual disabilities. 

“We talk about the importance of inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities, and then somehow we’ve forgotten about when they graduate, when they leave high school,” Abbeduto said. “For me it’s kind of really a civil rights issue […] they really need to have the same options as everyone else and the same opportunities to be successful and to make choices about their lives.Right now, postsecondary education is not even a choice for most people.”

With the funding currently available, the first two years of the Redwood SEED program will be free, and the university will accept its first 12 students in Fall 2021. Foraker also plans to work to make the full four years free. An application process—with the option to apply for financial aid—will be established once the program is certified.

“The only challenge [we are facing] is capacity, because as we grow we need to make sure we have enough resources to support the program,” Tull said. 

When asked about how COVID-19 might affect the program, Tull explained that it will be “contingent upon health and safety regulations,” adding that the program still anticipates admitting students in 2021. 

“Hopefully that will work out and we will be back to normal,” said Tull. 

She said that the program hadn’t yet considered implementing an online platform in case in-person instruction isn’t feasible.

The small program size is designed to provide individual learning support for each student. A mix of courses taken alongside undergraduate students, life-skills classes and quarterly internships will be offered. Foraker hopes that the program will enrich the undergraduate classroom experience too. 

“When you include students with significant learning needs in your class, what happens is that elevates the level of instruction,” Foraker said. “The grant also provides professional development for professors who want to do this. Once you let these kids in the classroom, there is a totally different learning community built, and it is very positive—it is academically better, it is socially-emotionally better. The reason we housed it in the [Office of] Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is that everybody can be part of it.”

While the program will not mandate the inclusion of its students in all courses offered by the university, Foraker said that many professors have already been receptive to including these students in their classes. 

“We found that with inclusion you get a lot further by not mandating things and just letting the magic happen,” she explained.

Tull described the widespread support that the program has received from people both outside of and in California. 

“We are extremely excited about this,” Tull said. “One of the words that the MIND Institute has used a lot is joy—how joyful we are to be able to put together this program and plan for its success. We have had a lot of wonderful feedback from people around the country.” 

“It’s heartening to know that there’s support for the program, not just for UC Davis but for the success of the program [itself],” she said. “There are a variety of different advocates across the spectrum who want to be connected to the program and are rooting for its success.” 

Written by: Rebecca Bihn-Wallace


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