A new program at Washington State University aims to provide job opportunities and an authentic college experience for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome.
The two-year program is called ROAR – an acronym that stands for responsibility, opportunity, advocacy and respect – and applications are being accepted for the first class of four students.
The program will not offer degrees or diplomas. It’s designed for people with disabilities, ages 18 to 29, who might not succeed in traditional college courses but who can become more independent through mentoring, paid internships and socializing with peers in the same age group.
ROAR students will live in apartments on the Pullman campus and attend classes alongside their degree-seeking peers. Their assignments will be modified as necessary, and they will take part in specialized workshops and training seminars.
Student volunteers also will help ROAR participants navigate the campus and accompany them to social events such as lunches, workouts and football games, said Brenda Barrio, an assistant professor of special education who has been developing the program for several years.
“This is going to be a great program for the entire campus,” Barrio said, adding that many college students and faculty members rarely interact with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “We see it as a two-way learning experience.”
The ROAR program meets criteria laid out by the U.S. Department of Education, and after the first year it will be eligible for accreditation, Barrio said. Class sizes are expected grow to 10 students.
Barrio said only seven other colleges in the country offer similar, live-on-campus programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She said those students often have access to special education in K-12 schools but find themselves with few opportunities after high school.
“There’s not a lot of opportunities for students with disabilities to be employed, so that becomes a huge issue for families,” she said. “They end up having to stay at home, so the families often get discouraged or frustrated because there’s no opportunities provided. And not knowing where their student or their child is going to be in the next 20 years or so, it can be a pretty scary place.”
Barrio said the ROAR program will accept students from across the country, and the cost will not vary for out-of-state students. She said the total cost, including housing, will be comparable to what the average in-state freshman pays at WSU. Once the program is well-established, ROAR students will be able to apply for government financial aid, such as Pell Grants, she said.
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