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Higher-Education Opportunities for Students With Disabilities Are Growing in Nashville

November 3, 2022
Source: Nashville Scene

Vanderbilt was one of the first schools in the country to offer a program for students with disabilities, and TSU started its pilot this fall.

Ben Ellis and Jacob Elie are fourth-year Vanderbilt University students. They’re both set to graduate spring 2023, and both are unsure what they’ll do once that happens. They meet weekly on campus to study, Elie — a student mentor — as a part of his class on human development and Ellis as a part of Vanderbilt’s Next Steps program.

In 2010, Vanderbilt became the first university in the state and among the first in the country to create a higher-education program for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities with Next Steps. Lipscomb University created its own program in 2014 called Lipscomb IDEAL, and this fall, Tennessee State University began its pilot year for a similar program called Tiger Edge. 

Both Lipscomb’s and Vanderbilt’s programs take up to 10 students per year, though the demand is significantly higher than that. Selecting those students is the hardest part of Misty Parsley’s job as director of special education programs at Lipscomb. 

“We’re really looking at students who want to be here, who are motivated to be more independent, to have a job,” Parsley says. “We want students who want to work and who want to have a high quality of life when they leave college.” 

Many inclusive higher-education programs, like those at Lipscomb and TSU, are two years. Vanderbilt bumped its program up to four in 2014. Next Steps program director Tammy Day says from the beginning students asked why it was just a two-year program. “One student said to me, ‘Well, you know, it takes us longer to learn than the others, so why aren’t you giving us four years?’ ” Day says.  

Ellis has already completed six out of a total of seven internships and says his current internship checking packages in the mail room on campus is his favorite. As a fourth-year, he is working on his independent-study project and navigating the campus solo. He chose video editing as his focus, prompted by his love for Star Wars

What all the inclusive higher-education programs in Nashville have in common is a mix of unique-to-the-program life skills courses and typical courses, with augmented syllabi to better suit the individual student. By the end of their time enrolled, students transition away from the soft-skills courses and into internships. Along the way, each school partners students with disabilities with peer mentors like Elie for studying and social connections. The goal is to prepare students to have a job and independence in the community. 

Back in 2010, Vanderbilt was the only school that applied for a three-year pilot grant to introduce a college program for people with disabilities. Next Steps has since earned a certification as a Comprehensive Transition Program, meaning that it meets a level of rigor allowing students  access to federal and state funds.

While college has gotten more inclusive for those with disabilities over the years, there are still bridges to cross. Next Steps students are not yet in the dorms, and not fully a part of Greek life, Day explains. 

Think College Institute for Community Inclusion sets best practices, and the state’s eight programs also compare notes at Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education Alliance quarterly meetings. However, there is no accreditation or overall governing body for inclusive higher education. 

“We want more college options for students with disabilities,” Lipscomb’s Parsley says. “I don’t mind that Vanderbilt and now TSU are right down the road. Because our students have a choice now, they can apply at all three of our schools, and then they get to choose what’s the best fit for them and their family, just like most of us did when we went to college.”

Lipscomb students can live on campus, and at TSU, the two students enrolled in the pilot program live in the new campus dorm. Another thing that sets TSU’s Tiger Edge program apart is the number of peer mentors per student, explains Gregory Morrisette, assistant program manager: They have one who serves as a roommate, another for academics, and another for social outings. 

“I think it’s important because they get a different piece of the experience living on campus,” says Morrissette. For Tiger Edge, the goal is to grow the program over time. 

College was important enough for Ellis and his family that they drive 65 miles from Macon County for classes.

“For other students who want to do this,” says Ellis, “I say you can do it.”

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