BILL REMOVES COLLEGE ACCESS BARRIERS FOR STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES
By Chris Lisinski
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JUNE 11, 2019.....Allowing individuals with developmental disabilities to access college courses alongside students without disabilities would grant them "transformative" experiences that can almost quadruple employment rates, advocates said Tuesday.
Matthew Cullen, who graduated from Salem State University last year thanks to a program that allows students with developmental disabilities to participate alongside those without, said his time at school made him "more confident and independent." [Photo: Chris Lisinski/SHNS]
Some students with disabilities can currently enroll in classes at a handful of public college and universities through a state program, and legislation before the Joint Committee on Education (H 1219 / S 756) would expand similar access at all 29 state higher education institutes.
Supporters, speaking at the committee's hearing Tuesday, said that higher education can make a crucial difference in quality-of-life for students with intellectual disabilities or autism disorders.
"Participation in college is transformative for these students, and they gain essential life skills they typically would not experience in their districts' special education programs," said Debra Hart, educational coordinator for the Institute for Community Inclusion at UMass Boston.
Since 2007, the Massachusetts Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative (MAICEI) has helped place students with disabilities in courses at schools such as Middlesex Community College and Salem State University alongside peers who do not have disabilities. The program has been successful so far: Hart said that one year after exiting school, 65 percent of participants in the initiative were employed compared to just 17 percent of adults with developmental disabilities who had education beyond high school.
Rep. Sean Garballey, who sponsored the House version of the bill, said the goal now is to build on MAICEI's work — funded at $1.7 million in the current budget — and expand it with a statewide statute so that every public college and university in the school is opening its doors to students with disabilities.
"I can't think of a more important piece of legislation to pass this session," Garballey said. "These students want an opportunity just like their peers."
If approved, the bills would remove obstacles that currently block access, allowing those with disabilities to enroll in courses without first passing standardized tests or attaining a high school diploma, similar to what MAICEI does. It would also create a grant program under the Department of Higher Education that would fund partnerships between school districts and colleges to create inclusive programs for students aged 18 to 21.
During a student's K-12 years, Garballey said, school officials would determine during development of an individualized education program if an inclusive college program is worth pursuing.
Lawmakers said the state would not need additional revenue to cover the program. Instead, the costs would be covered by existing special-needs funds in every school district.
"Each district must have plans for each full-time equivalent of a student, and that money can be used to put these young kids in college," said Rep. Patricia Haddad.
The most important argument in favor of the change, Garballey said, came from the students themselves. About half a dozen individuals with developmental disabilities testified before the committee Tuesday about their experience in courses through the MAICEI program and how valuable it would be to ensure that the same benefits are enjoyed across the state.
Matthew Cullen, who graduated from Salem State University last year and now holds three different part-time jobs, said his "dream came true" at school.
"Because of that experience, I am more confident and independent," he said. "I am so proud of myself and ready for the real world."
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