Advocates seek college experience for disabled

By Walter C. Jones 
Morris News Service
ATLANTA – Like many parents, Mitzi Proffitt wants her 17-year-old son Josh to get a college degree, a good job and earn a solid living. It's his goal, too.
"That's all he wants," she said.
She's convinced he can make the grades. It's the other aspects of college that worry her.
"That's not always as simple for someone who has cerebral palsy," said the Statesboro mother.
Living not far away in Guyton, Jan Corbett has the same dream for her son Jeff who has Asperger, a form of autism. He's 24 and already attending Savannah Technical College but frequently stymied by his frustration.
"I wish there was more support that would help me with my education, but there's not," he said.
"Students like Jeff need a lot of one-on-one support," Jan Corbett said.
Both families are advocates for a program that offers a doorway to the college experience, and they're hoping the General Assembly will include $350,000 when it passes next year's budget for the seed money. Thursday, about 2,000 people from across Georgia rallied outside the Capitol on Disability Day, and the college funding was high on their wish list.
Another key item was to lighten the burden of proof for murder defendants claiming mental retardation to avoid the death penalty. The rally, planned months in advance, happened to fall on the morning after an appeals court stopped the execution of Warren Hill, a man with a 70 IQ who's been convicted of two separate killings.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rich Golick announced that day that he would seek a special committee to study the burden of proof.
Word of Golick's news brought cheers from the crowd at the rally, and so did comments from Gov. Nathan Deal about the college program.
"I recently announced that one of our goals is to ensure every child has access to post-secondary education options that lead to meaningful employment," Deal said.
"Therefore, we should look at innovative programs, like the one at Kennesaw State University where 16 students with disabilities participated in the same activities as students without disabilities, and then see what we can do to replicate them. By doing so, we will help these young people have access to better employment opportunities following their college experience."
The KSU Academy of Inclusive Learning is exactly the model advocates hope to replicate at four more schools, according to Rita Young, director of All About Developmental Disabilities. Of the 100 or so colleges in Georgia, KSU is the only one with a program geared for students with intellectual disabilities, or mental retardation, even though 1,400 students leave high school every year with a special-education certificate. North Carolina has eight colleges and Florida nine that offer programs for students with similar handicaps.
"What we're looking for is that college experience and how that experience transfers," Young said. "Our students with intellectual disabilities don't have those opportunities." Anyone who pays the tuition can audit any classes at Georgia's public colleges without academic credit, but the KSU two-year program allows them to live on campus and attend all student functions. They also pay an extra $1,206 per semester for mentors who are generally social-work or education majors themselves who also benefit from the experience.
In their first year, the disabled students take courses in physical education, arts and sciences, communication and college orientation that all freshmen are required to take. Their second year, they take courses counselors help them select that match their career interests.
The tuition and fees the students pay don't cover the costs of the three program staffers who hire the mentors and pave the way with the professors who typically have questions about how to integrate mentally challenged students into classes and group assignments. KSU gets donations to cover staff salaries. Schools in other states charge the students, making the total cost significantly higher than usual college expenses.
A Florida school Jan and Jeff Corbett considered was $60,000 per year. KSU is more affordable, but it's too far away from family emotional support and supervision.
"I was afraid he was going to be up there by himself," she said.
Mitzi Proffitt also wants something at nearby Georgia Southern University.
"There is not a reason why any of these colleges wouldn't do it," she said.
As an activist, Proffitt talks with other parents of disabled children about her hope to convince college administrators to begin accepting students like Josh if she just had the major phrase to persuade them.
"I tell parents all the time I don't know what makes a college change its interests," she said.
Gauging the success of the KSU program is difficult, according to Jill Sloan, its coordinator. Most of the 10 who have completed it so far are in jobs, although not positions requiring a college degree.
"The one thing I do know is they are provided an opportunity to explore their dreams," she said.
Sloan and Young say there's a secondary benefit from the program that comes from having the handicapped students interact on a daily basis with the other classmates, the ones who will one day be making hiring decisions later in their careers.
"The leaders of today who are the other college students become much more knowledgeable of working with people with diverse learning styles," Sloan said.
With a $400 million deficit for Medicaid and across-the-board cuts of 3 percent for every agency except K-12 classrooms, finding even a relatively tiny amount of money in a $19 billion budget is hard. If the choice is between the college program and health care, housing or other support for the disabled, Young said she would have a tough time making the decision.
On top of that, five of Georgia's schools, like the University of Georgia, are so popular that they already have to turn away thousands of students who meet all the academic requirements. Squeezing out even a few more to make room for the auditing, handicapped students there could be disruptive.
"We certainly understand that there continue to be budget concerns. We understand this is going to be an uphill battle, but we are going to continue to advocate for this," Young said.
She and Mitzi Proffitt and Jan Corbett have been fighting uphill battles for years. They're used to a challenge.


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