For young adults with developmental disabilities, postsecondary experiences on a university campus with same-age peers can provide opportunities for learning and social integration. Through the collaborative support of university instructors, a preservice teacher, and her mother, a young woman with Down syndrome was successfully included in a speech communications course at a 4-year, private university. Our purpose here was to explore the impact of this experience on the student, her classmates, and preservice teacher who offered peer support. The experience provided opportunities for interaction with age-appropriate peers and was a positive learning experience for all participants. Challenges emerged related to assessment, expectations, and building relationships. Implications for potential inclusive transition opportunities at the university were discussed.
Current practice in transition programs for individuals with disabilities provides opportunities for the development of interpersonal and functional skills from activities in community-based, natural environments (Wehmeyer, 1992). For young adults with developmental disabilities, school and work provide primary opportunities for social integration (Janicki & Ansello, 2000). Interactions between individuals with disabilities and their same-age peers in the community can provide social models for those with disabilities while increasing awareness and positive attitudes of those without disabilities (Kamens, Dolyniuk, & DiNardo, 2003; Schleien, Tipton, & Green, 1997). However, young adults with disabilities between the ages of 18 and 21 often remain in high school settings, while many of their peers without disabilities go on to college.
Overall, the increased involvement of individuals with disabilities in inclusive environments create more opportunities for young adults with disabilities to participate in college programs (Hamill, 2003; Neubert, Moon, & Grigal, 2004; Schmidt, 2005). Numerous opportunities at the college level were available for individuals with orthopedic impairments; emotional disabilities; and health, visual, and learning disabilities (National Center for Secondary Education and Transition, 2004). However, after almost 25 years of inclusion, access to college as an appropriate transition choice remains extremely limited for individuals with developmental disabilities (Weir, 2004).
Although inclusion at the college level for individuals with developmental disabilities is rare, some young adults with such disabilities have been successful in college experiences (Hamill, 2003; Neubert et al., 2004). Although many of these experiences have been social, others have included participation in coursework (Grigal, Neubert, & Moon, 2001; Hamill, 2003). In a study about postsecondary activities for students with significant disabilities, Neubert et al. (2004) found that the majority of students who took courses were enrolled in noncredit art- and health-related courses. Results of studies of postsecondary experiences of students with disabilities (Dolyniuk, Kamens, Corman, DiNardo, & Totaro, 2002; Hall, Kleinert, & Kearns, 2000; Hamill, 2003; Weir, 2004) indicate that these opportunities are beneficial to the self-esteem of the students, in many cases fulfilling “dreams” of a college experience and interaction with same-age peers. In these settings, students with disabilities have also improved their social, academic, and vocational skills. In addition, students and others in the college community have opportunities to interact with individuals who have disabilities. Yet challenges emerged related to academic demands, social interactions, and support. For example, several investigators found that aspects of academic coursework, such as reading and tests, to be an obstacle.
Clearly, support structures had to be provided for individuals with developmental disabilities in order for them to be successful participants in college courses (Grigal et al., 2001; Weir, 2004). In addition to logistics, such as transportation and scheduling, individualized support is critical (Neubert et al., 2004). In elementary and secondary inclusive settings, support may be provided by a variety of stakeholders. However, in a postsecondary setting such as a college course, how can this support be provided?
A young woman with Down syndrome successfully completed a college course, Speech Communication, at a 4-year private university. She received in-class support from a senior preservice teacher, who studied general and special education. Additional support for the preservice teacher and the course instructor was provided by the parent and special education faculty.
In this case study, our purpose is to explore and describe the impact of this experience on the various stakeholders. The perspectives of the participants were used to answer the following research questions: (a) What were the challenges and benefits of this experience? (b) What are the implications related to potential inclusive transition opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities at the university level? The answers to these questions can provide valuable information for those who are interested in academic options for young adults with disabilities in college.
We used both qualitative and quantitative procedures to collect data for this project and combined case study inquiry with survey analysis to develop results and respond to research questions. We analyzed this case to interpret and present one experience from multiple perspectives. We recorded the experiences of the multiple stakeholders as well as their perspectives so that others may compare, contrast, and develop meaning related to the subject and philosophies presented (Stake, 1994). Pre- and postsurveys helped us identify typical classmate peer perceptions and attitudes as well as triangulate data.
The participants in this study included a number of stakeholders: Jacqueline, the young woman included at the college level; her peer support person, Kim; Jacqueline's mother; the course instructor; two special education professors who acted as facilitators; and Jacqueline's nondisabled peers enrolled in the same college course.
This case study is focused on Jacqueline, a 21-year-old woman with Down syndrome. She had attended a local high school program. In the last several years, her high school teachers provided various transition experiences and class preparation as part of her school program. During her last year in high school, she did not yet have an employment placement in the community. Her mother, Helen, was a professor in the Economics Department of the same university. While seeking alternate transition experiences for her daughter, Helen approached the chair of the Communications Department to find out whether taking a college course might be an option for her daughter. Although this idea was not Jacqueline's, her mother discussed it with her, and Jacqueline seemed eager and willing to participate. As part of her high school transition program, Jacqueline attended a college course. Transportation was provided by the school district from the high school to the university. Helen believed that speech communication, a course focused on public speaking, was an appropriate choice because Jacqueline was very verbal and an advocacy speaker for Special Olympics. This class was an introductory level course focused on developing, delivering, and critiquing speeches. There were 28 freshmen and sophomores enrolled at the time Jacqueline entered; the class met twice a week for 1.5 hours.
Jacqueline can be described as friendly, social, and confident. She participated in a number of community activities, including Special Olympics bowling and gymnastics and various social clubs for young adults with disabilities. Her personal interests included music, watching movies, and spending time with her friends, all of whom were young adults with disabilities. Her mother commented that at times Jacqueline could be strong-willed or stubborn, which led to some conflict in potential workplaces.
The chair of the Communications Department recommended a specific communications professor, Madeline, as a good choice. Renowned in her field, Madeline had been teaching communications for many years. She had a kind and caring disposition and was interested in participating. Once Madeline agreed, Helen approached two special education professors to facilitate the project. Both professors were inclusion advocates and had extensive experience in collaboration and instructional support. Although it was not necessary to involve two professors, both of them were interested in supporting inclusion at the college level and the opportunity to investigate the benefits and challenges of this experience.
Together with Helen, the special education facilitators discussed the project and Jacqueline's needs. The team brainstormed possible special education preservice teachers who might be suitable to provide peer support for Jacqueline. Kim was chosen because she had successfully completed all of her special education courses, and her performance in these courses was outstanding. Kim was intelligent, responsible, and understood how to assess and address student needs through adaptation. She had a quiet, yet pleasant disposition. Most important, the facilitators believed that her calm, poised demeanor would complement Jacqueline's personality; Kim was both calm and conscientious, whereas Jacqueline could be outgoing and impulsive. Kim expressed interest in participating in the project, and the course period was compatible with her schedule.
The two special education professors and the project researchers acted as liaisons for other stakeholders, facilitated communication and progress meetings, and reviewed strategies and adaptations. At the beginning of the first class, these professors met with students before Jacqueline arrived to introduce the inclusion of a person with Down syndrome. Facts and myths about Down syndrome were shared. Students reported experiences and attitudes about participating in inclusion classes in a pre- and postsurvey conducted by researchers.
Qualitative data were collected through interviews with Jacqueline, Kim, Jacqueline's mother, and the course professor. Four of the students in the course were interviewed. Kim kept a journal, which was an additional source of data for analysis. The researchers, acting as faculty project facilitators, collected (a) field notes from two class observations, (b) e-mail communications, (c) notes from telephone conversations, and (d) minutes from all progress meetings. In addition, pre- and post-Likert surveys were distributed to the students in the course. A total of eight interviews were conducted by both researchers in private conference rooms on the college campus. All were taped and transcribed. Interviews lasted approximately 45 minutes, and participants responded to open-ended questions related to their experiences with Jacqueline. The interview with Jacqueline's class peers, a sample from class volunteers, focused on their perceptions of Jacqueline's academic performance and class participation and her social interactions with classmates. Class peers also discussed their feelings about having an individual with disabilities in class. The interviews with Kim, Helen, and Madeline were related to their expectations and perceptions of Jacqueline's performance, observations about social interactions, and advantages and disadvantages of the experience. Jacqueline's interview was focused on her perceptions of the course, including what she learned and how she interacted with others—classmates, Kim, and her professor.
Researchers designed the peer surveys to solicit responses related to students' perspectives about having someone with a developmental disability in their class. Questions were related to issues such as comfort levels, inclusion beliefs, and the effects of including an individual with a developmental disability in the class.
Each researcher individually reviewed data collected from all sources to determine initial themes related to the research questions. Collectively, researchers compared these patterns, defined themes, and devised a color-coding scheme for re-coding. Using these themes, researchers reviewed material individually, then compared coded data to achieve interrater reliability (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Data displays were organized based on themes, with supporting data from each source. Displays were used to triangulate data within and between data sources. Several clear outcomes related to the impact of this experience, and implications for transition program options emerged from this analysis. In order to enhance the trustworthiness of the data, Helen and Kim, who had the most comprehensive perspectives of the experience, were asked to review the preliminary results of this analysis (Merriam, 1988).
Limitations of the Study
The generalizability of this study is limited because only one case was examined. However, according to Stake (cited in Jaeger, 1988), “the validity of the report is different for each, according to the meaning the reader gives to it” (p. 263). Although the authors are advocates for expanding opportunities for young adults with developmental disabilities at the college level, our purpose in this study was to describe, inform, and assist others in developing and implementing similar options. Although results are specific to this case study, readers may find meaning and apply this information to related projects in their own context.
Another limitation may be participant reporting. The participants knew that their responses were being studied, and this may have been a threat to the accuracy of the data. This was minimized by comparison of data from various stakeholders.
Benefits and Challenges
Through the first research question, we explored the benefits and challenges of this experience. Several clear themes related to the benefits of this experience emerged from the data. These were (a) the benefits of this mutual learning experience for Jacqueline and Kim, (b) the opportunities for Jacqueline to interact with age-appropriate peers, and (c) the benefits of this experience as a transition option.
A Mutual Learning Experience
This was a successful learning experience for both Jacqueline and Kim. Jacqueline successfully completed the course, with a grade of C+. She was able to practice organizing and giving speeches. She also experienced listening to and critiquing classmates' speeches. Her passing grade was based on her performance of typical course objectives and standards, which were met through adaptations and modifications. When asked what she learned in the course, Jacqueline stated, “How we speak in front of people, how we keep eye contact, and writing comments when other people speak.”
Throughout her interview, Jacqueline focused on the content of the speeches given in class. She said, “I really liked the class, all the students talked about interesting things. … the Muppet show, song writer for ‘Singing in the Rain,’ husbands and wives, Hollywood tans, Elmo, and having sex.” She also discussed learning from her own topics, such as Special Olympics and Japan. Additional comments from Jacqueline's interview were related to advocacy. She said, “I learned that everyone could do the best they can, and to speak in front of the class … and do a speech on whatever they want to talk about.” When asked whether she got better at giving speeches, she replied, “Naturally. I know how to speak up for myself. This is America!”
Data suggested that Jacqueline did not feel nervous in class. She described the class as “good and comfortable.” When asked whether she worried about anything before she took the class, she said, “No, I wasn't worried about anything. The class was just wonderful.” The only indication of stress was once, when Kim was late to class, and the other students reported that Jacqueline was upset and kept asking where she was.
Kim became adept at providing instructional support, so as a dual certification preservice teacher, this was an invaluable experience for her. She revised quizzes, paraphrased lectures, and took notes. One example was when a prop was required for a demonstration speech, and Kim was concerned that Jacqueline would be distracted if she had to display props. Kim adapted the assignment by creating a PowerPoint presentation with Jacqueline's photographs. Kim helped reinforce learning at home by facilitating communication with Jacqueline's mother. Afterward, she provided continuity by helping with organization of ideas, planning of speeches, and extended practice of speeches.
In addition to learning to adapt instruction effectively, Kim also learned to identify with the role of an instructional support person placed in a general education classroom. She took her role so seriously that she reported becoming physically ill from sleepless nights and getting stomach pains worrying about Jacqueline's performance. In her journal, Kim wrote, “The class started speeches and Jess didn't seem nervous at all. … meanwhile I had a pit in my stomach as if it was my turn to speak! Well she went and did great.” She learned first-hand that collaboration, communication, and mutual support are vital components of successful inclusion. As a preservice teacher, she had the opportunity to learn and practice these critical skills in a real inclusive experience.
Opportunities for Interaction With Age-Appropriate Peers
This experience allowed Jacqueline and Kim to interact with one another, forming a relationship between same-age peers with and without a disability. Although their roles were that of support person and student, they had frequent interactions. After meeting in the snack bar for lunch after the first class, Kim wrote, “it was good because I was able to really talk to her and get to know her. I see that she is really very social and friendly. I really had a good time hanging out with her.” Jacqueline also reported, “Working with Kim is good, she took me to gymnastics and we talked about class.”
Concurrently, the class had an opportunity to spend time with a same-age peer who had developmental disabilities. Students in the class reported that they looked forward to Jacqueline's speeches, and her presence brought a purpose to the class: One student noted:
I think it brought the class together, it gave them something to look forward to. Something to give the class a purpose, like a deeper meaning to it. We just take coming to college for granted and it showed the class that this was a really big deal for her [Jacqueline] and that we shouldn't take it [going to college] for granted.
This experience also increased awareness and sensitivity related to the abilities of individuals with special needs. Another student stated:
After speeches we would all have to raise our hands and talk … no one would ever respond in the class, and Jacqueline would always raise her hand. She had sensitive comments to make about the speeches, so she obviously got the speeches.
Others perceived Jacqueline as just another student in their class. For example, one student commented, “She's pretty much the same as everyone else.” Kim also observed that she “meshed in.” From the onset, Kim tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, allowing Jacqueline the opportunity to interact naturally. She did not sit with Jacqueline and would not participate in cooperative learning activities.
Due to the large class size, the instructor reported minimal opportunity for class interaction. However, when provided an opportunity to respond and interact with Jacqueline, her peers were supportive and positive. For example, when critiquing Jacqueline's speech, students praised her for her limited use of “like” and “um,” something they stated was difficult to accomplish themselves. When paired with another student for a peer interview, Kim observed that the exchange was positive and appropriate. The instructor reported:
She would get up and speak and the comments that I would get from the students in the class were very encouraging. It was clear to me they wanted her to do well. I never heard a negative comment from the students. I never thought that they were denigrating her efforts. I never had the sense that here is this kid that is taking up our time that we could be using for something else.
This speculation was confirmed by the results of the pre- and postsurveys for peers. There was a significant change in students' attitudes related to this statement. In a two tailed, pre- and postsurvey, for the question: “The professor will have to give extra attention to a student with a cognitive disability which will take away time from other students in the class,” there was an 8.1% level of significant positive change in the posttest. Prior to this experience, students believed that the presence of an individual with a disability might negatively affect their learning experience in the course. At the end of the semester, students indicated that they did not perceive that their own learning experience was compromised because an individual with a disability participated in their class. Student comments also indicated that they would enjoy having other students with disabilities attend their classes in the future. Although there were no other significant changes indicated, these surveys suggested that, overall, the students started and ended the course with positive and accepting attitudes about including individuals with disabilities in the classroom. Many reported similar inclusive experiences at the high school level.
This experience allowed Jacqueline and her mother to explore Jacqueline's postsecondary options at the university level. The project was unique in that it provided an additional choice and an opportunity for Jacqueline to develop decision-making skills related to her own transition. Although participating in a college course was Helen's idea, she discussed it with Jacqueline, who was agreeable and interested in attending the university. After the semester Jacqueline stated that she would prefer to remain at high school and not take another college course. After several months of employment in a supermarket, Jacqueline has recently expressed interest in returning to the university. According to her mother, Jacqueline, having attended the university, has an awareness of what the experience is like. When her typical age peers discuss going to college, Jacqueline understands what this means and is able to share her own experiences. Her mother reported that this made Jacqueline unique because this is not typical of her peers with developmental disabilities.
In contrast, the data suggest that there were critical challenges that emerged throughout the project. These challenges were (a) the lack of meaningful relationships, (b) inconsistent goals, and (c) the dilemma of assessment. These challenges suggest issues that need to be addressed in future projects.
Limited Meaningful Relationships
Although Jacqueline had structured interactions within the classroom, there was minimal social interaction before and after class. This may be typical of the college class experience, because students saw each other 1 to 2 times a week and had varied schedules in different buildings. In addition, commuter students like Jacqueline are less likely to make connections unless they are an ongoing participant in varied aspects of college life.
According to classmates and Kim, no meaningful friendships were developed beyond Jacqueline's relationship with Kim. Although peers did not believe a friendship was formed with Jacqueline, Jacqueline defined her peers as friends. When asked about her interactions with classmates, she said, “Yeah, I did talk to them. There were nice friends in my class.”
The data indicate a lack of goal clarification among the stakeholders, which created some confusion about expectations for Jacqueline's performance. Although we had several meetings with stakeholders before and during the semester, we were not able to meet with the whole group at one time. At midpoint meetings with various stakeholders, we discussed goal clarification and distributed a written summary of these goals to all participants. Based on these goals, stakeholders were able to continually reflect on their expectations for Jacqueline and define their role in supporting her goal attainment. However, participants' comments indicated that each stakeholder developed their own expectations of Jacqueline as they came to know her better. This made it difficult to prepare instruction and adaptations. Participants continually commented on the purpose of this experience, What were the goals? What could we expect from Jacqueline?
The Assessment Dilemma
An additional challenge was difficulty in determining Jacqueline's abilities throughout the semester. Participants continually questioned what she was learning. Based on observations, it appeared she was not listening or paying attention to the speaker. Kim and Madeline both stated that she typically did not look at the speaker or the instructor during class time. Her critiques of speeches were inconsistent: Sometimes she responded appropriately, sometimes she did not. Occasionally, it appeared that she was not listening, yet was able to comment appropriately on speeches or answer questions. Other times, she appeared to be listening but was unable to answer relevant questions.
Initially, Jacqueline's mother expressed two expectations. The first was to provide Jacqueline with an alternative transition experience. She was turning 21, and this was her last year of high school. She had limited job prospects, and her mother was exploring other postsecondary options. For several years, Jacqueline had various experiences with public speaking related to advocacy. Thus, the speech communication course was chosen to help improve her public speaking skills. At the end of the course, Jacqueline succeeded in meeting some course objectives, such as delivering three organized speeches, class participation, and passing modified quizzes. However, she did not meet other criteria, such as speaking extemporaneously.
Grading was a major concern. There was disagreement about whether it was necessary to give Jacqueline a grade for the course. Kim was adamant that Jacqueline should be graded. In her journal, she wrote “If she isn't getting graded, then she is being treated differently than the rest of the class. Isn't that what we're trying to get away from?” Madeline, however, was unsure about how to do this. The special education faculty attempted to provide guidance and clarity by recommending grading based on Jacqueline's goals. When asked about her expected grade, Jacqueline stated, “I want an A or an A+, but it doesn't matter.” The course professor struggled with her grading decision. She recognized that Jacqueline never spoke extemporaneously, but she did meet other objectives. Grading considerations were discussed during Madeline's interview:
When I see a student reading verbatim, I automatically knock off a grade and they would start at a B. But then I look to the other areas. I look to content, how did the student support the various points that he or she made, organization, vocal technique. The two areas that were most problematic for Jacqueline were delivery. Her organization and content was also good. It [was] always easy to follow her, but she always read. It was not much eye contact, and sometimes she was hard to understand. … I think for her second and third speech the grade that I gave her was a B−, if it had been a student with no disability, the grade would have been around a C, but I think Jacqueline did a nice job. She really got the content and organization down. Her abilities, I think, were such that she did a reasonably good job with vocal technique and delivery. I don't know how much is her disability, what she could really change.
An area of concern was the level of Kim's personal involvement in Jacqueline's performance. It was evident that Kim felt personally responsible for Jacqueline's academic success, often worrying about providing her with the appropriate amount and type of support necessary. Kim was surprised about the amount of time and effort that was needed to support Jacqueline. At one time Kim suggested that two peer support individuals would have been more appropriate. Kim was also grateful that Jacqueline's mother was able to provide instructional support and reinforcement at home.
Implications for Potential Inclusive Transition Opportunities
For the second research question we explored implications related to potential inclusive transition opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities at the university level. This case study revealed that inclusion in a course at the university could be a viable transition option for individuals with developmental disabilities. However, various organizational and pragmatic issues must be addressed to ensure the success of such programs.
The most critical element is the need for capable people who are willing and interested in working with an individual with a disability. Inclusion at the college level does not typically involve students with cognitive disabilities; therefore, it was desirable to select a course professor who accepted the student into her classroom and made adaptations as needed. Peer support was critical because that person provided continuity through ongoing interaction with all members of the team. These findings are consistent with recent research related to successful college transition experiences for individuals with developmental disabilities (Weir, 2004).
All of the participants indicated that the key to Jacqueline's success in the course was the peer support she received from Kim. Thus, it is important to find a preservice teacher who is responsible and capable. This individual will be expected to attend all classes, meet with the student regularly to provide instructional support, and communicate regularly with the parent(s), the professor, and the faculty facilitators. Potential compatibility between the individual with the disability and the preservice peer support person should be considered. For this particular study, the researchers were fortunate to have a strong peer support person, who was willing and effective; however, in future projects, other preservice teachers may be trained for such support roles. This may be easily accomplished in the context of service learning or incorporated into course-related field experiences.
The amount of time and energy to support a single student in only one class was quite extensive. A significant time commitment was required from all members of the collaborative team, especially the preservice peer support person. Although support will always be a critical issue, in this case, it was exceptionally difficult because it was a new experience. We assume that with experience and structures in place, it would be easier to provide adequate support.
Compensation was another concern. Credits or teacher education field experience opportunities can be explored as alternatives to financial compensation. In addition, a considerable amount of time was necessary for faculty facilitators to organize, communicate, and collaborate with all stakeholders to ensure a successful experience. Although the course professor was paid to teach, these support faculty were not compensated in any way. Creative adjustments to faculty workload, such as designating this as an independent study, would help to compensate them for their time. For the family of the individual with disabilities, tuition can be costly, especially at a private university. Tuition was free for Jacqueline because her mother worked at the university. Auditing classes or financial support from outside funding could also alleviate cost of future projects. Various funding sources for individuals with disabilities might offset expenses. All of these factors related to the development and implementation of the program will take a lot of time and exploration.
It was difficult for everyone to begin with clear expectations because we piloted this inclusive experience for the first time. Roles and expectations of specific stakeholders should be clarified at the onset of the project. However, participants should be aware that modifications will be made based upon ongoing need. Flexibility and ongoing communication was imperative. We learned that goals and progress must be reviewed throughout the experience. Although goals were written initially, it took time for the course professor, peer support, and support faculty to get to know Jacqueline and her abilities. Goals had to be revised, but it was difficult for all of the stakeholders to meet at the same time, and, thus, we had to have various ongoing meetings with different participants. As a result, we suggest that mutual planning time for the entire semester be scheduled at the onset of the project.
The results of this case study indicate similar challenges and issues to those faced in K–12 inclusive classrooms. The need for planning time and the importance of voluntary personnel with positive attitudes and clear mutual goals were key issues in this project (Friend & Cook, 2003). Another pertinent issue was the challenge of grading and assessment, often faced by teachers working with students in inclusive classes who have disabilities. An area for future research may be further comparison of inclusive experiences at the college level to those in K– 12 classrooms.
Although we encountered various challenges in this pilot study, it is possible that support issues could be alleviated in the future as we learn from experience. This might be accomplished through more systematic planning and goal setting as well as organized training for peer support and faculty participants. Clearly, this was a new experience at this university, and support challenges were often addressed as they arose. Informed by data generated from this study, future opportunities can be organized with more perspective and experience to support individuals with developmental disabilities at the college level.
An inclusive classroom experience at the university can be a viable possibility as a postsecondary option for young adults with developmental disabilities. Often individuals with disabilities have limited transition choices and little opportunity to compare and contrast options (Thoma, Baker, & Saddler, 2002). This experience provided Jacqueline with knowledge and awareness of what it means to go to college, thus expanding her transition options.
In addition, inclusion at a university can enhance the preservice experience by creating opportunities for teacher education students to provide instructional support for inclusion. At the same time, it was a learning experience for the university students enrolled in the course. Initiatives to increase inclusive opportunities at the university level have the potential to raise awareness and increase opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities.
Authors: Diane Casale-Giannola, EdD (email@example.com), Assistant Professor, and Michele Wilson Kamens, EdD, Professor, Department of Teacher Education, Rider University, 2083 Lawrenceville Rd., Lawrenceville, NJ 08648-3001