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Making college a reality for youth with intellectual disabilities

Young adults with intellectual disabilities want the same things as their typically-developing peers. They want freedom to make their own choices; the skills and knowledge needed to be as independent as possible; the opportunity to live, learn and work in their community; and the chance to have active social lives and engaging jobs.

The good news is that more than 200 college programs across the country now provide the education and transition support necessary to make these dreams a reality. But for most families, this is unchartered territory. How do you plan for college for a student with an intellectual disability?


Do begin by aiming for the end result

What are college programs like for students with intellectual disabilities? What is expected of students? By understanding the answers to these questions, you can better help your child prepare for college. While each program is different, many share four common areas of focus. These include academic courses, social life, professional development and independent living. Start by researching some of the programs and learn about what is expected of students who enroll. is an excellent resource. If you start with small steps when your child is young, the road to college will be far less overwhelming.

Do begin planning in kindergarten -- or earlier

Parents of children with disabilities need to start planning for college as early (if not earlier) than parents of children without disabilities. Acceptance of the disability is the first important step in this process. Once you understand the diagnosis, do your homework and take advantage of early intervention services to provide your child with the greatest support possible.

Do advocate for inclusion in school and set high expectations

Insist that your child be included in mainstream classes at an early age, along with appropriate supports. All students benefit from engaging with peers and being challenged by the academic curriculum at their own, individual level. Students who are included with their peers from the start have the greatest chance for independence and success as adults.

Do encourage kids to find a passion

Expose your child to different opportunities to learn and make friends. Independence and social skills can develop on a ball field, in a ballet class, through a drama performance or cooking class, by playing music or shooting baskets. Every child has a special talent, strength or unique interest. Identify something your child is interested in and good at. Then encourage that experience. Help your children excel at something they have an interest in--and not what you think they should be interested in.

Do talk about college with your child

Start at an early age. Give your child hope and aspirations. Teach independence and give space. Have confidence, and show that you trust his/her ability to grow. It is not always easy, but neither is the process with a typically-developing child.


Do not protect your child from failure

Every parent wants his or her child to be successful, and the temptation to over assist is hard to resist. This can be especially true if your child is learning alongside typically-developing peers, and you want your child to fit in. But mistakes and failure are an important part of the learning process. Do not bail your child out in school, on the playground or on the athletic field. Never do your child’s homework. Let your child learn to face natural consequences. Real pride comes from genuine success and that depends on the possibility of failure.

Do not wait to start saving

College is expensive for any student. While there are growing opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities to receive scholarships, Pell grants and financial aid, it is important to start saving and planning financially for this opportunity.

Do not allow fear be your guiding factor

It is difficult for all parents to let their children take risks, but risk is an important part of the developmental process. Listen to your child. Encourage flexibility and self-determination. Let your child make decisions and have opportunities to experience time away from home. Allow for independence, choice and mistakes.

Do not set your heart on one and only one program

College is more about finding a good fit for your child than setting your heart on a specific school. Plan to visit different schools and find at least two that are a good match. Let your child have the loudest voice in the process. Students are more successful when they have a strong interest and desire, and that starts with taking part in the decision.

Do not let financial concerns prevent you from exploring college options

Students in many programs can now apply for Pell grant support, and new scholarships for students with intellectual disabilities are emerging every year. In addition, some states, such as South Carolina, now offer some financial support for students who attend these postsecondary programs. You may have to do some digging, but there are growing ways to find financial support for college.

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Young adults with intellectual disabilities have more college options open to them than ever before. And just like their peers without disabilities, they should start early in preparing for these opportunities. Early intervention services, full inclusion in school, participation in sports and other activities, and learning personal responsibility and independence are all important parts of the process. Parents should incorporate college savings into their financial plans and explore the options for financial assistance. College is a realistic goal for many young adults with intellectual disabilities, and it is never too early to begin the planning process.

More expert advice about Caring for Teens and Adults with Disabilities

Photo Credits: © Andy Dean -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Cynthia May, Ph.D.Professor of Psychology

Cindi May is a Professor of Psychology at the College of Charleston. Her research explores mechanisms for optimizing cognitive function in college students, older adults, and individuals with intellectual disabilities. She is also the project d...

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