Attending college is a rite of passage; however, for students with intellectual, developmental, or cognitive disabilities, the college experience has not always been possible.
That’s changing as schools nationwide develop individualized curricula and support systems for such students. Funded by state grants from Sen. William J. Larkin Jr., the Bridges at SUNY Orange program was conceived to help young adults with disabilities achieve long-term educational, vocational, and life goals. Those goals may vary.
“Some students say, ‘I want to get a job,’” says program director Patricia Bassey. “Others say, ‘I think I can do college but I’m not ready yet. When I leave, I would like to work on my degree.’ Some students audit classes [without earning college credit], but some opt to take credit classes while enrolled with us, learning social and organizational skills.”
If a student chooses to take a class for credit, they have to do the work.
“We support them, but our support is strictly limited to social support; for example, how to talk to that professor you don’t find to be the friendliest person; how to organize to get your homework done; and, if you need extra time, how to contact the Office of Accessibility,” Bassey explains. “We work with what the students want and then put all our resources behind that to help them achieve that goal.”
Instructor Lisa Currao helps student Callie Swendsen.
Students explore various lines of work and learn the basic employment skills needed on any job. The curriculum includes independent living skills, such as cooking and home care; consumer math skills, such as balancing a checkbook; executive functioning skills, such as organization and planning, plus social skills essential to success in school and work.
“Social skills class teaches you how to have conversations and how to be more sociable,” says student Kayla Rossnagle, who one day hopes to work in child care. “Because if you’re working somewhere, it’s better to know how to talk to people.”
In a campus setting, students can hone communication skills and develop confidence interacting with others. During her son’s first year in the program, Randee Lerman watched his sense of independence grow.
“Zach needs help with social skills,” Lerman says. “They are meeting with him once a week to do social skills training….They are really looking out for his best interests and getting him prepared for life.”
Bridges is not the only Hudson Valley transition program for students with disabilities. Westchester Community College offers College Steps, and the College of St. Rose, Albany’s “The College Experience” offers a two-year residential non-credit program.