DHD receives grant to create post-secondary education program for people with intellectual disabilities

Students with intellectual disabilities will attend classes at UIC in a two-year certificate program that prepares them for a career in their chosen field.

The UIC Certificate in Co-Operative Career Experience, offered by the Department of Disability and Human Development, is funded by a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The first co-op class of 10 students is expected to begin their studies in fall 2021.

“So many students with intellectual disabilities get dropped from formal disability services after high school. When they become adults, they usually end up not going to college and are often unemployed or underemployed,” said project leader Tamar Heller, distinguished professor and head of the department and its Institute on Disability and Human Development.

An important feature of this program is building skills for a career, not a job, but a path for people to see their future.

Co-op students will take classes that focus on the transition to college, building capacity and skills, and career pathways. They can choose a specialty track in arts and culture, policy and social justice, health across the lifespan, or entrepreneurship and leadership.

Support services will include mentors and peer mentors, an academic adviser and career coach, and disability accommodations. Co-op students can also use campus resources such as the Disability Resource Center, Disability Cultural Center, the Coalition of Autistic and Neurodiverse Students, and the Great Lakes ADA Center.

Co-op students will have full student status. They can audit undergraduate classes with other UIC students and complete a final-semester capstone experience that could lead to post-graduation employment.

“Unlike other programs serving students with intellectual disabilities in college, students in the UIC Co-Op program will be fully integrated with other undergraduate students,” Heller said.

Additionally, UIC students in disability and human development will gain important skills by taking classes alongside peers with intellectual disabilities and by acting as peer mentors for co-op students.

The program’s advisory committee will include representatives from area school districts, the Chicago Mayor’s Office on Disabilities, the Business Leadership Network, state and community agencies, and advocacy organizations. The committee will help guide program development, recruit students and connect them with career opportunities.

The goal is to expand the program to other sites in Illinois and provide a model for programs nationally.

“Not many people with intellectual disabilities have opportunities to participate in an inclusive college experience designed to help them on a career trajectory based on their needs and preferences,” Heller said.

Katherine Caldwell, clinical assistant professor of disability and human development, and Kaitlin Stober, visiting research specialist, are project co-leads.