OMAHA, Neb. — Being a high school student with a disability means having an education plan designed for you, family members who can advocate for you and transition programs that stretch to age 21 if you need the extra time.
In college, those comforts and distinctions slip away. Students can no longer count on support systems to help lead them to success. Instead, they must rely on their ability to advocate for themselves.
Each year a program called Skills to Pay the Bills hosts a series of workshops for students with intellectual or physical disabilities and their families, whether students are considering college or the workforce, to help define their next steps.
It’s a partnership funded by the Nebraska Department of Education and designed to answer basic questions about financial aid and enrollment as well as to empower students and families. Goodwill Industries, Metropolitan Community College, the Omaha Public Schools and PTI Nebraska, a resource for parents and families of children with disabilities, co-host the free workshops, which are focused on job skills, parents’ needs and transitioning to college.
“College is an adjustment for any student,” Ryan Stamm, disability services counselor at Metro, told the students and parents in attendance at a college-focused workshop last month. “You are not alone.”
Metro enrolled more than 1,700 students last year who reported a disability. Though professors won’t be following an individualized education program (IEP), some accommodations are still available.
But unlike high school, the students have to ask for help themselves, and privacy laws prevent parents from interacting directly with professors or registrars. Though a student can file a waiver to share some information with parents, the parents were told, they should expect to share concerns with a disability office instead of calling a professor directly.
Students attending the workshops got some advice: Take a copy of your IEP before you leave high school so you can show disability services at your college what accommodations have worked for you in the past, such as extended test taking. Get to know your professors and make sure they understand how to help you be successful. Take steps to become your own champion.
The advice for parents was a little harder to swallow: Let go a little bit.
Julie Rife is not afraid to admit that next year, when her daughter is among these new college students, letting go will be hard.
Rife and her daughter, 19-year-old Sarah Rife, attended a workshop together last month. Julie Rife has always been able to make sure her daughter’s needs were being met, and she was somewhat surprised to hear that her role when her daughter enrolls in Metro’s culinary program would have to be more supportive cheerleader than fierce advocate.
Sarah Rife has always done well and worked hard, her mother said, but she has had caring teachers and extra time with tests and assignments. Julie Rife still worries about a lack of specialized tutoring and whether the disability service office can be a kind of safety net for her daughter if she falls behind. Julie Rife knows now there’s not a whole lot she can do, though, other than pray.
“I hope everything goes well for her, that she’ll be able to communicate her needs to her teachers, and that they’ll be able to help her do well,” Julie Rife said.
Sarah Rife said her biggest concerns about college are figuring out how she can get help with tests and other classroom issues and paying for the tuition and special equipment she’ll need in the culinary program. Overall, she knows she will have to be an adult more than she is now in high school in Fort Calhoun.
The skills program is two-pronged, with workshops for students who are considering college as well as those who will likely enter the workforce, the Omaha World-Herald reports.
Holly Schwietz, work experience coordinator with Goodwill, supervises high school students in a transition program. They spend part of their day at a Goodwill retail store, developing soft skills and job experience.
The students who are considering college have to do a lot of research to prepare, she said.
“What that looks like is different than a typical student,” Schwietz said. “They need to know what kind of services do they need to look into, are they eligible for vocational rehab and SSI? These are all big things parents are weighing at this time.”
Mary McHale’s son, Daniel Holm, is a junior at Burke High in Omaha. He has a list of chores he’s responsible for at home and a job at school through a transition program. McHale said she and her husband expect Daniel to work toward self-sufficiency when he’s an adult.
The family isn’t ruling out the idea that Daniel may consider college classes later, but for now the focus is on getting “soft skills” that will help him in a job interview. The class reinforced his need to identify his strengths and weaknesses, she said, and make the connection between things he likes to do and what his job options are.
“There are lots of things he can do,” McHale said of Daniel, who has Down syndrome and impaired hearing. “We have the same expectations for him as if he had 46 chromosomes instead of 47. He will find a job.”
Juan Alquicira, who works at Goodwill each morning as part of his transition program, plans to start college next year. He attended a workshop with worries that mirror those of many other incoming freshmen: money, class schedules, his ACT score.
His supervisor at Goodwill, Steve Andrews, said Alquicira has shown he is great at staying on task, showing up on time and keeping to a schedule. Andrews and Alquicira’s family have been encouraging him to start with non-credit classes to get used to the pace and demands at Metro.
“He can follow the steps he lays out for himself, and he’s going to be able to handle it,” Andrews said.