Stepping Forward to Inclusiveness

For students with developmental disabilities, overcoming obstacles has been the story of their lives.

Often those success stories ended when high school did, because university life was largely off limits for these students.

‘STEPS forward’ is providing a new chapter in the lives of these BC students who can now continue their education after high school, improving their options and life choices with regard to work, career planning, social connections, community involvement and living arrangements.

The impetus for inclusive post-secondary education came from young adults with developmental disabilities who wanted to continue their education after high school and who lobbied their families to support them to go on to college or university and to take the same courses and participate in campus life in the same ways as their siblings and peers.

In 1999, the families of these young adults came together to share ideas and explore inclusive options happening in other places across Canada. They heard that in Alberta young adults were pursing something called ‘inclusive post-secondary education’. Today, most post secondary institutions in Alberta have inclusive initiatives.

‘STEPS Forward’ was formed in 2001, to move young people away from the alternative, exclusive programs that limited their options, and onto the pathways used by everyone after high school.

‘STEPS Forward’ went from supporting one student at Emily Carr University of Art and Design to supporting multiple students at University of British Columbia, University of Victoria, Nicola Valley Institute of Technology and Simon Fraser University. The students enjoy the typical university college experience; selecting a concentration of studies, participating in activities, clubs and events, and working in co-op placements during the summer months.

Each student is supported individually. They meet with service providers and school personnel, attend orientation sessions and receive assistance in the transition from high school to college or university. Support staff are provided to each student, and help the student enrol in select courses, identify potential career paths and concentrations of studies, modify course materials or exams, adapt duties at volunteer or job positions and help them engage in campus activities. Regular meetings are held with students, family, and campus staff and after graduation, the student is assisted to find employment based exclusively on their interests and passions, and to maintain that employment.

Thanks to ‘STEPS Forward’, developmentally disabled students are learning, laughing, and working with their non-disabled peers.

They are finding out who they are.

“My passion is to make it unremarkable for students with developmental disabilities to learn, develop careers and pursue their passions alongside other students at post-secondary institutions,” said Tamara Hurtado, Executive Director of ‘STEPS Forward’.

“We should not be afraid to think outrageously, creatively or have ‘unrealistic’ expectations, as they are the motors to driving change in the inclusive life outcomes for young adults with developmental disabilities transitioning to adulthood.

Hurtado said that inclusive education is not a program, a place or a classroom, it is a way of understanding and living in the real world where there are people of all different sizes shapes colours and abilities.

She explained the values and beliefs that underpin inclusive post secondary education.

“Young adults with developmental disabilities want to learn and belong to post secondary campuses alongside other young adults,” she said. “In doing so they will reap the same benefits from the experience. These benefits are the natural result of authentic inclusive participation in courses, activities, clubs, communities and paid valued employment.”

This works two ways.

“It benefits not only the student, but also the campus community. It is an enriching experience for everyone,” said Hurtado. “ It builds capacity for diversity at these institutions. We have heard from faculty members how having a student with a developmental disability in their class has made them better teachers. One professor shared with us that his class is full of students but he has been lucky to have one true learner in his class and that was a student with developmental disabilities.”

Hurtado said the greatest single challenge to inclusive post-secondary education has been the fragility of year-to-year funding over the previous 12 years.

“We are hoping that going forward young adults and families will be able to choose inclusive post-secondary education as an option secure in the knowledge that support will be funded for this transitional pathway to adulthood.”

The biggest surprise for the ‘STEPS Forward’ organization has been how everyone has embraced this idea and have gone from initially wondering what this was all about to pushing for the service to be able available at their local college or university. The next chapter of this story is to expand inclusive access to all post secondary institutions across British Columbia.

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