Look at ways Minnesota can reduce barriers to higher education 

Barriers to higher education and meaningful employment are a sad fact of life for too many of us with disabilities. Some […]

Empty chairs in a lecture hall

Barriers to higher education and meaningful employment are a sad fact of life for too many of us with disabilities. Some of us who are still working missed out on the era when individualized education programs or IEPs were introduced. We older workers had to struggle without services and supports for our education. 

Too many of us, of all ages, still cope with workplace stereotypes and discrimination. We look at our working lives and wonder what else there could be or could have been. That is true for people with all types of disabilities and not just those of us who remember some pretty blatant discrimination over the years. 

It is as if we can never get ahead. Or as a parent we know said recently, we live in a world that has very little time for those who struggle. 

It was striking to listen to a young speaker at the recent Minnesota Council on Disability legislative update, who spoke of his desire to get an education beyond what high school can offer. He spoke of the barriers faced and of how higher education may be just a wish at this point. Many of us at the virtual meeting could relate to wanting what could be a life-changing experience. 

There are also those of us who would simply like to take a college class once in a while. Maybe we are young and would like an overview of what college would be like. Or maybe there is a topic that piques an interest. Low-income working people with disabilities often find that even taking a single course can be financially out of reach. 
Bills before the 2023 Minnesota Legislature could change that. And we say it’s about time. 

Many efforts are aimed toward inclusion and we’d urge our community members to get involved with the issues that meet their needs. From trying to ensure that parents with disabilities are fully included in their children’s IEP processes to calling out schools personnel for withholding recess to not be a form of punishment … there’s plenty to get behind and speak out about. 

We’d like to focus on higher education. One bill would expand the access to college discount program. Currently Minnesotans ages 62 and older can take college courses at a rate of $25 to $75 per class at any school in the Minnesota state system. The change sought is to expand access to those college credit rates to any individual who accesses disability services. That is meant to open a door to postsecondary education to more people. 

The second education-related change sought is tied into a larger package of accessibility needs. The bill language focused on higher education calls for inclusive higher education statewide. At this time, capacity for and access to higher education for students with intellectual disabilities statewide is very limited. 

The intent is to provide technical assistance and grant funding to public colleges and universities throughout Minnesota, to launch or enhance higher education initiatives. 
Currently only a few schools offer such programs. Results have been challenging to track. The Bethel University Inclusive Learning and Development (BUILD) program was launched to high praise several years ago. The BUILD program is touted as an inclusive two-year certificate program where students learn to live as independently as possible, maintain meaningful employment and value lifelong learning. 

BUILD has been lauded as one of a few such programs in Minnesota to give students with intellectual disabilities a chance to experience college life. But in late 2018 Bethel was sued by the parents of one former BUILD student, who claimed that their student was discriminated against. 

BUILD has evolved over the years but that case illustrated the challenges of providing a truly inclusive higher education. Bethel leadership admitted that the student in the legal case hadn’t received the educational experience he and his family had envisioned. 
That’s why the promise of higher education has to be approached carefully. We know too many people, of all abilities, who never were able to get that well-paying job and meaningful career even with a degree or degrees. A degree is not a golden ticket. 
We’d also like to see a focus on the trades for people with disabilities when that can be considered. Not everyone needs a four-year degree or that educational experience. Jobs in the trades can pay well and offer opportunities for advancement. 

But we applaud efforts to open educational opportunities to all. It’s way overdue. 

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