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President Wubah’s Op-Ed on Inclusive Education

“Our Integrated Studies initiative stands as a testament to our dedication to inclusivity.”

Colleges and universities nationwide continue to grapple with demographic shifts, fiscal challenges, and the lasting impacts of the pandemic. Against these larger societal forces, many higher education institutions have focused considerable attention and resources on improving access and affordability for their students. Many institutions are providing new opportunities for adult learners, veterans, international students and other previously underserved populations.

While many campuses are increasing the diversity of the student body, not all interested students have benefited equally from the growing access to higher education. Students with intellectual disability attend college at the lowest rate of students from any disability category. Approximately 6.5 million Americans have some intellectual disability, defined as having significant limitations both in intellectual functioning (e.g., reasoning, learning, problem-solving) and adaptive behavior. However, due to minimal college options and a lack of awareness, school-age students with intellectual disability are less likely to prepare for and seek higher education. There are approximately 15 million undergraduate students enrolled in college in the United States, but only about 6000 of these are students with intellectual disability.

Further, challenges exist in the workforce, as individuals with intellectual disability are more likely to be underemployed, working part-time and earning less than the minimum wage. Only 28% of working-age adults with intellectual disability have ever held a job. This situation leaves an astounding number of eager workers on the sidelines at a time when our state and regional economies can hardly afford to overlook any segment of the available workforce.

These statistics represent an enormous challenge for colleges and universities and an opportunity. Broadening access to education for individuals with intellectual disability not only benefits those students but also benefits the greater student body, teaching and learning environments, campuses, communities, and the workforce.

At Millersville University, where I serve as president, we pride ourselves on our work to expand opportunities for students with intellectual disability. As a public university dedicated to the core values of inclusion and compassion, we strive to foster an environment where every student, regardless of their background or abilities, thrives and ultimately meets their educational aspirations.

Inclusive postsecondary education is not an abstract concept for us—it is a lived reality. Our Integrated Studies initiative stands as a testament to our dedication to inclusivity. In this unique initiative, students with disabilities are not segregated or separated; instead, they are integrated seamlessly into our academic, social and communal fabric. They attend the same classes, live in the same residence halls, dine in the same halls and join the same clubs as their peers.

We do not view them as students with disabilities; they are students, period.

As an institution, we recognize that a vital component of students’ reaching their potential is creating a strong sense of belonging for all our students. I have seen the impact of integration reverberate across our campus and witnessed the strong connection and sense of belongingness within our community. Our faculty and staff have stepped up, not just as educators but as compassionate mentors who understand and respond to the diverse learning needs of their students. They willingly step out of their comfort zones, employing innovative teaching methods to create opportunities for every student to succeed. Our campus has adapted, learned, and continues to grow to serve our students with disabilities.

Our commitment to inclusion brings with it some challenges; however, these challenges are opportunities for growth and learning. We have embraced the philosophy that providing equal opportunities to all is not about offering special treatment; it’s about leveling the playing field. In the real world, no one receives special treatment based on their abilities or disabilities. Our campus mirrors the world into which our students will graduate; therefore, we must ensure they are well-equipped for the challenges that await them beyond the campus.

As a biologist, I often view our approach to inclusive education to the genetics and biodiversity of an ecosystem. Much like a robust ecosystem, a campus flourishes when it is composed of students from different backgrounds, cultures, and abilities.

Inclusive education is not just a campus endeavor for us; it is also deeply personal for me. As a grandfather to an autistic grandson, I understand the importance of advocating for equal opportunities. My fourteen-year-old grandson is very bright and tries incredibly hard at school, and we give him as much support and love as possible. Watching him develop has given me a heightened awareness and sensitivity to ensure that we provide support for students with disabilities. All he needs is to be given an opportunity to explore, develop and grow because I am convinced that he can excel at anything to which he sets his mind. These experiences have reinforced my belief that inclusive education is a moral, educational, and community imperative.

To my fellow higher education leaders, I urge you to champion inclusive education on your campuses. The most important markers of success are ensuring your senior leadership team is committed to the initiative and that your campus is prepared. We need to educate faculty and staff and encourage them to see these challenges not as obstacles but as opportunities to enhance their teaching methods, enrich their own learning experiences and contribute towards a vibrant community.

To learn more, campus leaders can visit www.thinkhighered.net to find resources to help expand access to inclusive higher education for students with intellectual disability. Campuses are leaning into this opportunity and developing best practices worth sharing.

Inclusive postsecondary education is more than adapting policies and processes; it delivers transformational experiences for all. It is about embracing the diverse tapestry of humanity and recognizing the potential in every individual. It’s about ensuring that every student can dream, learn and contribute meaningfully to society regardless of their abilities.

Together, campus communities can open the doors wider, break down barriers and create an educational landscape where every learner thrives.

Editor’s note: This piece was written for Think College. 
It appears in University Business. 

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