Different minds, same college experience

The Institute on Disabilities offers several programs to assist the community.

The Institute on Disabilities unites Academy for Adult Learning students and matriculated students who act as mentors and tutors. | Courtesy INSTITUTE ON DISABILITIES
The Institute on Disabilities unites Academy for Adult Learning students and matriculated students who act as mentors and tutors. | Courtesy INSTITUTE ON DISABILITIES

Michael McClendon, a part-time receptionist at Temple’s Institute on Disabilities, discovered his passion for acting during his education at the university – he now loves improvisation, but when he first began, he was one of the shyest students in the class. 

The IOD, not to be confused with the Disability Resource Center that aids matriculated students with disabilities, considers McClendon an example of success in their efforts to assist the community.

McClendon processes information differently than the average student, but his supervisors and teachers want other students to understand that he is capable of the same success they are. The first recipient of the Spirit of Pride award, which recognizes students who overcome personal challenges for their accomplishments, McClendon has been successful at Temple on a number of levels.

He’s a graduate of the IOD’s Academy for Adult Learning, one of the many programs through the institute, which provides post-secondary education to people aged 18-30 with intellectual disabilities.

“My experience was just going [to the program], meeting new people, getting the feel of being a student and being surrounded with friends and mentors,” McClendon said of his time as an academy student.

The program, a two-year track, earns students a certificate of attendance after they take specialized seminar classes, audit regular general education courses and complete internships designed to develop their work portfolio. The program has had 49 graduates so far, 67 percent of whom are currently employed on a part-time basis.

Kathleen Miller, the director of supports and services at the IOD, said the IOD is particularly successful in aiding the community due to its urban location at Temple.

“Oftentimes our students are the first person in their family attending the university,” Miller said. “Some other programs [for intellectually disabled students] are more for people in a higher socioeconomic category who have the opportunity for higher educations, whereas with our students, that’s not necessarily the case.”

Both Miller and project coordinator of the academy Titiana Boddie, who teaches some of the seminar classes, agreed that the program embodies a founding principle of the university – Russell Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds” speech.

“Each student, despite their disability, has an ability to express what they’re interested in,” Boddie said. “They are capable of doing whatever is required of them, they just may need additional support.”

Boddie said the academy offers paid positions to matriculated students as mentors and tutors, which she said is competitive. The academy students are required to spend 10 hours per week with their assigned mentor as part of the program. This allows for what Boddie called “an authentic college experience,” including attending sporting events, concerts and parties. Beverly Frantz, the director of Criminal Justice and Sexuality within the IOD, said this also allows for “secondary learning.”

“At most parties, there might be alcohol or drugs or all kinds of things, and that helps [academy] students really be able to know when to say no, how things look, when to walk away, and if something happened to call campus police,” Frantz said. “[The hope is] that these skills would be transferrable when they leave Temple and they’re living on their own, wherever they’re living in the community.”

The relationship between mentors and mentees is often a special one, Miller said. She said not only the academy student benefits from the experience.

“[The matriculated students] see people who are different than they are who process things more slowly,” Miller said. “They realize that just because you have a difference doesn’t mean you’re not a great human with attributes. It’ll help them going out into the world of work to be more tolerant of others.”

Miller said the IOD is hoping to eventually increase the program to last a full four years, to be even more true to the typical college experience. They anticipate increasing to three years within the coming year, though Frantz said it is a tedious process.

Academy students can take the classes Frantz teaches, which are Marginalized Citizenship and Disability and Sexuality, as some of their audited courses.

“They bring a depth of knowledge that I can’t give [the matriculated students],” Frantz said. “You’re sitting there, you’re talking and learning about intellectual disabilities, and you’re sitting next to someone with an intellectual disability – their perspective and their voice is just amazing. They bring such value to class.”

Frantz said students who are uncomfortable interacting with academy students are often overly concerned with political correctness. Boddie recommended students “treat them as human being, not as a person with a disability.”

The Academy for Adult Learning isn’t the only program at the IOD where matriculated students can play a valuable role – Frantz said two graduate students do research within the program she directs, the Criminal Justice Project.

The Criminal Justice Project strives to represent members of the community with intellectual disabilities, who Frantz said struggle to receive fair treatment. She said they assist both victims and offenders, never taking a position on innocence or guilt, but simply providing the means for equality in court.

“We know that women with intellectual disabilities who are victims of sexual assault, they’re at anywhere between four to 10 times a higher risk than a person without a disability of being a victim of sexual assault,” Frantz said. “If they even get to court, they have a much lesser chance of being believed – they’re not seen as credible. But if you have a male with the exact same attributes who’s accused of a crime, he’s the most credible person there is.”

Carrie Leonhart, a speech pathologist who works with the Criminal Justice Project and the IOD’s Augmentative Communication Services coordinator, has appeared in court as a testimony interpreter for intellectually disabled people. She repeats each utterance of the individual when they take the stand, allowing the jury to better understand them.

“I think a lot of times we confuse people’s language abilities with their cognition, or we think that if they have a difficulty in one area, let’s say a learning disability, that means they don’t experience life the same way the rest of us do,” Leonhart said. “There is an inherent right to dignity for all humans, and communication is a big part of that.”

Leonhart said she thinks the IOD has a lot to offer any student interested in becoming involved with a program, whether their focus is on research, social services or psychology, among others.

“Service to the community is important, because college campuses can kind of become enclosed, but really the point of everyone coming to college to build their skills is to expand, so that service component is good,” Leonhart said.

Erin Edinger-Turoff can be reached at erin.edinger-turoff@temple.edu or on Twitter @erinJustineET. 

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