Providing an Inclusive College Experience for Students with Intellectual Disabilities
Tucked away within Southeastern’s Cate Teacher Education Center lies one of Southeastern’s hidden gems: Lions Connected. The program helps those who might not otherwise be able to attend college due to certain disabilities break down barriers and thrive in a university setting.
Lions Connected is designed to accommodate students who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, traumatic brain injury, and/or cognitive disabilities. Currently, there are only six programs like it in the state of Louisiana. Lions Connected is now in its fifth year and is truly blossoming.
This program gives these students the opportunity to have the full college experience, with an emphasis on social and life skills. Each participant has their own schedule that is based on personal interests. This encourages students to grow and maximize their abilities in order to engage in their adult lives.
Individuals with intellectual disabilities are typically underemployed resources. “Being able to have our students engage in employment [not only] gives meaning to their lives, but it also benefits the community,” said Jim Zimlich, former interim coordinator of the Lions Connected program. “They are demonstrating their abilities and not just their disability. They are being productive in their community in ways that are beyond the income they would earn.”
All Lions Connected students are able to fully engage across the University community. They have access to the Counseling Center, Career Services, Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic, and much more. All of these Southeastern resources are readily available to them as part of the program.
Equally important, not only do the individuals who participate in Lions Connected benefit, but traditional students are also able to gain from it. ”We have a lot of collaborative relationships too,” Zimlich said. “We work with the adaptive physical education (PE) courses. Students who are taking the adaptive PE courses can work with our [Lions Connected] students so that they can learn how to effectively adapt the exercises and games that they play to maximize the abilities of those in Lions Connected.”
Also, many Lions Connected participants utilize Southeastern’s Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic in Campbell Hall. In addition to serving members of the community with communication disorders, including members of Lions Connected, this resource serves communication sciences and disorders students as a teaching facility for the application of clinical methodology based upon sound theoretical principles. The clinic also affords students the opportunity to employ scientific methodology of research to the clinical and supervisory processes. This brings forth interaction between traditional Southeastern students and Lions Connected students for the benefit of both parties. “Being able to communicate effectively helps [Lions Connected students] in adult life to be more productive and engaged in our community and their lives,” Zimlich added.
The support of traditional Southeastern students is indeed one major component of what helps make this program so successful. Lions Connected would not work without mentors, who are the “heart and soul of our program,” Zimlich said.
Mentors are students at Southeastern who have expressed an interest in working with the program. They work directly with Lions Connected participants, with an average mentor-to-student ratio of 1:2. Mentors accompany Lions Connected students throughout their time on campus, attending class, going to lunch, and engaging fully in peer-mentoring life and social skills.
“Mentors provide authentic and engaging social experiences. They also offer support to those who may become overwhelmed to help and motivate the students to be active and engaged in their courses to the maximum extent of their abilities,” said Zimlich.
In addition to being a powerful academic institution and center for learning, Southeastern seeks to serve all within the community, and through Lions Connected, it is able to fill one more niche in doing so. The program helps facilitate more opportunities for participants to have meaningful, productive lives.
“These students are being given such a unique opportunity to gain real-life experience in an academic and social setting that will help them exponentially in the future,” said Lions Connected mentor Caroline Garrett. “Society in general does not expect them to succeed and be productive members of society, but this program is helping to prove that wrong. It can be exhausting, but it’s important work that is changing lives.”
For more information, contact Dr. Gerlinde Beckers, director of Lions Connected, at 985.549.2217 or email@example.com.
By Mindy Gremillion