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College Is Still Possible For Some Illinois Students With Intellectual Disabilities

Rock Valley College
A 2021 RVC RAISE graduate in their cap and gown.

College can seem like it's not an option for many students with intellectual disabilities. Advocates say they also simply don't have many higher-education opportunities. Illinoisranked 44th among statesin its ability to serve people with intellectual disabilities.

MaryAnne Ax is the program coordinator for the RAISE Program at Rock Valley College and a retired special ed teacher. She says it’s common for students to stay within their high school until they’re 22, but there’s only a limited amount of lessons districts can offer.

“Sometimes what happens is they will, for lack of other opportunities, retake classes they've already taken,” Ax said. “This gives the schools an opportunity to send their students out here to the college. The rigors are a little more significant and they're there with their non-disabled peers.”

A recently passed bill in Illinois allows special education students to stay in school past their 22nd birthday through the rest of the school year. Ax says there are only six similar college programs in Illinois for students with intellectual disabilities. RAISE features a half dozen classes, covering everything from cooking to disability law.

RVC hopes to expand it soon to include more internships and job training pathways. She says their courses can help disabled students become independent and find work.

“They can acquire the soft skills that are needed in the workplace so desperately, they can acquire specific training, they can be taught how to advocate for themselves in the community, what are their rights as a disabled person?” Axe said.

RAISE taught more than 40 students pre-pandemic, many from area high school special ed programs. Courses cost $300 apiece, although they are eligible for scholarships.

The classes were difficult to translate online -- Ax says being on-campus is one of their major selling points -- but classes continued. They’re also offering several internships at the college in the financial aid department and library.

If students are coming to RVC as part of a school district, Ax says transportation and tuition are covered. But for other students, transportation is still a big obstacle. Intellectual disabilities often overlap with physical disabilities as well. RVC’s disability services can provide assistive technology, including alternative keyboards, recording devices and screen recording software.

Ax also is working with Boone and Winnebago counties Transition and Planning Committee to establish a Facebook page as a one-stop shop for families of disabled students to find local resources.