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What college options do students with intellectual disabilities have in Illinois?

In the 3rd and final part of our series about services for adults with disabilities, WNIJ’s Peter Medlin looks at the education opportunities available to students with intellectual or developmental disabilities after high school. Listen to part 1 and part 2

Sarah Hinde wants to be a professional disability advocate and motivational speaker after college. She has Cerebral Palsy and has already been doing advocacy work -- in-person and through social media -- since she was 13. She’s 20 now and a student at Rock Valley College in Rockford.

“Now I'm actually doing speeches," said Hinde, "where I get to talk about my individual story, as well as advocate for individuals with disabilities."

She’s part of the RAISE and CTP programs at Rock Valley. RAISE is a transition program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities coming out of high school. It’s one year with four courses.

They include a financial literacy class and a personal empowerment course to help students advocate for themselves and understand their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We have two goals for our students,” said Rachel Boge, RAISE program coordinator. “That's either continuing on taking more classes at RVC or entering into the workforce.”

CTP or the Comprehensive Transition & Postsecondary program is a designation from the U.S. Department of Education. It allows students to receive federal financial aid even if they’re not taking courses for credit.

For students like Hinde who want to keep taking classes, CTP opens up the course catalog for them. Instead of being limited to a set number of courses, Boge says students with disabilities can take almost anything they want. For example, Hinde is taking a lot of English classes for her motivational speaking.

“What makes it different is the extra support,” said Boge. “I work with them as their advisor. I'm checking in with their instructors and making sure everything's going good. I'm checking in with the students to see what they need.”

There are 28 students in the RAISE program and six in CTP. That might seem small, but Boge says it’s because they want to focus on supporting those students as much as they can.

And not every region of the state has a similar postsecondary program. There are 16 colleges and universities in Illinois that offer programs for students with intellectual disabilities -- six of which are in Cook County. And just half of 16 programs have the CTP financial aid designation.

A lot of students with disabilities, like Hinde, feel like they just don’t have many options.

“For me," she said, "it was either go through RAISE or you don't go to college."

Boge says often, disabled students aren’t invited to college visits. They send RAISE information to high schools, but there’s no guarantee it’ll get to the students. And parents might not always know their resources either.

Boge says RAISE currently partners with six different local school districts, and they’re always looking for more. She says a school district from outside of their community college region recently reached out because their community college doesn’t have a program.

She says transportation is always a big obstacle for RAISE students, let alone if they’re from outside of the area. Boge thinks every community college should have an inclusive program.

“We exist to serve our whole community," she said, "whether that's credit, non-credit, kids programming, all sorts of stuff. When we ignore people with intellectual disabilities, we're ignoring a huge portion of our community that we should be serving."

There are some other education options for folks with intellectual or developmental disabilities in northern Illinois, mostly outside of the college setting. In Rockford, RAMP’s Project SEARCH is a work-based transition program and Opportunity House has a Learning for Life curriculum, among others.

Back at Rock Valley, Sarah Hinde said the transition from high school to college can be really difficult for students with disabilities. You don’t have anIEP or 504 plan anymore.

“You don't have a full team of people that are willing to help. You're an adult,” she said. “So, you have to advocate for yourself, you have to know what you need.”

She’s been advocating for herself for a long time, along with her younger brother, who also has Cerebral Palsy. And it’s her passion and goal to be the advocate her younger self needed.

Hinde just graduated from RAISE. In fact, she gave the RAISE commencement speech.

“I love all my teachers, everyone, they're super nice," she said. "It's just an amazing college to be a part of."

Hinde plans to continue with the CTP program and take classes to help hone her motivational speaking and writing. And she hopes even more students with disabilities, like her, get access to college and the chance to reach their academic and personal ambitions.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.