Opportunities Blossom at Florida's New Center for Students with Unique Abilities
One year ago the Florida Legislature established a ground-breaking opportunity for higher-education institutions in the state to transform the lives of students with intellectual disabilities through innovative programs and services focused on education and career paths.
Today, those students are learning about careers in nursing, greenhouse propagation, welding and other occupational fields.
“It’s the only legislation like this in the country,” said Dr. Paula Kohler, executive director of the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities, which is based at UCF and serves institutions around the state.
“For many years work opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities were nonexistent. But expectations have changed and landmark legislation like that passed in Florida provides significant opportunities for both education and employment to this group of young people. We’ve gone from housing people with disabilities in state institutions to providing postsecondary education career paths through our technical schools, colleges and universities.”
The center was established with the passage of the Florida Postsecondary Comprehensive Transition Program Act on Jan. 21, 2016. It is housed in the Teaching Academy at UCF’s College of Education & Human Performance.
The Legislature allocated $3 million to establish or enhance existing postsecondary education transition programs and another $3.5 million for the center to distribute as scholarships to eligible students.
“To be approved, a program must focus on employment and provide students with inclusive educational experiences on the campus,” Kohler said. “The goal of the legislation is to prepare people to be successfully employed in their communities.”
Kohler, who earned her master’s in educational leadership at UCF and doctorate in special education at the University of Illinois, came to UCF in September from Western Michigan University, where she served as associate vice president for research and a professor in the special education program. When she started her job at UCF she said she wanted to be “part of this important initiative that is poised to serve as a model across the U.S. and beyond.”
So far, four programs around the state have been approved:
- Florida Atlantic University: FAU Academy for Community Inclusion
- Florida Keys Community College: Project ACCESS (Accessing Community College Educational Experiences, Social Experiences, and Skills for Careers)
- Florida Panhandle Technical College, Washington County Schools: Project Independence: Comprehensive Transition Program
- University of Central Florida: Inclusive Education Services.
The programs have developed different approaches and courses to attract and support their students. For example, Florida Panhandle prepares students through nursing, graphic design, welding, automotive and some other programs that already existed at the technical college, and at Florida Keys, courses prepare students for agriculture-related jobs, landscaping and greenhouse propagation.
UCF’s program provides students the opportunity to attend classes, live on campus and participate in work-study opportunities and internships that match their interests. Seventeen students are part of the Inclusive Education Services program at UCF.
“Through the UCF experience via IES, students are expanding their vocational and personal potential and discovering opportunities previously not considered,” said Adam Meyer, executive director of Student Accessibility Services and Inclusive Education Services.
New program proposals are expected to be approved by the end of this month along with new grant awards to support program development and expansion. As programs come on line, students with intellectual disabilities will have even more options.
To help them achieve their goals, the state center also has awarded annual $7,000 scholarships to 42 students so far.
To observe the one-year anniversary of the legislation and recognize the success of the center, a reception will be held 10:30-11:30 a.m. Jan. 27 at the Morgridge International Reading Center on UCF’s main campus.
One planned guest for the day is former state Senate President Andy Gardiner, who championed the concept of what the legislation enables. His 12-year-old son, Andrew, has Down syndrome. He and other young people with unique abilities will continue to see their postsecondary education options expanded because of these efforts.