People with intellectual disabilities shared stories Tuesday about how participating in higher education changed their lives by connecting them to important career and life skills, making them more independent, and including them in the same social activities as their peers.
Their testimony to the Joint Committee on Higher Education was in support of legislation that would allow people with intellectual disabilities, autism or another disability to participate in courses and campus life as non-matriculating students at a state college or university if they have not passed MCAS.
Kate Bartlett, a member of the Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council who studied at Middlesex Community College after passing the MCAS, told the committee that she would not be able to succeed in her job at a Boston staffing company without the skills she learned during college.
"I know I got further in college than most people with Down syndrome. I was qualified, had documentation about my disability and accommodation needs, and yet, I still ran into roadblocks. Unfortunately, there are still barriers to higher education for people with disabilities, even for people who have met the requirements to attend college," she said. "I credit my education, college included, as an important reason I am working, living independently and supporting myself financially."
Brian Heffernan, who works at the State House after having attended MassBay Community College, told the committee that he studied communications and public speaking, criminology, sociology and marketing during his time at MassBay.
The experience was about more than his courses, though, and Heffernan said he maintained an active social life on campus, including as a member of an award-winning glee club. He also got a job and learned to take public transportation to get between home, classes and work.
"This changed my life," he said. "I became much more independent. I still use public transportation. In fact, it's how I commute to work at the State House."
The Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council, a federally-funded independent agency that works with state government to support people with developmental disabilities and their families, said the legislation "will have a positive impact on people with disabilities."
"This changed my life. I became much more independent."Brian Heffernan
"No longer will individuals be denied opportunities in public higher education solely due to their intellectual or developmental disabilities since this bill would remove barriers for students with severe disabilities to participate in college courses, such as minimum GPA requirements and passing the MCAS," Angela Ortiz, an MDDC policy analyst, said. "This is good public policy that will make life better by opening many doors for individuals wanting what we all want, opportunities to reach higher and be contributing members of our society."
Massachusetts Advocates for Children said the bill will open the doors for people with disabilities "to gain skills necessary to work and live independently in the community as adults, implementing key recommendations of the legislative Task Force on College Inclusion. Access to college improves the rates of employment, wages, self-determination skills, and independent living for adults with severe disabilities." The bill is also a priority of the Mass. Down Syndrome Congress.
Debra Hart, the educational coordinator for the Institute for Community Inclusion at UMass Boston, told the committee that data from 310 national higher education programs that support students with intellectual disabilities going to college make the benefits of higher education for people with disabilities clear.
"One year after exiting college, 64 percent of the students had paid employment, compared to just 18 percent for adults with developmental disabilities in the general population. The employment rate for individuals with intellectual disability who went to college is well over three times higher. Follow-up data also reveals that over 90 percent of former college students report that they were very satisfied or satisfied with their social life, in stark contrast to the low rate of 41 percent for adults with intellectual disability in the general population," she said. "This demonstrates a huge effect on the overall quality of life for individuals with intellectual disability."
The bills, filed by Sen. Joan Lovely and Reps. Patricia Haddad and Sean Garballey, would also add people with intellectual disabilities to the state higher education system mission statement and codify a related grant program.
Haddad said the bill filed this session is the product of conversations and work over the last three sessions and added that she and the other sponsors are willing to keep working to perfect the bill.
"Through the process of filing this bill over and over again, we've had so many conversations with people about what the deterrents are and what the problems are. And I have to say that in the six years that we've been working on this, in my very humble opinion, we have answered every single one of those questions," she said. Haddad added, "There doesn't seem, to me, to be any reason that we are not going forward with this."
Maura Sullivan, head of government relations for the Arc of Massachusetts, hinted at what her organization thinks may be behind the hesitance to advance the legislation.
"Over the years, there have been many champions for this bill. And also many holdups. Maybe the higher ed community has been afraid to fully take this step," she said. "Fear is the number one cause of implicit bias and discrimination, so let's open up this program and bust that bias wide open."