DSQ > Fall 2008, Volume 28, No.4

Who should go to college? The traditional answer to this question has been changed by policies that allow for the inclusion of students previously denied or discouraged. This article describes a new and innovative program for students with intellectual difficulties who have an interest in transitioning to higher education. The article is more a field report, describing some of the questions and concerns that that staff and students had about such an experience on a college campus. It offers personal reflections on some of the experience of being in classrooms, residence halls, concert halls, and living and learning events. The basic issue of freedom of action and choice for each student is a constant thread of concern that is described. Overall, the article describes the hope for a fully inclusive experience for all students.

"The shift toward citizenship is to take the stance that we are the creators of our world as well as the products of it. Free will trumps genetics, culture and parental upbringing."

Block (2008, p. 67)

"Getting into a vibrant college campus was a liberation."

Shapiro (1993, p. 46)


The admission of students with intellectual differences, challenges, and difficulties is the next phase of changing higher education (Hart, Zimbrich & Parker, 2005). Currently, the number of post-secondary students with serious intellectual difficulties based on a diagnosis appears to be small and uncounted (Weir, n.d.). This paper describes one programmatic attempt to create an alternative for high school students who have not previously thought about and have not had access to a welcoming transition to higher education. These students are seen as not having sufficient cognitive skills to master post-secondary education. I discuss the background of the program; its relationship to organizations committed to people with intellectual difficulties; the building and revision of the program over the past two years; and the prospects of widening the program to degree and non-degree post-secondary offerings. This article is a highly personal report based upon my perspective from the center of the program development and implementation process.1

History of the Idea

The idea of including persons with intellectual disabilities grew out of a combination of awakenings. One awakening was caused by the riots in Cincinnati in 2001 brought about by police shootings of African American males (Rothman & Land, 2004). Added to this event was the September 2001 terrorist attacks. At the time, I was a professor of social work at the University of Cincinnati, having come to the university to be dean of a college promoting rights for non-traditional students, minorities, and African-Americans in particular (College of Community Services). The combination of the Cincinnati riots and the September 11 terrorist violence raised questions for me about the fragility of peace and what role education could play in preventing periodic urban chaos.

The Peace Village was created as one new alternative to the emotional and political turmoil in Cincinnati.2 Members of the Peace Village included University of Cincinnati (UC) faculty and students, and activists in human rights for people with disabilities. We decided that peace involves: a) the reduction of hunger and the causes of hunger; b) the increase of knowledge and tolerance about religions, especially the Muslim religion, and c) the priority of inclusion. Our goal became embracing those who were pushed out of the center of society, creating programs that provided understanding and support, and taking action that was non-violent and change-oriented. Our efforts for peace connected to local peace and justice movements, including the Disability Rights Movement. However, too few people with physical disabilities were appearing at protests or were a part of actions to raise consciousness about war and violent behavior, such as police brutality. People with disabilities appeared to be excluded by peace organizations. Therefore, we made a conscious choice to connect to our local Disability Rights Movement and develop the College Camp as a beachhead in expanding opportunity.

The College Camp: From Idea to Reality

The College Camp idea raised questions about who was eligible for a college education. The more we studied the exclusion of people with disabilities, the more we saw that education and employment were vital areas where change could take place in Cincinnati at the post-secondary level. It was clear that some people with disabilities had gained a modest foothold in colleges but that a large group was excluded. The reasons for exclusion were diverse but amounted to the same conclusion: People with disabilities were not welcome in colleges and universities. What was needed was a partnership among peace organizations that included people with disabilities and a program focus that directed attention to the connection between education, jobs, and peace in our community.

At the same time we were thinking of a program, we were approached by a leader in disability rights efforts in Cincinnati, Janet Gara, executive director of the Cincinnati Down Syndrome Association. Janet works on inclusion in post-secondary institutions with parents, secondary school teachers, and activists in special education. With Janet's leadership, we held meetings to discuss the central idea of including people with intellectual differences in higher education. We faced tough questions: "Could students with intellectual difficulties survive, be accepted, and nurtured at local colleges and universities?" "Could teachers and administrators be welcoming to students who might need some 'additional' help in negotiating the college's first years?" "What kind of intellectual strengths and weaknesses did students have and how did these compare to 'normal' college students entering their first year of higher education?" "Should there be a special program, kind of a pre-college, to make 'sure' that 'college readiness skills' were in place before the students took courses for credits, grades and degrees?" "Or, should special programs be bypassed so that students can 'sink or swim' just like any other students?"

To work on these questions and involve other colleges working on similar ideas, the Cincinnati Down Syndrome Association decided to hold a conference on May 18 and 19, 2007 at Ohio State University. Colleges were asked to bring students, faculty, staff and parents. We met staff and students from Mercer County Community College (Trenton, New Jersey) and Strive University (South Portland, Maine). We also met Candy and Katie Basford, an Ohio mother and daughter who are committed to full higher education for Katie, a 25-year-old student who has Down syndrome. We also heard from Scott Lissner, director of disabilities, Ohio State University, and Jennifer Radt, disabilities coordinator, University of Cincinnati's Clermont College.

These very helpful presentations suggested that there was a budding interest in working on the concrete issues of making college a reality for students with intellectual difficulties. We left the conference feeling that a historic turn had taken place in our understanding and in our desire for action. We had met the future of this idea in the hopes and voices of many parents, potential students, and faculty. The idea of college experience for students with intellectual disabilities was more than an idea: we wanted to do it!3

The Design of College Camp and the Role of "Freedom"

Members of the Peace Village joined with staff from Great Oaks Vocational High School, staff from the Ohio Department of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (MR/DD), and faculty from Xavier University, and decided to go ahead with plans for a two one-week non-degree programs at the University of Cincinnati in June and July of 2007.4 MR/DD agreed to underwrite the program's cost for room and board, materials, and honorarium for staff. The details of housing, dining accommodations, curriculum, class size, use of materials like films and music, and a total program of college orientation, were planned.

The experience was to be "college-like," but not a part of any degree-granting program. We wanted classes with reading and writing; a live-in experience, including use of the dining room; availability of sports facilities and a concert on the campus; and we wanted to see how well students helped each other cope with the vast uncertainty of finding themselves, many for the first time, in young adult roles on an urban college campus. We hoped that students' learning to get around the UC campus would be another part of this exploration. We knew we were creating a "hybrid" experience in that we were neither a "regular" program nor a "workshop," but something of each kind of experience. We also wanted to have lots of undergraduate students from UC in class as students and mentors, where necessary. The inclusion of students without disabilities would, we hoped, give the participants another experience of how college classrooms work.

An important theme in our discussions about the College Camp was a concern about student freedoms. The journey to full freedom of choice about what college to attend, what classes to choose, how to participate in class, and how to cope with the difficulties of undergraduate study, all intrigued and worried us. Some on the planning team wanted the participants to have the ability to make identical choices to any college student, and were determined to move away from any rules that were not facing incoming college students. Others wanted to encourage only certain freedoms, while at the same time acting in loco parentis, with controls and rules in place that heightened safety, reduced the chances of choosing badly, and raised the probability that the experience would be "successful." Some participants argued for a "person-centered" approach that meant no special programs that generalized about the limitations of a student and no grouping of people into programs that had people with wide skills and "extreme" cognitive capacities (Weir, n.d.). A program that moved in this direction would be more "disadvantageous" because it might oppress certain students who were tired of, and angry about, being lumped together for no good reason (Snow). After debate, the majority of the staff determined that the journey to full freedom would involve a half-step of supervision and control. This philosophy of a limited freedom became the major theory of the staff in the Camp and was communicated to the students. In effect we were saying: "You will have choices, but limited ones; you will have classes, but we will make the selections for you; you will have freedom to define your involvement, but we are going to personalize our efforts to make sure that you profit from this experience."

Thus, wanting to proceed toward a collegiate experience, and wanting to establish a "successful" program for students, we felt it necessary to take the half step of a university-based program that was not of the university. Fully recognizing that the committee was fractured on this line of freedom, we proceeded to be aware and to go ahead. Our planning group realized that we were not ready to go in any direction other than the one we took, at this time. We needed to create a program that gave students a chance to succeed, and we needed to give parents a program for their young adult children that might be a step to a college program.

Several parents on our planning team were not interested in a degree program for their students. They wanted some kind of collegiate experience that gave their child a "chance to learn." We embraced this idea of limited participation as a pragmatic first step and, simultaneously, realized that our program was an initial and important effort in progressing toward full participation for students and their families. Once we had made this decision, the shape of the College Camp became clearer and the roles of "student" and "faculty" were made more certain.

Implementing the First College Camps

We planned one week-long program in June 2007 and one in July 2007, hoping to use the time between for review of the first program and making changes that seemed useful. A small group of 20-30 students was anticipated in each camp. Students were selected based on the following criteria: they were close to graduating high school, were selected by MR/DD for being good candidates for the program, and we believed they would enjoy living, eating and learning on campus. We also designed short courses that students could select.

The University of Cincinnati gave us the newest residence hall on campus, Turner Hall, and access to an award-wining college dining room, Center Court, as well as classroom space and technology as needed. In effect, while not a college program of UC, our conferences were treated by the University's conference staff as a college. We decided, for safety reasons — such as the potential missing of medications, loss of keys, confusion about the residence hall, etc. — to have two male and two female staff in the residence hall with the students overnight.

The curriculum of the Camp focused on three-day classes that included reading sections from books, a brief history of the disability rights movement, a drama study class that included creating a one act play, and an art class that examined different means of expression through the arts. A highlight in the curriculum was a course that involved students writing letters to Chris Burke, spokesperson for the National Down Syndrome Association and the first actor with Down syndrome to star in a national television series. (Having been approached by Janet Gara, Burke had agreed to receive letters from our students and to respond to each one.) For the extra-curricular programs, we had a one-time event at the UC African American Research and Cultural Center and a concert with a professional folk group, "The Sloes."5

Residential and dining experiences were educational as well. For most students, this was the first time they had spent time away from their families and the first time they could select the portions and kinds of foods they wanted. Each day of the camp, it became easy to see that a rapid and productive adjustment to college life was occurring. Evenings after class were spent in watching television, playing pool, and enjoying the freedom to converse without the presence of teachers and staff. Students in the camp struck up conversations with other UC students in the dining hall on the lines to pick up the food and at tables where Camp members mixed with other students. Many students chose to eat by themselves, or in groups without staff, and to make use of the pizza table and ice cream machine as often as they liked. After the first day, it was virtually impossible to pick out our students from the mealtime hordes of students.

Reflections on the Camps: Strengths and Weaknesses

The major strength of the College Camp was the opportunity for students and faculty to experience many of the key components of a college experience, albeit a limited one, for students with intellectual disabilities. All students were given opportunities to participate in classes, cultural and social activities, and individual experiences of responsibility for learning and living on an urban college campus. The staff of the Camp sought to remove some of the constraints that would have been based on our fears and, as the week successfully progressed, found increasing ways to realize a fuller freedom for all students. For example, students went for unsupervised walks on campus, and took increasing control of their nighttime activities; one evening, a pizza party took place without staff involvement.

We were pleased to see students doing so well in class activities, whether reading, writing, performing, and/or creating art works. One of the highlights came in the History of Disability class, when students joined the teachers in discussing how some people (former teachers, counselors, and some parents) had not seen any potential in them as students, and how they had found the courage and the strength to overcome such judgments. "I was told 'I should have died and I'm still here!,'" was a theme repeated by many in this class as they reviewed the cultural bias against people with intellectual and physical disabilities.

Another very strong positive was the identification with the character "Corky," played by Chris Burke in the television series "Life Goes On." An exciting discussion ensued over the days of the class on each facet of the program and the meaning that the writers and actors were trying to convey about the difficulties in integrating into a school that had no or little experience with people with disabilities. Students argued strongly that Corky "won" or "lost" his race for student president of the school. So strongly did students feel about Corky that the letters to Burke referenced a deep appreciation of him and his character. One student wrote: "I feel your pain. I went through some struggles too, a lot like you. so together we're going to be leaders together. It's amazing how everybody in the world is different. That's a good thing, though. Think where the world would be if we didn't have people like me and you. The lesson I learned through this is: 'Treat others with respect, and even people with disabilities, for example, Down syndrome or really, anything.'"

The amazing work of the faculty of the College Camp was a major reason for its success. Faculty reviewed each class in groups, made changes when it seemed that some lesson was not working for some students, and kept a positive and engaging attitude most of the time. Since we had no baseline experience of what to expect from the students, positive or negative, and we didn't know if we were under- or overloading some students, we had to face and reexamine a continual set of ambiguities about pacing, depth, and creativity. Discussions about individuals and specific content went on all the time. After the first days, I saw faculty relax and begin to allow the strengths of the students to emerge. It seemed that faculty were realizing that something unique was happening. One faculty member wrote: "Whenever I participate in these types of program, I always 'get out' more than I 'put in.' It was truly an honor for me to interact with the kids and other staff. I met some really neat individuals and am amazed at their positive outlook on life and their joy at being comfortable in their own skin. They had a wonderful time and were truly grateful for the opportunity to have a college experience." (Personal correspondence.)

The weaknesses of the program became obvious as the Camps went on: we did not have enough time to really give the students a full opportunity at class work, or, for the students, to have sufficient autonomy to live their lives without supervision. Some students did not have time to expand their freedoms enough to take other educational opportunities that were available, including visits to the library, going for pizza, or taking in a movie. Just as students began to understand the schedule and interact with their fellow students and faculty, the program sharply ended. For some students, the quick completion of the program was positive: They had tasted enough. For most students, however, the experience opened doors that were so exciting that it seemed almost cruel to end the program after just one week. We had touched certain students and they had responded with passion, and that interest could not be responded to within the confines of our limited program.

There was also some feeling that we had crammed too much into each day for such a short program. Students went all day to everything, and went whether they wanted to or not. With little free time, the students never really caught their breath and had the experience of lolling around the campus and enjoying the social atmosphere.

Another weakness was that our teaching methods did not seem to reach a small number of students. No matter what was tried, there was little interest in participating among these students. For a few, medication caused them to be perpetually drowsy and out of focus in their classes. For other students, the challenge of speaking in class, writing a letter, watching a video, and working with a team member appeared too difficult. In response to this, faculty began a discussion of the "codes" of certain students, the non-traditional ways that they communicated interest and disinterest. Even though many of our staff was very experienced with this population, there was a feeling that some faculty lacked important knowledge about what could have been done differently. Some faculty felt that we may have had students who were taking in a lot and not sure about sharing their experience. We may have been missing the indicators of communication that suggested a change was needed. Not knowing, for some of the students, just how the "fit" worked between classes, personality, and the collegiate experience, undermined our understanding of how successful these students felt the Camp was for them. As difficult and irrelevant some of the classes may have been, however, we never heard anything but positive and affectionate comment. We guessed, based on our varied means of gathering feedback, that just being in a college class had an intrinsic enjoyment for some students that did not need to be reflected in "traditional" behaviors of speaking in a reflective manner.

Overall, the ways in which we could gather student opinion through conversations, participation in class, and participation in projects, all suggested that we had found an educational alternative that "worked" for many of the students. "College" as a concept was becoming more recognizable. Using one's participation to freely state opinions was being tried and found satisfying, sometimes exciting. Choosing to be free to design a space for sitting, redesigning one's room in the residence hall and/or in the classroom, and freely associating with friends, strangers, and faculty, all added up to a positive overall experience.

Conclusions and Next Steps

A successful first series of attempts prompted us to begin planning for the second camp in the summer of 2008. Our planning team met and considered holding only one camp and providing a follow-up transition experience after the camp concluded. The follow-up was to be a series of on-campus programs (at Xavier and UC) that invited students to participate in college classes, concerts, and other social activities. Some talk began about a longer camp, perhaps two weeks, if this next experience seemed to warrant even more time. As I write this paper, our second camp has just ended, with forty students spending another week at UC and Xavier University. (Students were bused to the XU campus for a set of evening programs.) The first impressions of the second camp are very positive. Both students and faculty feel that this Camp was more successful in the "teaching and learning" experiences of the students. Short courses in Architecture, Meteorology, Photography, and Government, added to another review of the History of Disabilities, gave the students an exciting intellectual set of opportunities. Many faculty reported examples of student competence and success in working with more "traditional" college materials. For example, in a course on "Campus Life," the students met a guest speaker, a Muslim educator, and responded so positively to her that, with the students' encouragement, she presented a short greeting in Arabic. The students, when asked if they wanted her to proceed in Arabic, were enthusiastically unanimous in agreeing. The speaker, a doctoral student in educational studies at UC, reported that this was the first time any UC class has welcomed her so deeply.

Our brief post-conference communications indicate that we will want to more deeply evaluate each class and the student response, as well as review the overall cultural and social programs that accompanied the classes. We want our next steps, whether they are another College Camp, or some kind of year-round set of projects, to keep moving us forward toward our ideal model of full freedom of choice for the students. Many of us sense that the students we are working with are ready for more freedom and, as one of the members of the planning team reminds us, "colleges and universities must be opened to learn how to accept students" (Basford, 2007). We are gratified by the support we have received from students, parents, schools and governmental agencies. We are building on these first steps with a growing knowledge that a substantive intellectual and social experience is possible.


Steve Sunderland, Ph.D., is director of the Peace Village and professor of peace and educational studies at the University of Cincinnati. He is interested in promoting peace through inclusion programs at the post-secondary level. Sunderland is currently writing two monthly peace columns for local newspapers as well as teaching and being peace at the doctoral level in a college of education, criminal justice, and human services.

Works Cited

  • Basford, C. (2007). Personal interview.
  • Block, Peter. (2008). Community: The structure of belonging. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
  • Burke, C. and J.B. McDaniel. (1991). A special kind of hero: Chris Burke's own story. New York: Doubleday.
  • Hart, D., K. Zimbrich, and D. Parker. (2005). Dual enrollment as a post-secondary education option for students with intellectual disabilities. In E. Getzel and P. Wehman, eds. Going to college: Expanding opportunities for people with disabilities. Baltimore, MD: Paul Brookes.
  • Johnson, H. M. (2003, November 23). The disability gulag. The New York Times Magazine, Section 6, p. 59.
  • Mooney, J. and D. Cole. (2000). Learning outside the lines: Two Ivy League students with learning disabilities and ADHD give you the tools for academic success and educational revolution. New York: Fireside Books.
  • Mooney, J. (2007). The short bus: A journey beyond normal. New York: Henry Holt.
  • Rothman, J. and R. Land. (2004). The Cincinnati police-community relations collaborative. Criminal Justice, 18(4), 34-42.
  • Shapiro, Joseph. (1993). No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. New York: Times Books/Random House.
  • Snow, K. (20 July 2007). Personal letter.
  • Transition of students with disabilities to post-secondary education: A guide for high school educators. (2007). Office of Civil Rights. Retrieved June, 2007 from http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/transitionguide.html.
  • Weir, C., C. Tashie, and Z. Rossem. (no date). Inclusion goes to college: A call to action. Mimeo.


  1. I wish to acknowledge the review of this article by Dr. Sam Joseph, professor, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a founding member of the Peace Village.
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  2. The Peace Village is a not-for-profit, 501c3 organization that works for peace through educational programs. For more information, please write sundersc@email.uc.edu.
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  3. For a list of resources that were essential in the formation of the camp, please see Appendix A.
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  4. The planning group included Robert Harris, program specialist, Bridges for a Just Community, board chair, Peace Village (Robert is a professional artist, a television and radio personality in Cincinnati, a human relations expert, a founding member of the advocacy group for people with disabilities, and a quadriplegic); Joe Link, Special Education faculty, Xavier University (Joe has extensive experience in special education and is the founder of an adult theater company, "Renegade Garage Players," that is made up of actors with physical and intellectual disabilities); Trish Heims, Anne Mitchell, Joe Dumont, Great Oaks Vocational High School (all are experienced teachers of special education at the high school level); Susie Rutowski, Project Search, Children Hospital of Cincinnati (Susie is one of the designers of an employment and education program at Childrens Hospital of Cincinnati that works with workers with intellectual disabilities); Pat Dye, MR/DD administrator for Transition Programs (Pat is the director of Transition Programs); Derrick Jenkins, doctoral student in educational studies and counselor, UC African American Research and Cultural Center; Janet Gara, executive director, Down Syndrome Association of Cincinnati; Dr. Matt Sauer, UC Disability Services (Matt is a professor of history and a counselor in the disability services office and is without sight and skills in writing); John Roemer, MR/DD (John is a counselor and advocate); and, several Special Education graduate students from Xavier University and some graduate and undergraduate students from the University of Cincinnati.
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  5. A brief description of each course / extra-curricular program appears in Appendix B.
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Appendix A: Further Resources

Appendix B: Descriptions of Courses and Extracurricular Activities

  1. History of Disabilities Movement.

    This course, held over 3 days, was co-taught by Dr. Matt Sauer, Disability Services department at UC and Robert Harris, Peace Village Board Chair. Sauer, a historian and a person with partial sight and language processing disorders, described the changes in history toward people with disabilities. Harris, a longtime disability rights activist in Cincinnati, described the work to change attitudes and physical structures in Cincinnati and the country. Students were encouraged to see how their efforts in the College Camp were another important step in the human rights movement.
  2. Review of Chris Burke's television program, "Life Goes On."

    This course, held over 3 days, was taught by Patrice McHale, a member of the staff of the Cincinnati Down Syndrome Association and a person with Down Syndrome, and Steve Sunderland, Ph.D., professor of peace and educational studies, UC College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services, and Director, Peace Village. This class looked at Burke's second program, "Corky Runs for President," from the perspective of how the program framed the issues facing Corky in his home and at school. Sections of Burke's autobiography were examined and questions were raised about definitions of "winning" and "losing" in the struggle to be accepted as the first student with disabilities that he, his family, and school was facing. The class both wrote letters to Chris Burke and recorded a critique of his program.
  3. Drama Study.

    This class, which met over 3 days, discussed how a story becomes a play and what playwrights do to structure a dramatic theme. The class was taught by a graduate student in special education and a special education teacher from a local high school. The class involved reading plays and writing a script, picking parts for performance, rehearsal, and a performance on the last day of the camp for the entire camp.
  4. Art as a Form of Expression.

    This class, held over 3 days, was taught by a team of teachers with art and special education experience. Students developed different ideas about how to use art to express strong emotions. A look at various artists was followed by a hands-on approach of creating a series of pictures and "posters" describing the College Camp that were presented to the entire camp.
  5. African American Research and Cultural Center.

    Graduate and undergraduate students of the Center presented their reasons for going to college, their majors, and what excites them about the collegiate experience. Questions from the College Camp were encouraged and discussions took place in small groups. Camp students had a chance to discuss the reality of campus life with students who had just begun college. Following the discussion of college life, the Camp was treated to poetry readings, musical presentations, and a dance contest. Derrick Jenkins, doctoral student, educational studies, College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services, directed the activities for the Camp at the African American Research and Cultural Center.
  6. Concert from The Sloes.

    The College camp attended a concert by The Sloes, held on one of the evenings at the UC College Conservatory of Music. The 3-person group, guitar, bass and mandolin, performed an hour of songs. The students and staff so liked the songs that many people joined in both singing and dancing.
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