An increasing number of students labeled with intellectual disability are attending colleges and universities. Yet, their perspectives are underrepresented in the research. Grounded in Disability Studies in Education and Schlossberg's Transition Theory, this study reports on the transitional experiences of two emerging adults labeled with intellectual disability at a large public university with a particular focus on how the participants conceptualized their support systems during the moving in and through stages of transition to university. Three themes are discussed: supports the students brought with them to the university, reciprocal supports with peer mentors, and university-provided supports. As such, the findings contribute to and expand existing scholarship dedicated to the experiences of emerging adults labeled with intellectual disability at postsecondary institutions. Aligning with the research question and blended theoretical framing, implications for practice and research are discussed.

Perspectives of Two College Students Labeled with Intellectual Disability: Supports During the Moving In and Through Stages of Transition

The shift from high school to emerging adulthood (18-26 years old) is a recognized transitional time in the United States (Arnett, 2004). Life experiences during emerging adulthood offer chances for interpersonal and self-exploration and growth, and may also generate excitement and stress. Further, this transition is complex and can look a variety of ways (Schneider et al., 2016). Moreover, access and opportunity to various experiences (e.g., education, employment, relationships, travel, volunteerism) are dependent on emerging adults' economic, material, and social realities (King, 2009). In sum, opportunities during emerging adulthood are significant and can impact life outcomes, including employment (Hussar et al., 2020), relationships and marriage (Hout, 2012), and health and wellbeing (Healthy People, 2020).

Oftentimes, emerging adults further their education (e.g., community college, trade school, university) after high school. Recent data shows 66.2% of 2,019 high school graduates enrolled in colleges or universities that year (Economic News Release, 2020). In addition, approximately 19% of undergraduate students in the United States report having a disability (U.S. Department of Education, 2019). College students with disabilities pursuing postsecondary education outside a high school campus receive accommodations and protections through Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990). However, colleges and universities are sociopolitical structures that uphold and reinforce hegemonic notions about disability and worth (Gabel 2005; Hehir, 2007). Consequently, enrollment in postsecondary education remains inequitable for emerging adults labeled with intellectual disability (Grigal & Papay, 2018). In this paper, we use "labeled with intellectual disability" to foreground the social and political significance of disability and the preoccupation of the fields of medicine, psychology, and education with categorizing people as deficient (Connor & Gabel, 2010).

While college students labeled with intellectual disability have the right to further their education after high school, this is often not the case. In other words, most are not taking courses on college campuses (Leak & Stodden, 2014). In fact, the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008 included provisions to increase postsecondary education opportunities for emerging adults labeled with intellectual disability resulting in the creation of Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSIDs) in 2010. TPSIDs operate as "high quality, inclusive" postsecondary programs within colleges and universities and serve students ages 18–24 years old (HEOA, 2008, p. 3365). Recent data revealed 981 college students labeled with intellectual and/or developmental disability were supported by inclusive postsecondary programs at 58 participating colleges and universities in 19 states during the 2018-2019 academic year, an increase from 480 students in Year 1 (Grigal et al., 2019).

Students labeled with intellectual disability who have attended or are attending postsecondary education programs are more often exercising, working in the community, and talking and hanging out with friends (Butler et al., 2016). However, recent data shows that access to postsecondary education is not equitable across identity markers (e.g., disability label, gender, race/ethnicity) for these emerging adults. For example, the majority of college students attending TPSIDs identify as white (60%), while 25% identify as Black, 12% as Latina/o/x, and 6% as Asian American (Grigal et al., 2019). As such, emerging adults of color are underrepresented in TPSID participation. In addition, most students attending TPSIDs are male, with only 39% identifying as female. Also, most students have an intellectual disability label (64%) while only 32% have intellectual disability and autism labels. Therefore, we can assume that students with multiple disabilities or more complex support needs are underrepresented on college campuses. However, the data has not been reported and the story is imprecise. Information about students' religious preferences, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and support needs is also underreported or not reported.

Attendance on college and university campuses has increased for emerging adults labeled with intellectual disability. Yet, more research concentrated on their perspectives and experiences is needed (Hutcheon & Wolbring, 2014) to understand how postsecondary education programs at colleges and universities support students and eradicate (or reproduce) inequity as emerging adults labeled with intellectual disability are underrepresented in meaningful employment (Newman et al., 2011), relationships (Friedman & Rizzolo, 2018; Gilmore & Cuskelly, 2014 ), and community participation (Hewitt & Nye-Lengerman, 2019). Therefore, the purpose of this study was to learn about the transitional experiences of emerging adults labeled with intellectual disability at a public university. The following question guided our inquiry: How do emerging adults labeled with intellectual disability conceptualize and experience support(s) during their transition to university?

Literature Review

The ways in which scholars have studied the postsecondary experiences of college students labeled with intellectual disability have varied. Research teams have asked family members for their perspectives through interviews and surveys. Family members have described desired and positive outcomes, including friendships, happiness, and employment (Miller et al., 2018). They have also revealed barriers, including educators' negative attitudes and the lack of access to information about postsecondary education options (Griffin et al., 2010). Scholars have also inquired with administrators. In contrast to the Griffin et al. (2010) study, postsecondary program administrators shared that faculty were not a major barrier but in fact were rated as supportive or extremely supportive (Plotner & Marshall, 2015). Although this information helped understand assorted stakeholder perspectives, it did not position college students labeled with intellectual disability as the knowledge holders of their experiences.

Peer mentoring is often one component of postsecondary programs and researchers have also inquired with college students through interviews and surveys about their experiences mentoring peers labeled with intellectual disability. Hafner et al. (2011) found that most peer mentors had friends and classmates with peers labeled with intellectual disability in years prior (e.g., high school). Farley et al. (2014) surveyed peer mentors to better understand personality types and how peer mentoring impacted them, revealing their positive personal growth and a shift in perspectives (e.g., from pitying to knowing, understanding, and relating). While this information helped understand why college students became peer mentors to or friends with peers labeled with intellectual disability, one recent study (Wilt & Morningstar, 2020) provided firsthand information about peer mentoring from the perspective of college students labeled with intellectual disability. Study participants described how peer mentors were not only academic supports but also social and emotional supports (Wilt & Morningstar, 2020). In sum, more research is needed to understand the peer mentoring experience from the perspectives of college students labeled with intellectual disability.

Recently, scholars have also inquired with college students labeled with intellectual disability about their postsecondary education experiences. Through digital storytelling, emerging adults described how the postsecondary experience afforded new identity formations and adjustments to new expectations (Paiewonsky, 2011). They also had specific recommendations for future students, including how to select courses, work with coaches, and start new friendships. In a recent comparison survey study, Plotner and May (2019) found that students labeled with intellectual and/or developmental disability had similar motivations for attending college and similar academic experiences as students without disability labels and students with learning disability labels. Students labeled with intellectual and/or developmental disability were more likely to cite a desire to make new friends and move away and live on their own than their counterparts. Finally, via action research, students labeled with intellectual disability shared how they developed important life skills (e.g., being on time, independence, working with others) and a sense of self while attending university (Love & Mock, 2019). They also expressed their concern with a lack of paid employment opportunities (versus a plethora of career development activities) through the postsecondary program. The three studies reviewed here provide valuable information about the postsecondary experiences of emerging adults labeled with intellectual disability from their perspectives. At the time of this review, there remains a lack of research (a) examining how college students perceive their own postsecondary experiences and (b) employing critical perspectives.

Conceptual Framework

This study was framed by two theories: Disability Studies in Education (DSE; Baglieri, Valle et al., 2011; Connor et al., 2008; Michalko, 2008) and Schlossberg's (2008, 2011) Transition Theory. Next, we describe the affordances of each theory and then how the two complement and strengthen one another.

Disability Studies in Education

DSE acknowledges that disability is a natural part of the human experience (Valle & Connor, 2019). As a natural part of life, disability teaches us about ourselves and one another (Michalko, 2008). Moreover, disability is best understood within sociocultural, political, and historical contexts, "while not denying physiological aspects of impaired function" (Baglieri, Valle, et al., 2011, p. 267). Meaning, people with disabilities lose out on or have limited opportunities to participate meaningfully in various aspects of life because of particular contextual barriers. These barriers have real consequences.

Grounded in the social model, DSE challenges the medical model of disability and the myth of normality (Baglieri, Bejoian et al., 2011). The medical model positions people labeled with intellectual disability as deficient and less than (Ferguson & Nusbaum, 2012). As such, they are excluded from society (Davis, 2013). For example, deficit-based ideologies exclude people with disabilities, and individuals labeled with intellectual disability in particular, from fully accessing and being honored within various sectors, including health care, employment, education, and community. That said, DSE demands equitable and inclusive opportunities across life spheres for individuals labeled with intellectual disability (Erevelles, 2002).

From a DSE perspective, education is an action (Baglieri & Shapiro, 2017) and an ongoing process (Danforth & Naraian, 2015). At the postsecondary level, this means colleges and universities must continually examine contextualized institutional and pedagogical practices to uncover points of marginalization that emerging adults labeled with intellectual disability experience. Without actively examining practices, colleges and universities risk maintaining narrow, potentially exclusionary campuses under the guise of "doing inclusion" (Erevelles, 2011). In this study, DSE allowed us to privilege the lived experiences of college students labeled with intellectual disability (Baglieri, Bejoian et al., 2011; Connor et al., 2008). By privileging the students' experiences, we hoped to learn from them, including their experiences and solutions.

Schlossberg's Transition Theory

Schlossberg's (2008, 2011) Transition Theory recognizes various factors impact anticipated, unanticipated, and non-occurred transitional events in different development stages of one's life. Considering postsecondary opportunities, transition is understood as a process wherein students navigate through three stages: moving in, through, and out. The first stage of transition, moving in, focuses on making meaning of and identifying the transition (e.g., anticipated, unanticipated, nonevent; Anderson et al., 2012). The second stage of transition, moving through, involves how one copes with and navigates through changes (Patton et al, 2016). The final stage of transition, moving out, involves completing the entire process of one particular transition and entering into a new transitional process (Anderson et al., 2012).

We combined DSE with Schlossberg's Transition Theory to gain a better understanding of the experiences college students labeled with intellectual disability were having at the university beginning with their first semester on campus. For example, processing transition and coping with change may feel, look, and sound different based on available resources during the moving through stage of transition (Anderson et al., 2012). Therefore, Schlossberg's Transition Theory strengthened DSE with a specific focus on the postsecondary transition experience. Simultaneously, DSE strengthened Schlossberg's Transition Theory by centering on two college students labeled with intellectual disability, perspectives and experiences that many may overlook or ignore because of the disability label. In sum, this blended framework allowed the authors to explore how two college students navigated their postsecondary transition experience.


We applied qualitative methods within an interpretivist paradigm to understand the transitional experiences of college students labeled with intellectual disability at a large public university. Interpretivist research was appropriate since the authors sought to understand how emerging adults interpret and make meaning of their experiences (Merriam, 2009). We use pseudonyms throughout the manuscript.

Setting and Participants

Recently, the university had established a two-year postsecondary education program wherein students labeled with intellectual disability would earn a university-endorsed certificate, not a degree, upon completion of course credits and internship hours. Three emerging adults labeled with intellectual disability were in the first cohort and two participated in this project. The participants, Bri and Diana, were in their first and second years of college over the course of the study. Bri was 20 years old and Diana was 22 years old at the time of the first interviews. Both identified as white, female, and from middle class backgrounds.

Data Collection

The first author met with the participants to explain the study, answer questions, and obtain informed consent. Each semi-structured interview lasted between 30-90 minutes. The interviews were conducted at a place that was familiar and comfortable to and selected by the participants. The first interview took place in the middle of the first semester of their first year. The second interview took place in the summer between their first and second years at the university. The third interview for one participant (Diana) was conducted at the beginning of her final semester (spring semester her second year). Overall, the students participated in 2-3 interviews. At the close of each interview, the participants agreed to elaborate on follow-up questions over email. These email exchanges offered additional insights and were used in the analysis.

Data was collected iteratively (Bhattacharya, 2017) over the course of the study (15 months) with each subsequent interview informed by those interviews preceding it. The interview guides were developed based on the research question and iterative data collection while considering the students' nuanced transitions. Therefore, most interview questions focused on the present (Rubin & Rubin, 2005). The questions were modified with guidance and feedback from university colleagues and the second author, including audio-recorded practice sessions.

Data Analysis

Data analysis was guided by Braun and Clarke's (2006) six-phase thematic analysis framework. First, data analysis began by the two authors immersing themselves in the data by reading, re-reading, and organizing the corpus of information (Merriam, 2009; Rossman & Rallis, 2003). Then, the second author generated initial codes from the data using descriptive codes by capturing a summary of the basic topic of a passage as well as in-vivo codes which contained direct statements that participants used (Saldaña, 2011). A few sample descriptive codes and in-vivo codes were working on homework together (descriptive code), and helping each other (descriptive code), study hall (in-vivo code), and relationship (in-vivo code). After the initial coding, the first author categorized codes by creating common themes across participants and codes. For example, the abovementioned sample descriptive codes and in-vivo codes were categorized as Reciprocal Partnerships with Peer Mentors. Lastly, both authors reviewed the themes across participants and compared and defined the themes.


In this study, trustworthiness and rigor were promoted through theoretical triangulation and iterative data collection and analysis. First, we used theoretical triangulation by leaning on two distinct theories (Brantlinger et al., 2005). This afforded multiple perspectives by which to study the corpus of information. By doing so, triangulation improved the probability the findings and interpretations were credible (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). In other words, theoretical triangulation supported confidence in the truth of the findings (Anney, 2014).

Iterative data collection and analysis also supported trustworthiness of the findings (Bhattacharya, 2017). For example, preliminary analysis of interview data informed subsequent phases of interview guides, and additional follow-up questions. Here, member checking was also employed (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). When hunches arose from preliminary analysis, the first author followed up with the participants over email or in subsequent interviews. In addition, a summary or copy (dependent on participant preference) of the transcribed interviews were provided after each interview for elaboration and/or modification. Incorporating these strategies helped prevent participant misrepresentation and reduce bias.


This study sought to understand the college experiences of two emerging adults labeled with intellectual disability. For the purposes of this paper, we concentrated on three themes: supports the students brought with them to the university, reciprocal supports with peer mentors, and university-provided supports.

Supports Supplied by Two Students Labeled with Intellectual Disability

The participants described how they were supported at the university by a multitude of elements they brought with them and refined there. Student-Supplied Supports were defined as "Participants describe various levels of supports they brought with them and continued to cultivate during the moving in and moving through stages." Next, we share three levels of supports discussed by the participants.

Faith-Level Support

Bri and Diana discussed how their faith supported them during the moving in and through stages of transition. Bri shared how she was raised within a church community her whole life and how it played a huge factor. She explained what that looked like at the university,

Usually, we'll have like devotionals at [student commons] on Friday nights. Or we'll go to their church… Meaning we'll see if people are interested and if they are interested, we'll give them like our card and number and see if they want to come. Because we usually do a lot of activities throughout the week and even on the weekends. Or even when we're not with the church as a whole, we'll all kind of like hang out with one another separately. Once a month on the last week of every month, we will volunteer in some way.

Bri described the varying levels of involvement with the school ministry, including devotionals, outreach and recruitment, socializing, and service. In these ways, the faith-based organization acted like a supportive social bridge across campus and into the community.

Faith was also nurtured in Diana's life and represented a social as well as a personal bridge. Diana expressed, "I'm very proud of my faith and stand strong. I find that's really important – to keep that faith in your schoolwork." As she described here, it was important for Diana to connect her faith to her experiences on campus. When Diana discussed the recent loss of a friend, she explained how her faith was one of her strategies for dealing with the struggle and making sense of the change. "I stay in my faith and everything. Praying really helps." She went on to explain, "I just like to do that on occasions when I lose my way." Through connections with their faith, Bri and Diana found academic, social, and personal support. This finding was important because the students came to the university with these already-established supports and continued to cultivate them there.

Family-Level Support

The participants were also supported by family members during the moving in and through stages of the college transition. Bri explained, "We [my mother and I] found out about [the program] through a local newspaper. My mom is like, let's just give it a shot." As well as supporting Bri in compiling the required items and submitting the application, her parents provided financial support. Bri said,

I don't have any money so [my parents] are able to help me [with the tuition]. It's nice. I'll just be going to [the university] for two years so this is the last year they will help me. If I do go to [a community college after this certificate program], they will help me because it is a lot cheaper than the university, which is nice.

As Bri shared, her family also supported her by covering tuition and apartment costs. Diana's family was an important support to her as well. She explained,

My mom got me into this program. She thought [the program] would constantly be checking up on me like, almost attached. She realized, 'Hey, this program actually helps her be more independent.' My fiancé is a big support as well. He helps me with homework or anything like that.

Diana's family also supported her and her fiancé with housing as they all lived together. Further, her parents provided transportation to and from the university.

In sum, both participants described how their families supported them socially and economically. Their parents were encouraging but also resourceful in the ways they navigated the college application process. Moreover, their families helped them financially with housing, food, and transportation. Uncovering family-level supports was important because like the faith-level supports, these were (a) already-established and (b) not offered by the university.

Self-Level Support

In addition to the faith and family supports, Bri and Diana brought themselves to the university. They played a significant role of their support network. Self-level support, including advocacy and awareness, was critical to their university experiences. Bri discussed how her self-advocacy skills were encouraged prior to the college setting,

I think throughout high school that's what they'd been teaching us. Be an advocate for yourself. Or even at home, my parents would tell me, 'Eventually you're going to move out and you're going to want to be able to advocate for yourself for certain things with school, jobs, friends, even family.'

Bri described learning self-advocacy in high school and at home. This resulted in having self-awareness and self-knowledge about her personal strengths and needs as well as possessing advocacy skills prior to attending the university.

Diana exercised her advocacy skills in her initiations with the university's disability services office and in conversations with instructors. Diana shared,

I have a sheet of paper and it has all my accommodations, what I need and what I'm good at, stuff like that. It will stay the same [for the next semester]. I still need a quiet place to study and everything. I need extra time on tests, because sometimes taking tests I get flustered or overwhelmed, so I need that extra time.

As Diana transitioned to the university, her advocacy and self-awareness transferred there. Some accommodations were relatively similar to what she had received in high school (e.g., extended time, alternate location for testing, scribe) while others were university context-specific (e.g., study hall, tutoring, test corrections).

Bri described how self-advocacy and -awareness supported her in knowing what she needed and asking for it from peer mentors,

In the beginning of the school year the peer mentors would help us and they would be there by the bus stops and help get us on. Then, I was like okay, I can do this by myself. I got this. It was just kind of cool I could tell them, 'Hey, I'll meet you at so and so.' When in the first week of school I was nervous about [navigating through the campus] because it was huge, but I definitely felt more independent. I could do things on my own without needing help. If I did need help, I would ask for it.

Bri and Diana discussed how their self-awareness and self-advocacy supported them during the moving in and through stages of transition. Importantly, advocacy was initially nurtured prior to attending the university and the students continued to build from this foundation while on campus.

Reciprocal Supports Between Focal Participants and Peer Mentors

The participants also described their experiences with peer mentors. We defined Reciprocal Supports with Peer Mentors as "Participants discuss their experiences with peer mentors." Bri and Diana met weekly with TPSID-hired peer tutors formally (e.g., study hall) and informally (e.g., as-needed basis) for academic support.

Bri shared, "I'll ask if I need help and stuff. It's just cool [the peer mentors] weren't trying to be robots, essentially." To Bri, getting help with academics from the peer mentors felt natural and not contrived. Over time, Diana and Bri got to know the peer mentors on a deeper, more personal and social level. Diana explained,

It's just been a really cool experience to get to know him and vice versa because he knows the troubles I have. He knows, for example, the paper I have to do. I was feeling very low. I was feeling very out of it. I didn't feel like myself and he just snapped me back to reality and I kind of need that in a friend. And it's just a friendship that I see growing.

Diana explained how there was a level of knowing between her and this peer mentor that was changing and growing over time. As such, the peer mentor knew her like a friend and gave Diana support when she was not feeling positive about an assignment.

Bri described how peer mentoring was more reciprocal and empowering than one-directional tutoring. She said,

They'll help me and then I'll help them, so it doesn't feel like I'm a little kid that needs help and babysitting. It's nice that they treat us all equally. They are just regular people that are all trying to hang out. We all try to do homework together. We don't talk about school all the time. If we talked about school all the time, I think I would go nuts, but we talk about regular things that friends would talk about. I feel like if we didn't have that connection, I probably would close myself off and would not want anything to do with any of the peer mentors.

As Bri explained, the reciprocity of the relationship encouraged her continued involvement. She did not want to feel like her peers were infantilizing her. She wanted to give back to the relationship too, like an authentic friend.

In sum, Bri and Diana emphasized how the peer mentors were more like friends than tutors. Their relationships were more reciprocal and interdependent than helper/helped dyads. This was important to note because the peer tutors were hired to help the participants with their coursework. Moreover, at the time of the study, Bri and Diana did not have any influence over who was hired as a peer tutor.

Supports Supplied by the University or the Postsecondary Program

The participants described ways in which they were supported at the university by university- and inclusive postsecondary program-initiated or -supplied accommodations and supports. University-Supplied Accommodations and Supports were defined as "Participants describe accommodations and supports provided by the university or the postsecondary program during the moving through stage."

For example, the participants described how the university provided accommodations through Section 504 (1973) and ADA (1990). Bri explained, "[The university] supports me through the [disability services office] which allows me to have accommodations for my schoolwork." The university's disability services office became a familiar place for Diana and Bri. It was in this office where they requested and affirmed their accommodations each semester.

Postsecondary program staff also supported the participants, at their discretion, when they spoke with disability services or faculty at the beginning of the semester. Diana explained, "Sometimes I go by myself or … [TPSID staff] usually goes with me if I feel uncomfortable … [TPSID staff] emails [the instructors] first and then we go in together just to talk to them." Here, Diana explained how the postsecondary program was there as a support as needed determined by her level of comfort.

Bri and Diana also discussed how university faculty were supportive. Diana explained one of her early experiences with a professor,

He's really down to earth and he can work around you and if you have any needs or anything he can be there to provide for your needs. It was really cool. He told everyone in class the first day if you have any needs or help, he is there.

Similar to Diana, Bri had experiences with professors that were supportive. Bri shared about a favorite professor, "We had to learn some stuff that maybe wasn't fun learning, but he put a spin on it to make sure it was fun and engaged all of us." In this example, the professor made difficult or boring topics more appealing which was helpful. Both participants shared how faculty were supportive during the moving through stage of the transition.

Each semester, Bri and Diana were required to take a career development class taught by a program-appointed instructor. The instructor or career advisor and Bri worked together to figure out possible campus internships. Bri explained, "I know [the university] has like a radio station they do. So try to get in there because I listen to the radio a lot." In fact, if Bri could pursue broadcasting and radio, she planned to enroll in a public speaking class the next semester. Diana also shared her experiences with TPSID-related career supports,

They can work with you and coordinate with you on different things… I have an interview with [a sign language interpreter]. She's certified and I'm just furthering my education on what I know about sign language and I want to further that knowledge of being an interpreter.

When Diana discussed her interest and passion for American Sign Language with the career advisor, they connected her with a local interpreter to interview. This was important because Diana could explore her career interests more deeply.

While the career development class was helpful, Diana felt the course requirement was excessive. She said, "I mean, this program, it's two years… and it's just a little redundant in my opinion. I think one or two times are fine, but the whole two years, it's a little repetitive." At the same time, she did find that working with the career advisor reinforced her work-based advocacy. Diana explained, "I'm very visual, so I told one of the supervisors that I am very visual and I would like to see a task being done before I do the task… If I do get a job, I might say in the long run, 'Hey, this is how I learn. Could you please show me this so I can learn better?'" As such, Diana presumed and prepared for advocacy in a future employment setting.

In sum, Bri and Diana discussed how the disability services office (e.g., accommodations) and the postsecondary program (e.g., career exploration, internships) supported their university experiences. In addition, instructors' teaching practices and dispositions were important to their learning and comfort within university courses. Over time, Diana noted how the career development class started to feel repetitive.


The purpose of this qualitative inquiry was to learn about the transitional experiences of two emerging adults labeled with intellectual disability at a large public university. Informed by the blended conceptual framing, findings revealed how the participants brought a significant amount of supports with them to the university. Moreover, their relationships with peer mentors were more reciprocally than asymmetrically supportive. Finally, the participants also cited helpful university-level accommodations and supports.

Self-Supplied Supports

College and university structures expect independence from students (Stephens et al., 2012), including moving away from family, living in transitional housing, completing self-directed coursework with less group work, and self-purchasing books and other course materials. In order to live up to these expectations, emerging adults may enter college with a spectrum of supports. In this study, the participants discussed their families as one support. Families provided financial, housing, and transport support as well as other supports (e.g., emotional, social). While universities do supply some degree of financial support, they are limited and most often come with a cost to the student and their family as loans (Rothstein & Rouse, 2011; Solis & Durband, 2015). This finding supports prior scholarship (Corby et al., 2020; Plotner & May, 2019) with a specific focus on how the participants viewed familial supports during their transition to college.

Faith was another support the participants brought to the university. As an already-established support, they leaned into their faith academically, socially, and personally, in contrast to previous research showing how colleges have a negative impact on students' religious practices and beliefs (Hartley, 2004). Colleges and universities do provide some social and emotional support through on-campus counseling, academic advising, and student-led clubs and groups (including faith-based clubs). Generally, such supports are new to emerging adults upon arrival to the campus community and as such, relationships and trust with the campus community must be fostered over time. That said, leaning in looks and feels much different when the individual and the support have a relationship and an access intimacy–when someone understands and knows your access and support needs (Mingus, 2017)–cultivated over time and space prior to transitioning to a postsecondary experience.

Study participants emphasized several ways they were an important support to their university transition. This self-level support, including self-awareness and self-advocacy, existed across the university with instructors, disability services, and peer mentors. Moreover, Bri and Diana discussed how self-advocacy was nurtured prior to coming to the university. This finding aligns with existing research as self-advocacy and self-awareness are important skills to develop prior to emerging adulthood (Morningstar et al., 2015). These findings expand the research focused on college students with disabilities (e.g., Vaccaro & Daly-Cano, 2015) by emphasizing the experiences of college students labeled with intellectual disability.

Notably, certain supports or levels of support fit better within university systems and processes wherein dominant beliefs and practices regarding disability and difference exist (Berg et al., 2017). Upon entering university, Bri and Diana provided so much support to themselves and had already-established supportive networks. Moreover, they identified as white, female, and middle class; and English was their home language. Therefore, they met a certain criterion that was closer to the preferred, dominant identity, what McRuer (2006) considered "compulsory able-bodiedness" (p. 1). Compulsory able-bodiedness exists across university campuses. It is a preference for ability over disability. This hegemonic criterion prevents emerging adults labeled with intellectual disability from attending college. Furthermore, research shows additional postsecondary education barriers exist for college students with intellectual disability who have marginalized identities based on race, class, culture, and language (Abes & Wallace, 2018) as well as for students with multiple disabilities or who have diverse and complex support needs (Eisenman et al., 2020). While the two participants in this study experienced ableism and sexism as two white women labeled with intellectual disability, they did not experience classism, linguicism, or racism. In sum, the participants' positionality in combination with their perceived level of (less than complex) support need may have helped facilitate their acceptance and positive experiences on campus.

Reciprocity with Peer Mentors

The university campus, full of peers, created a socio-spatial context much different from the isolation and segregation that many youth labeled with intellectual disability experience during the transitional time from high school to emerging adulthood (e.g., segregated programs on high school campuses, sheltered workshops, institutionalization; Bates-Harris, 2012). In contrast, the campus held spaces where Bri and Diana built community with fellow college students, including peer mentors. Further, they described how the more they got to know the TPSID-assigned peer mentors, the more reciprocal their relationships became. In other words, the participants shifted the power dynamics in what have traditionally been considered helping relationships wherein people with disabilities are the receivers of help and people without disabilities are the helpers (Salmon, 2013; Van der Klift & Kunc, 1994). This finding expands prior research focused on reciprocity from the standpoint of peer mentors (Farley et al., 2014) with the mutuality college students labeled with intellectual disability expressed in this study.

Considering self, family, and faith supports as well as peer relationships, the participants demonstrated a great degree of interdependence (Dirth & Adams, 2019). While universities and postsecondary programs promote independence, the independent/dependent binary (Bacon & Baglieri, 2021) is a missed opportunity to notice how college students, their families, and their communities are interrelated and inter-supported. Further, the binary overlooks the importance of relationships and sociality for all students. As such, the participants' presence on campus was a critical chance for the university to honor and learn from what Diana and Bri and their communities were exemplifying as well as how interdependence was fostered and expressed.

University-Provided Accommodations and Supports

Study participants also discussed how the university supported them. University accommodations were delineated by the disability services office. As such, university processes remained grounded in deficit-based thinking (e.g., students with disabilities need help) and the medical model wherein disability diagnosis and disclosure are mandatory to receive accommodations (Krebs, 2019). This finding aligns with prior scholarship as university processes, including disability disclosure (Pearson & Boskovich, 2019), did not change with the onset of a new postsecondary education program (Mock & Love, 2012). As Miles et al. (2017) argued, universities ought to "operate from a perspective of culture of access, instead of making accommodations the sole responsibility of disabled people," (para. 3). Rather than restructuring the institution (i.e., ideologically, pedagogically), the university continued to view disability and accommodation on a case-by-case basis and as a deviation from the norm.

Diana and Bri explained how the university and TPSID faculty were also supportive. For example, the participants discussed how university faculty were helpful and approachable. They also described how some faculty made learning more fun and engaging. This finding aligns with prior research as the ways in which the participants saw faculty as supportive are in actuality sound pedagogical practices for all students (McDonnell et al., 2003). Aligning with prior scholarship (Grigal & Hart, 2013), the participants described how TPSID faculty provided employment-related supports through a career development course. This finding expands prior scholarship with specific feedback from the participants, two college students labeled with intellectual disability, on what was helpful or hindering about their coursework over time.

Implications and Limitations

This study contributes to the existing literature by demonstrating how emerging adults labeled with intellectual disability experienced and named their supports during the moving in and through phases of transition to a public university. Implications for practice and research are discussed next.

Implications for Practice

One implication for practice centers on course design. Diana and Bri discussed instructor dispositions and practices that were helpful to them. As such, faculty could inquire with students about what is working well and what is not at mid-semester instead of waiting until semester end (Hurney et al., 2014). This feedback would inform coursework earlier in the term depending on the structure of the inquiries and the subsequent reflection and action of the instructor.

Another implication centers on collaborative group work. Scager et al. (2016) discussed the importance of colleges incorporating more group work to mirror the interdependence of this current generation of students. However, the study participants rarely discussed working with peers or in groups for class. Yet, they worked regularly with peer mentors on coursework or in the company of peer mentors. Collaborative work is one avenue universities could take to embrace the interdependent nature of being a college student, like Bri and Diana.

Thirdly, universal design could be used as a tool to support more course instructors in generating accessible coursework from a social justice orientation. More recently, institutions are utilizing Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in some way (Kennette et al., 2019; Saha-Gupta et al., 2019). Hamraie (2013) encourages universities to ground universal design in disability justice, collective access, and interdependence. To do so, the university would partner with students and faculty who experience multiple marginalizing oppressions (e.g., ableism, racism, sexism), institutional centers that already support students but may not be universally designed (e.g., writing centers; Quinn et al., 2019), and faculty interested in more equitable, accessible pedagogy. In doing so, this combination of insight and feedback would center the interests and contributions of disabled students and faculty of color and other marginalized people with disabilities.

Another implication for practice centers on using a DSE perspective to develop (Bacon & Baglieri, 2021) and study (Schnellert et al., 2019) postsecondary education programs. The postsecondary program in this study supported Bri and Diana so that they could be successful at the current institution. At the time of the study, the institution was not altering systems and processes in order to be more collectively accessible and universally designed. However, without interrogating the hegemony (re)produced within institutions of higher education, postsecondary programs may be (unknowingly) excusing colleges and universities from reviewing and refining their practices. Instead, the hope is that postsecondary programs operate as a nudge and a force in restructuring colleges and universities so that all students are realizing "their capabilities to engage meaningfully in institutional and community life" (Shallish, 2015, para 42) and thriving.

Limitations and Implications for Future Research

Study limitations and consequent implications for research are presented next. Notably, each limitation is directly linked to future research.

While concentrating on the firsthand experiences of two students labeled with intellectual disability was a strength of the study, the lack of diversity in participant identity markers (e.g., culture, language, race/ethnicity) was one limitation. This results in a clear implication for future research to focus on the college experiences of students of color labeled with intellectual disability and other historically marginalized students with disabilities and to do so through a critical and intersectional lens (Miles et al., 2017). Acknowledging how and why ableism intersects with racism and sexism in unique and multiply marginalizing ways on campus is vital for future research seeking to understand how inequities are (re)produced in higher education and what students' solutions are to said inequities. Further, forthcoming research ought to report on students' gender expression, religious preferences, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and support needs as this data is underreported or not reported. In sum, more scholarship focused on the perspectives of historically marginalized students with disabilities is necessary.

A second study limitation was the lack of participation across stakeholders. Without overshadowing student perspectives, inviting additional participants (e.g., family members, university and postsecondary program faculty and staff, policymakers) is an important next step. As Shallish (2015) argued, disability is often excluded from the diversity narrative. As such, civil rights protections are often not afforded to students with disabilities on college campuses. Inviting additional stakeholders would support a campus-wide examination of how the postsecondary education program compliments the university's diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative or exists in a silo.

A third limitation of the study was the absence of follow-up interviews during the participants' second year at the university and beyond, particularly considering the moving out stage of transition (Schlossberg's, 2008, 2011). This data would have enriched the study in multiple ways. With subsequent interviews, the participants would have had several opportunities to reflect on how their supports changed over time. More than likely, they would have had additional experiences on campus and as a result, more feedback for the postsecondary program and the university. In sum, this should be a consideration for future scholarship examining postsecondary transitional experiences.

Another implication for future research involves expanding the study methods. In this project, interviews were employed. However, document analysis, participant observations, and focus groups would generate a richer understanding of the university experience. In addition, there is a lack of auto-ethnographical and self-study scholarship (Pearson & Boskovich, 2019) and research that incorporates visual methods (Pearson, 2017). Finally, more participatory action research led by college students labeled with intellectual disability is needed (Love & Mock, 2019). Given the long history of exclusion and marginalization, the principles of participatory action research are very relevant to emerging adults labeled with intellectual disability attending colleges and universities.


The postsecondary experiences of emerging adults labeled with intellectual disability are underrepresented in the research. Thus, the purpose of this study was to learn about the transitional experiences of two college students labeled with intellectual disability at a public university through a blended conceptual framing of DSE (Baglieri, Bejoian et al., 2011; Connor et al., 2008) and Schlossberg's (2008, 2011) Transition Theory. The study participants shared how they conceptualized and experienced supports during the moving in and through stages of transition. We hope this study reveals the importance of centering the experiences of emerging adults labeled with intellectual disability in postsecondary pedagogy and future scholarship.


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