Bristol Community College helps intellectually disabled adults attend college — here's how

FALL RIVER — A program at Bristol Community College that offers a way for students with intellectual disabilities to attend college alongside their peers is set to expand to public colleges across the state.

“This is not a disabilities program,” said Paul Correia, director of the college’s Massachusetts Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative. “It’s essentially opening a door to college to students who did not have that opportunity before.”

The Massachusetts Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative, or MAICEI, is a state-funded program that awards grants to colleges and local school districts who collaborate on offering intellectually disabled students between the ages of 18 and 22 the chance to enroll in college courses.

Students with serious disabilities can remain enrolled in their public high school through age 22. But before MAICEI, they often had to watch their non-disabled peers go off to college when they turned 18.

“The options for preparing them for life after school were somewhat limited,” said Ross Hooley, the college’s MAICEI coordinator. “The pressure became, ‘Why can’t my son or daughter have the opportunity to go to college like their brothers and sisters are?’”

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MAICEI, which first launched in the state in 2007, students who otherwise would not get to go to college take several college courses a semester while continuing to receive special education services at their high school.

Bristol has participated in MAICEI since 2019. Since then, 19 students have utilized the program there.

MAICEI students from the Dighton-Rehoboth, Fall River, North Attleboro, Old Rochester, Somerset Berkley, Swansea and Westport school districts have taken classes at Bristol on topics like three-dimensional design, introduction to animal care, basic computing skills, baking skills for cooks, sustainable agriculture and elementary American Sign Language.

Working with a college advisor, students attending college through MAICEI select classes that align with a potential future career they’re interested in. While these students are not seeking degrees, they are considered fully enrolled students who can access any resource on campus available to other students, take classes alongside students without intellectual disabilities and participate in campus life. MAICEI students at Bristol have been involved in theater productions at the college, volunteered at its Mobile Food Market and utilized the school gym, Hooley said.

Bristol Community College in Fall River.
Bristol Community College in Fall River.

“We aren’t trying to create a separate program, but rather using what’s already happening at the college and including students in that,” he said.

Students are paired with an education coach, usually provided by their home school district, who accompanies them to class and can help them with tasks like communicating with the instructor or their peers or accessing on-campus resources.

“Making sure that students have that support is really, really essential,” said Hooley.

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Even without an official degree, these students being able to say they attended college makes a real impression on potential employers, Correia said, drastically increasing their likelihood of being employed.

Students also gain experiences besides skills that are directly work-related, Hooley pointed out, learning things like time management and communication skills along with creating friendships with other students they meet.

Now, a new state law instructs public colleges across Massachusetts to set up programs allowing intellectually disabled adults to enroll in classes as non-matriculated students without having to pass an entrance exam and to help them participate in the rest of college life, like extra-curriculars. The 2023 state budget also codified funding for MAICEI.

Hooley said ensuring these students are given the chance to attend college, specifically in classes with their peers without intellectual disabilities, is a question of equality.

“They shouldn’t be denied that right just because they have a disability,” he said.

This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Bristol Community College helps disabled adults attend college