LIFE Program Provides Postsecondary Education for Young Adults with Disabilities

Posted: December 17, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Amy Biderman

Career Exploration and Independent Living may not seem like standard university classes, but an innovative program in the Graduate School of Education’s Kellar Institute for Human DisAbilities blends functional instruction with academics to prepare young adults with significant disabilities for employment and independent living in their communities. The Learning into Future Environments (LIFE) Program, the first of its kind at a public four-year university, allows these students to obtain a postsecondary education in a supportive, inclusive environment. At the same time, the program provides Mason students majoring in disciplines such as education, psychology, assistive technology, and social work with practical experience in working with individuals with disabilities.

LIFE is intended for young adults with significant learning disabilities; cognitive disabilities, including mental retardation; and developmental disabilities such as autism. These conditions are sometimes accompanied by physical or sensory disabilities. The program has three primary goals:

  • Increase literacy skills, including reading, writing, math, and technology
  • Expand career development and employment options
  • Increase independent living skills and access to community opportunities

“Young people, whether they have a disability or not, all want the same things out of life: gaining more independence, learning more about themselves and the world around them, engaging in new experiences, getting a sense of what their life’s work may be, and finding acceptance and community,” says Carmen Rioux-Bailey, LIFE program director. “The LIFE Program benefits students by focusing on their abilities instead of disabilities and offers them access to the same experiences their nondisabled peers enjoy.”

LIFE students normally begin the program between the ages of 18 and 22 and can remain enrolled through the academic year in which they turn 25. They complete a curriculum specifically designed to meet their unique needs and graduate with a “certificate.” Enrollment lasts from one to six years depending upon an individual’s age and requirements. While students currently must commute, they will have the option of residing in a dormitory in the 2004-05 academic year.

A typical day involves classes in math, literature, technology, and current events, as well as independent study courses in employment, homework, errands, and special projects. In addition to course work, internships and paid work experiences are an important part of the program. Students identify career interests and aptitudes and obtain experience in these areas. Linking with community employment resources is a priority in the third and fourth year so that students have employment options when they leave the program.

To complement the LIFE experience, participants have peer mentors from the student community to facilitate inclusion into all facets of student life and activities. The program also benefits Mason students without disabilities, Rioux-Bailey adds. “The mere presence of people with significant disabilities engaging in learning on a university campus encourages students and staff to question their assumptions about people with disabilities,” she says. “It forces them to reconsider the capabilities of people with disabilities, their preferences for inclusive environments, and the ability of the Mason community to incorporate individuals with disabilities into the university’s mission and activities.”

For more information on the program, contact Rioux-Bailey at (703) 993-3670 or criouxba@gmu.edu.

Write to at