Mason’s LIFE Program Showcased at American Council on Education

Posted: February 26, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

In Mason’s Learning Into Future Environments (LIFE) Program, young adults with intellectual disabilities have the opportunity to take classes to help improve their literacy, employment skills and independent living skills, and even live on campus with college students.

Michael Behrmann, director of the Helen A. Kellar Institute for Human Disabilities, calls the program “a total win-win-win scenario” and is quick to sing its praises. He cites the program’s progressive mission to give “LIFE students … the opportunity to have a college experience like their siblings.”

He adds that “their parents have won the ability to empower them to transition to the independence of adulthood by engaging in campus life.”

Not only do these students and parents benefit from the LIFE Program, but Behrmann feels the program is to Mason’s advantage overall by “adding a diverse population …who positively influence the attitudes of our faculty, staff and students.”

The LIFE Program is the first of its kind on a public four-year university campus. To celebrate Mason’s commitment to the program, President Alan Merten joined Behrmann and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, executive vice president of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation and founder of Special Olympics, in making presentations to the Board of Directors of the American Council on Education (ACE).

Shriver pointed out that of the more than 30,000 students with intellectual disabilities who graduate from public schools each year, only about 2,500 are served by colleges and universities. She stressed that more campuses across the country need to offer programs to students with intellectual disabilities and expand programs such as Best Buddies and Special Olympics.

Merten and Behrmann illustrated how Mason’s LIFE Program, which has been offered for the past five years, has two complementary missions: to provide academically excluded young adults with disabilities with an inclusive university experience that will further their literacy skills and prepare them for employment and independent living; and to provide Mason graduate and undergraduate students majoring in education, psychology, assistive technology and social work with practical experience and financial support while learning from and working with individuals with disabilities.

Traditionally, students with disabilities have myriad services available to them in the public school system. Once they graduate from high school, however, the resources available to them dwindle. Postsecondary training, supervised employment opportunities, and independent and supervised living opportunities become limited, particularly in northern Virginia, Behrmann notes.

Moreover, Mason LIFE responds to the call for “excellence in interdisciplinary research and teaching,” allowing faculty to work on research and training projects.

As a result of the ACE presentation, Merten and the Kellar Institute, which operates the LIFE Program, have invited U.S. Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to host a summit at Mason in the summer or early fall.

Such a summit could explore how institutions such as the federal government, public and private universities, colleges and community colleges, and corporate and nonprofit organizations could work together to create more programs and opportunities for disabled youth.

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