Finding post-secondary options for special needs students takes effort, innovation

Photo by Marcy Stamper
Lily Sawyer Holston has been determined to go to college since the seventh grade. She is one of just four students accepted by a brand-new college program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities at Washington State University.

By Marcy Stamper

Launching from the relative cocoon of high school to college or a job can be a challenge for everyone, but for students with special needs, making that leap can be especially daunting.

Lily Sawyer Holston, who has an intellectual disability, has always known she wanted to attend college, but finding the right program took years. So, when she learned just four days before her final presentation at the Independent Learning Center (ILC) that she was one of only four students accepted to the brand-new ROAR program at Washington State University, she was elated.

ROAR, for Responsibility, Opportunities, Advocacy, and Respect, is designed for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It is one of only seven fully inclusive post-secondary education programs in the United States, and the first in the Northwest.

Sawyer Holston plans to study animal science to become a veterinary assistant. She’s had a head start through an internship at the Methow Valley Veterinary Hospital, where she gained experience observing animal surgery, inflating a tracheal tube, and expressing cat bladders.

She’s well suited to the work. “It’s kind of gross at first, but then it gets better,” said Sawyer Holston. “I’m not squeamish. I can handle surgeries.”

Sawyer Holston graduated from Liberty Bell High School in 2016 and spent the next two years at the ILC in a transition program. Special-ed students with an individualized education program are entitled to remain in school until age 21 if they haven’t completed all the goals in their individualized plan.

Getting one-on-one instruction at the ILC was particularly valuable for strengthening her reading, writing and math skills, as well as gaining practical knowledge like cooking, said Sawyer Holston.

Finding a program

Having Sawyer Holston as part of the ILC community was proof of the value of inclusive education. “Lily is the most enthusiastic student. She comes to school every day ready to learn and ask questions,” said ILC teacher Sara Mounsey.

“I’ll miss biology, because it’s fun learning things you don’t know,” said Sawyer Holston. She even appreciated math — including a section on budgeting. “Math isn’t the first thing I would do — but it’s interesting,” she told the group of parents, teachers and administrators who attended her final presentation last week.

“Lily’s excitement about learning is such an inspiration to other students,” said special education teacher Adrian Chavey.

Sawyer Holston and her mother, Florence Sawyer, have been searching for an appropriate college program for years. While there are many programs on the East Coast that include housing, finding a program in the West where students live on campus was not easy. The ROAR program is so new that Washington State University (WSU) only opened applications in April.

ROAR students spend three-quarters of their time auditing regular WSU classes. The remaining time is in classes specially tailored to their needs. Students live with a roommate in campus apartments for graduate students.

The ROAR program is designed to be two years, but students in the inaugural class, including Sawyer Holston, will spend three years there. Students graduate with a certificate of completion.

ROAR is intended not only to educate its own students, but also to help faculty and graduate students at WSU develop an innovative curriculum. It is also designed to benefit the overall WSU student body through shared classes and social situations.

Inclusive education

ROAR is part of a growing movement to make education inclusive from an early age. “We all have to work at opening the minds of parents, teachers and students to think about being super-inclusive, from preschool to college,” said Sawyer. “Lily woke me up because these were things she wanted. She said — in seventh grade — that she was going to college.”

Not so long ago, employers set up segregated workshops for special-needs people, said Sawyer. But over the past decade, employers and schools have been recognizing disability as a human condition, she said. “Instead of disability, they’re thinking about variability. We all have different strengths and weaknesses,” said Sawyer.

“Students themselves are pushing — there’s a wave of inclusion for all people now,” she said.

Part of that inclusive approach was evident this spring, when the high school took about 20 students, both general and special ed, to a job and career fair in Waterville, said Leanne Lafferty, special education coordinator for the Methow Valley School District. They want students to understand they have a range of choices, including apprenticeships, hands-on learning, and two- and four-year colleges.

Teachers, students and their families start thinking about the future when students are very young. As they list the things a student is good at and focus on strengths, “it’s amazing to see how it changes the way the student feels about himself,” said Lafferty.

Once students turn 16, special-ed teachers work with them to develop a post-secondary plan so they can tailor their education to the students’ interests, said Lafferty. Depending on need, the plan may also emphasize independent living skills.


Dean Hussey, who’s finishing his junior year at Liberty Bell High School, will spend part of his summer at the DO-IT Scholars program at the University of Washington, which prepares high school students with disabilities for success in college and careers.

The program focuses on technology and on preparing kids with disabilities for college life, said Hussey, who has autism and described the most troubling impact of his disability as “largely social.”

“It makes things like talking to people difficult,” he said.

Hussey is looking forward to the campus experience and to growing more comfortable being in a big city and around crowds. “The collective experience itself is what I’m hoping to get out of it,” he said. “It sounds like it could be very interesting, but I’m also nervous-ish.”

The DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) program is designed for students with a wide range of disabilities, from visual or hearing impairment to mobility challenges to social disabilities. The high-tech emphasis of the program dovetails nicely with Hussey’s interest in computer-based music composition and audio engineering.

The program is highly selective. It typically draws between 50 and 80 applicants and admits 15 to 20, depending on funding, said Elizabeth Lee, the program operations specialist.

The program — typically two or three summer sessions, plus social activities and networking during the school year — is completely free, supported by the state, the National Science Foundation, and other organizations. Participants get a laptop computer, a printer, and necessary assistive technology.

The 12-day summer program, where students live in dorms and have meals in the campus dining hall, includes academics like geology, math and web design. Although the focus is on science and technology, the program is open to students with all interests.

DO-IT Scholars also take field trips to the zoo, the Pacific Science Center, and to Microsoft, and do fun activities like karaoke and beat ball, a type of baseball for the visually impaired, said Lee. Participants are always accompanied by a staff member.

DO-IT Scholars learn the history of disability rights and gain experience in advocating for themselves, said Lee. “We generally want parents to take a step back and let the kids speak for themselves,” she said.

Hussey heads to Seattle at the end of July. Sawyer Holston leaves for the WSU Pullman campus in August. “I’m excited about leaving the Methow Valley, and living somewhere new and meeting new people,” she said. “I’m now getting out of my comfort zone by going to college, and I’m really happy about that.”

“We have to hold the bar high and keep the expectations high. Don’t do these kids the disservice of low expectations,” said Sawyer.