Iowa REACH program opens up new horizons for those who learn differently
(Second of two columns)
For individuals who learn differently or have neurological challenges, opportunities to find meaningful employment and contribute to civic life tend to be few and far between. These individuals want and deserve opportunities to participate in civic life by leveraging their unique abilities and talents.
High schools are doing a far better job these days of meeting these students where they are, but life after high school is often quite isolating and limited. These individuals are often treated as second-class citizens.
But there is hope. We are seeing new opportunities starting to emerge.
One shining example can be found in the highly regarded UI REACH (Realizing Educational and Career Hopes) program at the University of Iowa College of Education, which is providing an opportunity for students with intellectual, cognitive and learning disabilities to experience college in a structured and supportive environment.
There are important lessons to be learned from the UI REACH example.
In a recent edition of The World, I wrote about Zoee Stamps of Chelan, who is thriving as a student at UI REACH. I’ve also spoken to the father of Joshua Williams of Bellevue, another student in the program who raves about the tremendous growth that his son has experienced.
It is important to note that for the most part, civic life for these individuals remains segregated, not unlike the persistent subtle and not-so-subtle barriers that people of color often deal with in this country.
William Loyd, UI REACH’s director, is an African American whose parents participated in the civil rights campaign. He sees a direct connection between efforts for racial diversity and what he calls “neurodiversity.”
“There’s still quite a bit more work to be done in terms of helping folks with disabilities achieve appropriate levels of inclusion and economic self-sufficiency… and also embracing the gifts and talents that they bring into the workplace and the community,” Loyd told me.
Early in his career, Loyd discovered the importance of focusing on the human being. “All too often, people saw the disability — they didn’t see the person first,” Loyd told me. “Look at the person, get to know the person because everybody has something to give,” he added. That person-first mindset defines the UI REACH experience.
The University of Iowa program is considered at the forefront of more fully integrating these individuals into college life. The offerings are customized to the needs of the students, and matches as close as possible the typical University of Iowa college experience. To the extent they desire and are prepared, students take traditional college classes and take advantage of all of the experiences of college, from football games, arts and music opportunities and the like.
Life on a college campus can be a big adjustment for many students, who typically have only lived at home and have had limited opportunities to develop meaningful relationships and capabilities.
The staff and team of student mentors at UI REACH are trained to help the students build the confidence and skills to start taking charge of their education and their lives, Loyd said.
The lives of these students are transformed in the process, Loyd said. The confidence they build in navigating work, relationships and daily life challenges fosters a sense of agency in their own lives.
Throughout their experience at UI REACH, the students hear a consistent mantra: “This is your life — you’re in the driver’s seat,” Loyd said.
If we are thoughtful and inclusive in our thinking about education, we will build a system that recognizes all students have unique skills, abilities and challenges and create approaches that help them develop their strengths. UI REACH is an example of how we can expand our definition of worthy human beings to include those who learn differently.
“We’ll know we are there when we don’t need a program like UI REACH at the University of Iowa,” Loyd told me.
Seeing people for what they can do rather than what they cannot do is a mental discipline that would help all of us live more constructive and meaningful lives. UI REACH is showing us how this can be done. How can we expand opportunities in North Central Washington?
Additional information about UI REACH can be found on their website at: