Program prepares disabled youth for college life

BLACKSBURG, Virginia (AP) -- The college classroom scene is a familiar one:
young adults in flip-flops and baseball caps, some scribbling notes, others

Evelyn Scruggs, a student sitting near the front, is among the more
attentive, filling an entire page with notes. But, by the time she leaves,
she won't remember the lecture topic or one word she wrote.

Scruggs, 19, has attention deficit disorder and related short-term memory
loss. Like everyone attending this mock class, she's hoping it will give her
tools to balance her disability with her dream of a college degree.

The students get pointers on navigating wheelchairs over hilly terrain,
finding note takers and deciding whether to "come out" to peers about
less-obvious disabilities -- tips experts say are vital as administrators
face swelling numbers of disabled students.

About 6 million Americans receive special education services, designated for
students whose mental or physical limitation affects their learning,
according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Increasingly, such students are aiming for degrees: 11.3 percent of
undergraduates nationwide reported a disability during the 2003-04 academic
year, compared to 7.7 percent during the 1989-90 school year, according to
the most recent department statistics.

Special education has shifted over the past decade from getting students to
functional levels on basics like reading in favor of encouraging them to
move to advanced levels of study and tackle more complex subjects, said
Lynda Van Kuren, a spokeswoman for the Council for Exceptional Children.

"With special education services and transition planning, they are
succeeding at a higher level than ever before," she said.

But college challenges remain, from living independently, to coping with the
sudden loss of the family, teachers and specialists who have molded their

Of disabled college students who began college during the 1995-96 school
year, only 15 percent had obtained a bachelor's degree by 2001, compared to
29.8 percent of their non-disabled peers, according to the U.S. Department
of Education.

Nearly half of disabled students -- 41.2 percent -- dropped out by that
year. The remainder attained lower degrees or continued their education.

While a successful student may balance schoolwork with things like cleaning
an apartment, some disabled students find it difficult to multitask and
excel academically at the same time, explained Jill Rickel, national
director of admissions with the College Living Experience, among the most
extensive transitional programs in the nation.

Based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the program provides full-time tutoring,
social skills development and help with time management for disabled college

"People are failing out of school because of independent living skills --
they aren't taking care of themselves," Rickel said. "People's eyes are
opening to that."

Experts say the very support systems set up to help the disabled in grade
school may also hurt them.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, disabled students
from kindergarten through high school are entitled to an individualized
education plan created by a pit crew of teachers and specialists.

It all stops in college, a surprise to students who may think administrators
will know their needs, said Jane Warner, assistant director of services for
disabled students at Virginia Tech and co-organizer of College Bound, a
collaboration of the Blacksburg school, Radford University and New River
Community College.

College Bound, which Scruggs is part of, is open to high school juniors,
seniors and entering college freshman with conditions ranging from speech
impairment to cerebral palsy. The program was founded in 1999 after
administrators at all three schools noticed students failing.

"Students were coming to college not prepared to be able to receive
services," Warner said. "They may not know that they have to be the ones to
go to the disabilities service office and let the college know that they're
a student here."

Still others discover tools that helped them learn in grade school don't
work in college.

Scruggs, for instance, often uses an audio recorder to tape instructors,
later listening to the recordings over and over at home.

"What if you're in a class with 500 people and that recorder can't pick up
because the professor is too far away?" Warner asked. "You have to work with
disabilities services to find a solution."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press
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