Increasing college options in the Southeast for students with developmental disabilities

Student panel (left to right) Diamond Grigsby, Zach Sutton, Bryshawn Jemison (panel facilitator and Next Steps at Vanderbilt alumni), Jamie Galvin, Cory Rankin, and Caitlyn Ford

In May, nearly 70 students with intellectual and developmental disabilities graduated from the five inclusive higher education college programs in Tennessee (Next Steps at Vanderbilt; Lipscomb’s IDEAL program; Union University’s EDGE program; University of Tennessee’s FUTURE program; and University of Memphis’ TigerLIFE). Across the country, nearly 250 other colleges across the country held similar graduation ceremonies for their students with disabilities.

On June 26-27, representatives from inclusive higher education programs for students with disabilities across the Southeast gathered for the 3rd Annual Southeastern Postsecondary Education Alliance Capacity Building Conference. Attendees included current students and graduates, university faculty, program administrators, transition teachers, vocational rehabilitation professionals, and other stakeholders who are committed to increasing opportunities for employment and postsecondary education for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Southeastern states have more than 60 inclusive higher education programs on college campuses for students with disabilities; read profiles of SEPSEA programs here.

Attendees at SEPSEA

Third annual Southeastern Postsecondary Education Alliance Capacity Building Conference

“Commitments” that leaders in the postsecondary education field can make that would shape the future of the inclusive higher education movement in positive ways was the focus of the keynote address by Erik Carter, Ph.D., professor of Special Education at Vanderbilt University and a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center member. He encouraged attendees to reflect on where the inclusive higher education movement is headed and suggested guideposts that can mark its progress. Paraphrased from Dr. Carter’s keynote, here are a few of the commitments that inclusive higher education programs should consider as the field continues to grow and change:

  • Led by aspirations – Inclusive higher education programs should ensure that the opportunities they provide are first and foremost led by the goals and dreams of students with disabilities.
  • Ensure full access – Students with disabilities deserve the same access to educational, social, recreational, employment, and housing opportunities available on campus to all other students.
  • Capture the impact – While the positive impact of inclusive higher education on employment outcomes has been well-documented, we need to find ways to measure all positive differences that these programs, opportunities, and experiences make in the lives of their students.
  • Tell the full story – We need to find ways to tell stories of how inclusive higher education is transforming the entire college community in meaningful ways, not just the students with disabilities who attend the programs. University faculty, staff and administrators; students who serve as peer mentors and tutors; internship coordinators and employers; and all students on campus are interacting with and learning from the students with disabilities in these programs, and we must find ways to communicate the value of those experiences.

Many of the commitments, or themes, were echoed by many of the SEPSEA conference presenters who shared data, research, innovations, and best practices that are guiding their programs in states across the Southeast.

Though many of the conference sessions included presentations by current students and graduates of inclusive higher education programs, one conference highlight was a student panel featuring students from UT Knoxville’s FUTURE program, Lipscomb University’s IDEAL program and Vanderbilt University’s Next Steps program. Caitlyn Ford (Lipscomb), Jamie Galvin (Vanderbilt), Diamond Grigsby (Vanderbilt), Cory Rankin (University of TN), and Zach Sutton (Lipscomb) shared stories about the most meaningful experiences during their time in their college programs. They spoke about finding lifelong friendships, discovering new interests and passions, building their confidence in the workplace, exploring interesting topics in their academic courses, and learning more about living independently.

With more than 40 presentations from representatives across 10 states in the Southeast during the 2-day conference, the following few highlights illustrate the range of content.

  • Speakers from Florida shared information about how inclusive higher education leaders advocated with their state legislature to pass the Florida Postsecondary Comprehensive Transition Program Act, which created the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities (similar to Tennessee’s Inclusive Higher Education Alliance statewide collaborative). However, their legislature also allocated $3 million to establish or to enhance existing postsecondary education transition programs and another $3.5 million for the Center to distribute as scholarships to eligible students attending the programs.
  • Staff and students from Lipscomb University’s IDEAL program showcased how other Lipscomb students serve as paid peer job coaches for IDEAL students in their on- and off-campus internships and jobs. They showed several videos of how the students learn tasks side by side, with the goal of eventually fading the coach’s support as the IDEAL student learns to complete their assignments independently or with support from other coworkers.
  • Next Steps at Vanderbilt student Nila Huddleston and Vanderbilt Theatre Department faculty Alexandra Sargent Capps spoke together about Ms. Huddleston’s experience in Professor Capps’ costume design class, how they worked together to create a beautiful and creative collaborative quilting project, and how the arts can provide unique opportunities for students of all abilities to express themselves.

For the final keynote session, David DeSanctis, who played the part of “Produce” in the 2014 feature film Where Hope Grows (which made him one of the first actors with Down syndrome to play a leading role in an English-language feature film) shared an upbeat, entertaining, and positive message with all attendees. His speech blended his personal experiences and stories and many of his favorite songs, and the audience was encouraged to get up and dance along with him. He urged us all to remain “inspired, helpful and joyful.”

For more information about the 2017 SEPSEA conference, programs, and presenters, visit

Emma Shouse is director of Public Information for the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities.

Pictured top of page: Student panel (left to right) Diamond Grigsby, Zach Sutton, Bryshawn Jemison (panel facilitator and Next Steps at Vanderbilt alumni), Jamie Galvin, Cory Rankin, and Caitlyn Ford

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