PHOENIX, Ariz. — For children with disabilities, resources exist from kindergarten through high school. According to the Department of Education, 14% of all public school students receive some sort of special education services.
After high school, those resources drop off, exactly when individuals are closest to achieving employment and independence.
At some colleges and universities, programs have popped up to fill the gap.
For example, take L.O.P.E.S Academy. It's the newest post-high school program tailored to those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, held at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix.
Some there deal with anxiety. Others have autism. They meet two days a week, four hours per day. Milestones and breakthroughs occur hourly.
At 10 a.m., an instructor teaches nonverbal cues. The breakthrough emerges in the form of snapping: cheering each other on, investing in fellow classmates.
At 11 a.m., the students construct a vision board of careers and lives in three dimensions.
“My future is to be a chef so I can cook for my mom," said Jaden Lowery, a participant in the program who has autism.
Why does he want to be a cook?
“Because I like food. And my mom did everything to get me here, and I want to cook for her on Mother’s Day and stuff.”
L.O.P.E.S. Academy is 3 months old. Down the road, the university will provide internships and jobs. That’s rare, but so is the program.
“I think there’s definitely room for growth," said Allison Kolanko, who oversees L.O.P.E.S. Academy, about the options for individuals with disabilities after high school.
The group Think College shows more than 300 programs for those with disabilities. But they’re mostly clustered in a handful of states. L.O.P.E.S. Academy is one of three in the 100,000 square miles of Arizona.
There’s no standard for these programs, no mandate for schools to include them. Even L.O.P.E.S. Academy began largely because of one donation by the parents of a current participant.
“When I was in school, I had a lot of people that were not very nice to me," said Emma Cardon, a participant in a program.
But this program, which began with a donation from her father, has brought her out of her shell.
The six members of this inaugural class are not students. They didn’t apply for university admission. They’re not studying toward a degree. On a campus of tens of thousands, they are half a dozen.
But in a few short months, they see greater potential.