Why Not College for the Disabled?
Russ Kinkade holds up a pen. If it were broken, he says, he would toss it. "So if you objectify people and see they are broken, then it makes logical sense that you would discard them," concludes Kinkade, executive vice president of Shepherds Ministries.
Located south of Milwaukee, the nonprofit Christian organization has 53 years of experience in overcoming the perception that people with disabilities have little to contribute to society and thus can be discarded.
In 2008, the ministry launched Shepherds College, the nation's first faith-based residential college exclusively for students with intellectual disabilities. At the end of the current academic year, Shepherds, a three-year program, will graduate its first class.
Intellectual disabilities include autism, Down syndrome, brain injury, or other developmental complications. Students at Shepherds have mild to moderate disabilities and are typically at a third-grade or higher academic level. In the U.S., about seven million people have an intellectual disability, affecting about one in ten families.
A few miles from campus, third-year student Gloria Pavuk is baking her way toward a bright future in culinary arts. In the Country Rose Bakery kitchen, Pavuk works as an intern with customers as well as kitchen staff. On the day Christianity Today visited, a hefty batch of banana bread was headed for the oven.
Country Rose owner Rose Laketa describes Pavuk as a quick learner. "She can pretty much do whatever she wants to do," Laketa says. "She could very possibly run her own business because of how she picks up so quickly." Twenty-six students ages 18 to 34 are currently enrolled at Shepherds, and Pavuk is one of five students in their final year.
Pavuk was drawn to the college because of its distinctive combination of academic and vocational education in a Christian residential environment.
"When I came here," says Pavuk, "my faith really grew because of all the support, both emotionally and spiritually."
"The value of a human being is not about their capacity to function. They have intrinsic value that has nothing to do with function," Kinkade told CT. "Your worth as a human being is essential, but your functions will vary."
Shepherds College is at the leading edge of a new crop of national programs that provide innovative education and vocational training to high-school graduates with intellectual disabilities.
Reality Check At Age 22
In 1957, the year Shepherds Ministries began at a Baptist church in Milwaukee, people with intellectual disabilities faced systemic discrimination in education, medical care, employment, and housing, and were frequently institutionalized for life.
But during the following decades, a number of federal laws were passed to help rectify the situation, including the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975), now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990). The laws created programs for preschoolers with disabilities and individualized education plans, and mainstreamed students with disabilities into classrooms through high school or until they reach age 22.
Then the students face a crunch. Debra Hart, educational coordinator at the Institute for Community Inclusion, a Boston-based nonprofit, says for the past 35 years, students with disabilities have grown up as members of their communities. Like their peers, they dream of going to college, getting a job, and living on their own. But, as Hart wrote in a 2006 report, "Of all students with disabilities, those with intellectual disabilities have the poorest post-school outcomes."