If you build it, they will blossom
One parent’s idea becomes a game-changer for young people with disabilities.
As a folklore professor at Ohio State, Amy Shuman knows the importance of telling a good story — one that generations will pass on and learn from.
In her other role as a professor of disability studies, however, she knows that sometimes you have to change the tale. Especially if it’s not a very good story, one in which people are not allowed to live up to their potential because of twists of fate.
That seemed to be a theme for her own son, Colin Schaffer, as he was about to graduate from high school. At a time when other young adults’ lives were opening up, Colin was finding his opportunities narrowing because of his developmental disabilities.
It was the same story for so many years, for so many other people. Students with intellectual and developmental disabilities have the lowest percentage of postsecondary enrollment of any disabled people, according to Think College.
And employment opportunities are “appalling,” the organization reported in 2013. Without postsecondary education, most individuals with such disabilities “have little hope of ever obtaining a real job or making minimum wage.” Many are placed at sheltered workshops — workplaces that employ people with disabilities separately from others.
Unless Shuman helped change the story. And she knew the best person to make this happen: Margo Izzo ’98 PhD, program director of special education and transition services at Ohio State’s Nisonger Center, which works with people with developmental disabilities and their families. Founded in 1966, the interdisciplinary center is known for high-quality services and research that support the inclusion of people with disabilities in the community.
Shuman made a plea: Was there any way to create a postsecondary program at Ohio State to help students like Colin prepare for work and find meaningful jobs?
The timing was perfect. Izzo, who has 30 years’ experience in the field, already was investigating options to create such a program. As for funding, Izzo was no fairy godmother, but she was an expert grant writer. She won a state grant to start a pilot program at Ohio State and then secured a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2010 to launch the Transitional Opportunities for Postsecondary Settings (TOPS) program.
After seven years of successful results, TOPS has put the university on the map nationally as an innovator in postsecondary services for individuals with disabilities. And thanks to Izzo’s leadership, Ohio State was one of only eight universities to receive a second round of DOE funding in 2015.
“One thing that sets us apart is that we are creating a model for the state,” Izzo said. Along with TOPS, she formed the Ohio Statewide Consortium to provide technical assistance and resources to start or expand programs at five other colleges and universities, and this year the network will grow by three.
The results indicate that the old stories are changing.
Employment for program graduates is 91 percent at Ohio State and similarly high for two other consortium members, the universities of Cincinnati and Toledo — vastly better than the 15 to 30 percent employment rates for most high school transition programs.
Five TOPS students work at the Wexner Medical Center and three at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, while others work in retail jobs. One graduate is now attending Columbus State Community College.
Employment, however, is only one of many TOPS benefits.
“Some parents want their students to have a college experience like any other family member,” said Jessie Green ’06, ’07 M, who serves as the TOPS program manager.
Students can pursue a two- or four-year track in TOPS. They earn certificates of completion and the title of proud Buckeyes.
College programs such as TOPS will become more important with major changes coming in the way adults with disabilities are served.
The federal government, which provides most of the funding for sheltered workshops, has decided that funds cannot be used to support people in segregated settings such as workshops. And the Ohio Legislature passed a bill that says high schools can’t transition students to sheltered workshops; instead, every attempt must be made to find students jobs in the community.
TOPS can put people on that path, Izzo said.
“It boils down to high expectations and providing the right level of support that individuals need to enhance their independence. We encourage our students to take risks and be challenged so that they discover what their limits are.”
Today, Izzo administers the federal grant, while Shuman is a TOPS faculty advisor. The women conducted a survey that found other Ohio State students benefit from having students with disabilities in the classroom.
“By exposing more students to individuals with intellectual disabilities, we decrease the stigma and low expectations that others have of this population,” Izzo said. “And we increase higher expectations and create opportunities for these individuals to gain employment and participate in college programs.”
Together, the two professors continue to push for change, creating a new story.
“What I want as a parent is for Colin to have as full a life as possible in which he continues to grow and develop, and TOPS provided that opportunity for him,” Shuman said. “It will continue to expand. The world is just getting ready for this.”
How you can help change the story
Supporters make a difference for students like Austin Shirk and Colin Schaffer by funding scholarships for TOPS students.
To make a contribution, visit giveto.osu.edu/TOPS.
“Postsecondary education for people with intellectual disabilities is a gateway to freedom,” said Dina Shirk ’88, Austin’s mother. “If people could help support it through scholarships, that would be just fantastic.”
For additional information on TOPS, visit go.osu.edu/aboutTOPS.