STARKVILLE, Miss.--Mississippi State is embracing a new program concept and welcoming some very special individuals to the student body.
The ACCESS Program, implemented in the 2010-11 school year, provides on-campus instruction in independent living, employment and social skills for young adults with intellectual disabilities. ACCESS is an acronym for academics, campus life, community involvement, employment opportunities, socialization, and self awareness.
Julie Berry, assistant dean and director of Student Support Services, said the program focuses on enhancing the quality of life for students with intellectual disabilities and providing a post secondary option for higher education.
Berry said that, while MSU has a long history of support for students with disabilities, programs designed to provide higher education for students with intellectual disabilities are a relatively new concept.
"We looked to George Mason University near Washington, D.C., as a model for a program they had established, and we traveled there to observe and participate in some of the programming," Berry said. "To start something like this, you've got to be entrepreneurial."
The veteran student affairs administrator said the concept immediately seemed like a good fit because MSU students in particular seem to embrace diversity on campus and students with disabilities. "Our students really reach out to these students and they get even more enrichment from it," she observed.
Freshman Katherine P. Phillips of Yazoo City is the first student admitted to the ACCESS Program. The daughter of Chat and Mary Kay Phillips, she began campus studies last August.
Phillips said she was excited about the prospect of life on campus, but also felt nervous about being away from home. Apart from attending camp, she had never before been far from her parents.
She quickly adapted to the new surroundings and soon got involved with various student activities, including Dawg Days and Relay for Life. She also began attending programs of Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist student center, and was delighted by the many campus dining experiences.
"She's done beautifully," Berry said of Phillips' transition. "At first, we weren't sure how she would adjust to getting around and thought she might be pretty dependant on us for help."
Berry said Phillips quickly achieved a new level of personal independence throughout campus, primarily walking but occasionally utilizing the shuttle bus system to get to classes, meals, visits with new friends, and other daily activities.
Phillips' primary instructor is Brecken Crabtree, a Student Support Services coordinator whose chief responsibility over the last year has been the ACCESS Program. A former middle-school special education teacher, she has worked closely with the program's first participant.
"I can see that her daily living skills are really increasing," Crabtree said. "She is doing her own laundry and navigating campus very well, and I think she also has gained some physical strength as she has become more mobile."
As with Phillips, academic plans for ACCESS participants are developed on an individual basis. Each student's abilities first must be assessed and appropriate goals set to ensure success. Certificates of successful completion are presented at the four-year program's conclusion.
For institutions, complex assistance programs like ACCESS typically begin with a very limited number of students. For families, the financial cost often is a barrier, since no government or other subsidies currently are available. Even if finances are available, permitting a child with an intellectual disability to leave for university study can be a big step for families to take.
"It takes a lot of trust and will power from the parents to make this a successful experience," Berry said. In spite of the challenges, she expressed no doubts about the value of this program for Phillips and future ACCESS students.
Over a 20-year career on the Student Support Services staff, Berry said the office regularly has received inquiries from parents of young people with intellectual disabilities.
"People would say they had a son or daughter about to age out of the education opportunities that were currently available," she said. "They would say they understood their student wouldn't meet regular admission requirements, but they were in need of some kind of program to provide the next step."
Berry said the ACCESS Program is designed to expose students to internship opportunities and help develop employment skills. She noted that Phillips assists one day each week during the school year at a local retail business.
Berry said she hopes private contributions and future grants will become available to help offset costs for families interested in the ACCESS Program. (For more information, visit www.sss.msstate.edu/access.)
For more information about Mississippi State University, visit www.msstate.edu.