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College of DuPage offers opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities

GLEN ELLYN — Glen Ellyn resident Kevin Lee attends an individualized reading course at the College of DuPage once a week.

After his class ends, he spends time around campus, usually hanging out in the cafeteria, bookstore or library, chatting with people he's met during the 30 or so years he's taken classes at the college.

"I like to hang out at COD and see my friends," said Lee, 52, who's a familiar face for staff and students alike, even serving as the subject of a 2007 article in the college's student newspaper.

Lee, who has Down syndrome, is just one of many students with developmental disabilities who attend the College of DuPage (COD) in Glen Ellyn. And the reading course he takes through the Center for Independent Learning is just one of the options students with disabilities have on campus to learn.

The college offers two programs specifically for students with developmental disabilities called the Reach Out and Vocational Skills programs. Students are also welcome to take other courses at the college, such as the one-on-one reading course Lee takes through the Center for Independent Learning and the fitness labs he has taken in the past.

Many students in Reach Out or Vocational Skills courses are part of programs run by local school districts for 18- to 21-year-old students with developmental disabilities, designed to help transition them from high school to the adult world. The courses are offered to those who have aged out of the school system as well.

School districts are required by law to educate youth with disabilities from their third birthday until their 22nd. For those 22 and older who live in Illinois, disability services and funding are very limited.

 "... some of the most critical services (residential and vocational programs, accessible housing, and affordable transportation) are in very short supply in DuPage County," reads the DuPage County Transition Planning Committee's Resource Guide, available on Wheaton Warrenville District 200's website.

The programs offered by COD can help to fill some of this service gap.

"The mission of a community college is to serve everyone in a community, not just the traditional academic university or vocational student, but everyone," said Michael Duggan, COD counselor for students with disabilities and organizer of the Reach Out Program. "I think these programs make us more inclusive in addressing those needs."

The Reach Out Program is new to COD this year and includes four six-week courses on self-advocacy, independent living, time management and communication.

The Vocational Skills Program has existed in its current form at COD since 2005, said Sally Field Mullan, program coordinator. Courses aim to be as hands-on as possible, teaching employment, keyboard, computer, general office, automotive, food service, hospitality and horticulture skills.

About 100 students currently take vocational skills classes, while about 25 are part of the Reach Out Program.

Outside of either program, the college began offering a new class this semester, designed specifically for students with autism to address their unique communication needs, Duggan said. Fifteen students currently take the class.

With regard to funding, students who are part of a district transitional program may have some or all expenses associated with their COD courses paid for by the district, but older students must pay the course fees themselves since they are no longer eligible for district support.

Ultimately, Mullan said she'd like the programs to be avenues for adults in the community who are not part of a day program or other activities to have fun, learn and gain supportive employment.

Lee's mother, Marjorie Sullivan Lee, said she's noticed improvements in her son's reading skills, especially in the last year, thanks to the classes he's taken at COD.

Sullivan Lee is a long-time advocate for inclusion for people with disabilities. Last year, she released a book titled "Bloom Where You Are Planted," which describes her five decades of experience as an advocate and mother.

Some of her past advocacy includes meeting with a former COD president to discuss ways the college could address the needs of people with disabilities in the area, including her son.

Sullivan Lee's early persistence led to the programs that are available today, although she wasn't personally involved in the development of these programs over the years.

COD has played an important role in her son's life, as well as the lives of others with developmental disabilities, giving them the opportunity to register for courses that meet their unique needs, Sullivan Lee said.

"The biggest thing I see at the College of DuPage is that everybody should have the opportunity to register for whatever it is they're capable of enjoying over there and in which they will gain some knowledge and some skill and improve their quality of life," she said.

Understanding the transition — Glenbard District 87 resource guide Prioritization for Urgency of Need for Services (PUNS) information
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