A new pilot program being offered by Red River College could soon transform the futures of people with intellectual disabilities who wish to obtain a post-secondary education.
Transforming Futures is a pilot program that will be offered through the college’s Exchange District campus beginning in September. A maximum of 20 students will be accepted into the first session of the program, which is open to anyone with an intellectual or developmental disability.
The program was officially announced by the province in early June to coincide with Manitoba Access Awareness Week. It is the first time the college is offering a program designed specifically for people with intellectual disabilities.
Program Manager Gail Mireau says Red River began investigating the idea about a year ago after being approached by a parents group interested in creating post-secondary opportunities for learners with intellectual disabilities. Subsequent research by school officials indicated there was strong interest by both the college and the community to pursue the idea, she says.
Program coordinator Dierdre Shore says Red River studied other similar programs offered in other provinces to determine what would work best here in Manitoba. Shore says the college chose to adopt a hybrid model that will include both separate classrooms sessions as well as integrated learning with other students during the first year of studies.
During the first stage of their studies, students with intellectual disabilities will participate in essential skills training, college readiness preparations and career exploration in addition to regular classroom sessions. They will receive a certificate of participation at the end of the September-to-June session.
From there, students will be able to choose to attend a full-time program as part of their second stage of studies and will continue to receive any specialized supports they may need.
Shore says the hybrid model was chosen because many of the students expected to take part in the program have not been part of a college environment before and it was felt this type of approach will help make for an easier transition.
Once students complete the first stage of the program, they will then be able to continue their studies in the college’s Culinary Arts or Administrative Assistant courses.
“One of the big reasons those programs were chosen as part of this project was their employment potential,” says Shore, adding employment is a key part of the program. “The skill set in those two programs is very transferable.”
Kellie Thai, an Employment Consultant for Epic Opportunities, says the Transforming Futures program will be a great opportunity for people the organization supports to increase their skills and find gainful employment in the community.
“I think it’s fantastic. There often aren’t enough educational opportunities the people we support can tap into,” she says. “In this day and age you need a formal education. Employers are looking for education and experience.”
Another key component of Transforming Futures is that the curriculum will be adapted to the individual needs of students but will not be significantly modified otherwise. That means that while an instructor or educational assistant could tailor a learning plan to better suit a visual learner, they will be provided with all the same information as other students.
Mireau says one of the most exciting aspects of the program is that it will be a learning experience for other students and staff at the college.
“It’s a huge cultural shift for the culture of the college. We’ve not had a huge population of students with intellectual disabilities before,” she says. “We have been working with staff and students all over the college to make it a welcoming place.”
The deadline for registration for the program’s first class was July 15 and college officials were optimistic all 20 spots would be filled.
“The interest has been great. There’s been a lot of inquiries from a lot of different areas and organizations,” Shore says.
“The biggest thing is people are so glad something like this is finally available, whether it’s parents, students or resource teachers. They’re so happy there’s another option.”
Transforming Futures is a private/public partnership, Mireau says. Industry leaders have provided their business expertise while a private fundraising campaign was critical to getting the program off the ground and providing bursaries for participants.
Shore says a “robust” evaluation will be conducted once the first stream of students has moved through the program. That information will then be used to determine whether the program will continue and whether it may be expanded to include more options for students.