DENTON (UNT), Texas — The University of North Texas is expanding its offerings for young adults with intellectual disabilities with a new, four-year inclusive postsecondary education program debuting in Fall 2021.
The state of Texas has the second-highest population of individuals with disabilities in the U.S. North Texas K-12 public and charter schools serve nearly 23% of the state’s students with a primary diagnosis of ID, yet there is no current postsecondary program in the region to serve these students once they age out of the public-school system.
UNT ELEVAR, which stands for Empower, Learn, Excel, enVision, Advance and Rise, will give young adults with intellectual disabilities the educational training to pursue a meaningful career and skills to lead an independent life. It will also create a transition pathway by partnering with local districts to mentor and support high school students with ID. Seed funding for the program comes from a nearly $2 million U.S. Department of Education grant.
As only the second inclusive postsecondary education program for adults with intellectual disabilities in Texas and the first in North Texas, UNT ELEVAR will give students the option to live on campus where they can socialize with peers without disabilities, audit UNT classes across disciplines, and participate in courses on financial literacy, career development and more. Integrated paid or unpaid work experiences while on campus can lead to gainful employment for these students and advising will help them build a pathway to a career in their chosen fields.
While the first cohort of students won’t start until Fall 2021, UNT ELEVAR will begin mentoring high school students with ID and host monthly professional development sessions for special education teachers this school year. Local district partners include Decatur, Denton, Fort Worth and Irving ISDs.
UNT ELEVAR will unite expertise across campus including that of faculty members Brenda Barrio, Melissa Savage and Jean Keller in the College of Education and Chandra Carey, Brandi Levingston and Elias Mpofu in the College of Health and Public Service, as well as Lucy Gafford, director of the UNT Workplace Inclusion & Sustainable Employment department or UNT WISE.
Barrio, an associate professor of special education and project lead for UNT ELEVAR, started a similar program for people with ID when she was at Washington State University.
“We saw life-changing impact not only for the students with intellectual disabilities, but also a ripple effect of increased inclusivity in the broader campus community. UNT ELEVAR will have a focus on equity and diversity, and we will especially be recruiting students of color with intellectual disabilities, a population that has largely been underserved in these types of programs,” said Barrio, a UNT alumna.
UNT ELEVAR is part of the new Center for Racial and Ethnic Equity in Health and Society or CREEHS, an interdisciplinary effort at UNT to increase the quality of life for all Texans by narrowing longstanding racial and ethnic gaps in healthcare.
Carey, who is CREEHS co-director, said UNT ELEVAR will offer a much-needed experience for young adults with intellectual disabilities in Texas and surrounding states.
“Historically, students with intellectual and developmental disabilities have been excluded from postsecondary education and that exclusion has negatively impacted their ability to find meaningful employment and to develop work-life skills and relationships similar to their peers, which magnifies existing disparities for this population. UNT ELEVAR will help fill a critically needed educational experience and further develop opportunities for this population,” said Carey, a rehabilitation counselor and associate dean for academics in the College of Health and Public Service.