Students with developmental disabilities attend and graduate from UBC
Register for classes, get involved in clubs, make friends, study, write exams, find a part-time job, pursue a passion, and graduate—it’s the typical university experience.
And it’s now an experience accessible to students with developmental disabilties who attend UBC, thanks to a B.C. organization called Steps Forward.
“It’s the things you’d want for everyone at this stage: the chance to develop lifelong friendships and build a network, exposure to different fields and career paths, and awareness of what is available to you,” says Tamara Hurtado, executive director of Steps Forward.
Steps Forward works with universities and colleges so that people with developmental disabilities can experience university or college life.
This fall, the provincial government awarded Steps Forward $400,000 over two years so that 25 students with developmental disabilities could attend a postsecondary institution.
The organization currently works with both of UBC’s campuses, the University of Victoria, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, Simon Fraser University, and the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology.
“I’m so happy that more students will be able to take advantage of this program,” says UBC professor Diana French, who has had UBC students supported by Steps Forward attend her classes.
Students identify the courses that interest them and staff at Steps Forward work with UBC professors to customize the curriculum requirements and evaluations.
French is an associate professor of anthropology and head of Community, Culture, and Global Studies at UBC’s Okanagan campus. Steps Forward students have taken her first-year introduction to cultural anthropology class and her fourth-year applied anthropology class.
“When I find out there is a student who wants to take my course, they’re in,” she says. French is a big supporter of the program because she has seen its impact on the students.
“Students can be shy at first but participating in classes and events outside of the classroom really helps build self-confidence,” she says.
Steps Forward encourages students to get involved in campus activities, like sports or student-run clubs, and find a summer job. One of French’s students was very involved in the anthropology student society and attended an undergraduate research conference in Alberta.
“Steps Forward helps students find a passion for something and allows them to continue to pursue it,” says French.
According to Hurtado, one student who took a lot of earth science classes got a job in a mineral store preparing the kids’ area for activities. Another student loved music and got a job at a radio station’s music department.
A group of parents formed Steps Forward in 2001 after looking around the UK, US and Canada for examples of best practices supporting youth with developmental disabilities to transition to adulthood. The group modeled their organization after inclusive postsecondary initiatives in Alberta.
“In the 1950s, kids with developmental disabilities were separated from other children in elementary and high school. In the 1970s and 1980s, things changed and they began to be included in the classroom. We wanted their postsecondary education to reflect the inclusive learning environment that our kids had experienced from K-12,” says Hurtado.
“This full experience does more for building self-esteem, the ability to self-manage, and develop the soft skills needed for employment than any segregated program,” notes Janet Mee, director of UBC Access and Diversity.
Mee says the program is also important because it exposes students and professors to the capabilities of young adults with developmental disabilities.
Since Steps Forward was formed, four students have graduated from UBC’s Vancouver campus and one student has graduated from the Okanagan campus.