Pensacola State College and Arc Gateway are beginning PALS – Program for Adult Learning and Support – a two-year post-secondary program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
About 40 students will make up the inaugural PALS class, including Cameron Northup, who was born with Down syndrome.
“I do not want to go into detail about my disability,” said Northup. “I want to talk about my abilities.”
PALS’ mission is to prepare students for the workforce, increase their independence, and turn them into lifelong learners. Melissa Rogers, Arc Gateway’s CEO, says the program consists of four semesters, plus summer practicums.
“Students take courses in career exploration, vocational training, independent living skills and workplace-readiness academics, along with one regular college course per semester,” said Rogers.
The practicums are twelve weeks, with the goal to expand students’ experiences and help them identify a career path. Rogers says the program also uses structured coursework to teach independent living skills:
- Money and basic financial
- Problem-solving, cooking and food shopping
- Community awareness
- Computer and Internet skills
- Safety, personal health and exploring recreational opportunities
Pensacola State President Ed Meadows says a program such as PALS broadens the school’s access to a population that they’ve not been able to serve until now. PALS is funded by a $2 million state appropriation in recurring annual funds, which was initiated by Niceville State Sen. Don Gaetz.
“Which means, they’re in the budget year after year after year,” said Gaetz. “Unless, God forbid, the governor were to propose to strip these funds out, and the Legislature were to agree. But as long as I’m the Senator from northwest Florida, these monies will be in the budget.”
Gaetz’ wife Vicky is a paraplegic, and he says they have both grown accustomed to well-meant remarks questioning her abilities from her wheelchair.
“Vicky and I have sort of gotten to the point where we just wryly smile at each other,” Gaetz said. “And frankly, my wife and many of you and these students who are here today stand as living testaments to not what the limits are, what people can’t do, but to what they can do.”
New studies published in the Journal of Intellectual Disabilities suggest that people with such disabilities who attend post-secondary educational programs, are finding greater success in the job market than those who stop their formal education at K-12.