By Julie Pollard
Over the loudspeaker the bulletin announcer read, “If you’re interested in volunteering at Camp Easter Seal come to the counseling center and pick up an application.” I was intrigued.
It was 1985; I was 14 and ready for a little freedom. I picked up the application materials and learned the camp was for people with disabilities. I wasn’t sure who that meant exactly, but I filled out the application anyway with visions of a week with no parents and the chance to meet boys – and got in.
I arrived to camp excited at my opportunity for freedom. The week began, and I fell in love. Not with a boy, but a mission.
The campers I met over the week were smart, funny, kind and talented. Where were these cool people at school? Why didn’t I have anyone with Down syndrome in any of my classes? Why did I never see anyone except elderly people who used wheelchairs?
I grew up in Centralia. In the 70s and 80s, Centralia was not a diverse community. I only knew a few people of color and nobody with an apparent disability.
These questions led to a quest. I left camp with two goals: find people with disabilities and come back as a staff member the following summer.
I began to look for opportunities to interact with people with disabilities in my community. I took American Sign Language at a community college at night, volunteered for Special Olympics and worked in special education classes around the district. I found people with disabilities in my community, but could not understand why they were segregated. I was meeting people with skills and valuable contributions yet everything I was learning was deficit based. It seemed to me that everyone was losing — people with disabilities didn’t have access to the same opportunities as everyone else and people with neither recognized the contributions they were missing nor expected any in the first place.
It became my mission to promote inclusion, access and high expectations for people with disabilities. I knew this path included college.
As the first person in my family to go to college, my experience was transformative. I developed skills, made relationships and figured out new ways to contribute to society.
Today I am fortunate to be able to continue my quest through my work with ACHIEVE at Highline College, the first inclusive higher education certificate program for students with intellectual disabilities in the state of Washington.
Julie Pollard is the associate director of ACHIEVE. She has a master’s degree in education – learning and technology from Western Governor’s University. When she is not at work, she enjoys spending time with her family and traveling.
By Jenni Sandler
When I started at Highline in 2001, I was charged with one singular mission by our then vice president for Academic Affairs: to expand Highline’s reach to include students with intellectual disabilities in campus programming and services.
Highline already had an employment program funded through King County focused on providing community-based services to this population, dating back to the late 1970s. The program’s focus had been to support individuals with disabilities to live and work in their communities alongside their peers, family and friends. It had little to no campus recognition or awareness for nearly 20 years.
Historically, students with intellectual disabilities were not actually going to college, anywhere, at least not in any substantial numbers. After getting the legal right to a free and appropriate public K–12 education in just 1974, students with disabilities began graduating at 18, or 21 if eligible for additional services.
After graduation, if they were lucky, they were able to enter the workforce but even then, wages and hours were low, and people were subjected to a life of underemployment, public assistance and poverty.
Fast forward to now: Because of innovative Highline leadership and a strong commitment to constantly redrawing the boundaries of who we should be serving and who should benefit, Highline has become a national higher education leader in serving college students with intellectual disabilities. And with high expectations and support, students are succeeding.
As open access institutions of higher education, community colleges are recognized as beacons of hope for making college accessible, closing the equity/opportunity/achievement gap, and guiding the country to global competitiveness and economic prosperity.
We believe the best community colleges see themselves as community-oriented, flexible, innovative and adaptable enough to achieve this mission while serving the diverse needs of their constituents. And to be truly responsive to the needs of their communities, they should be constantly redefining who gets included.
For all these reasons, community colleges truly are democracy’s colleges. This work truly feeds our souls. We feel so fortunate to work in a community college and blessed to be here at Highline.
Jenni Sandler is the director of Access Services and ACHIEVE at Highline College. She has a master’s degree in adult education from Seattle University. When she is not at work, you can find her on a soccer field somewhere cheering on one of her two children.