My junior high school teacher once told me to reach for the stars in life and said I could accomplish anything I put my mind to. Now, I really do believe this!” — Courtney Vinson’s story from Think College, a project of the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston


This excerpt from Courtney Vinson’s story describes her pathway to college and the workplace despite being diagnosed with an intellectual disability (ID) and told by educators that she had limited future options.

According to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD), ID is characterized by significant impairment of intellectual functioning (IQ of 70-75 or lower) and significant impairment of adaptive behavior, with onset occurring before age 18. During Courtney’s senior year in high school, she applied and was accepted to the Pathway program at UCLA. Pathway is a two-year certificate program for students with intellectual and other developmental disabilities that offers a combination of educational, job-related and social experiences.

Pathway is just one of more than 250 college campus-based programs that are offered to students with ID. Some of these programs feature inclusive postsecondary educational options, meaning that students with ID are integrated into mainstream college classes and campus activities rather than being separated from the campus community. Courtney is now employed full time at a resort hotel and feeling proud of her achievements.

The prevalence of ID has burgeoned due to the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder having increased by almost 300 percent during the past decade. Given the high incidence rate, school counselors need to be in position to assist students with ID in making successful postsecondary transitions. While many educators may have focused on these students’ disabilities, school counselors can recognize their strengths and encourage positive pursuit of postsecondary options.

Federal legislation, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and No Child Left Behind, mandates educators to present students with disabilities with appropriate postsecondary transition opportunities, including “further education, employment and independent living” (IDEA). However, according to findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2, conducted by SRI International (formally Stanford Research Institute), students with ID are less likely to graduate high school and achieve competitive employment than their peers without a disability.

In an attempt to close these gaps, educational institutions have increased postsecondary educational options for individuals with ID, including offering greater access to higher education through concurrent enrollment between high schools and universities. Such programs provide students with ID the opportunity to attend college and enroll in college classes, participate in college-based activities (for example, clubs, intramural sports and extracurricular activities) and, in some cases, reside on campus. Additionally, in 2008, Congress passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act with the goal of increasing accessibility to higher education for students with ID. This federal legislation has resulted in the development and implementation of inclusive college education options nationwide. The goal of these postsecondary education programs is to prepare these students for gainful employment and enhance their independent living skills.

The school counselor’s role

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of students with disabilities receiving federally funded special education services in public schools has increased from 8.3 percent to 13.1 percent during the past three decades. More than 463,000 children with ID are now receiving such services. Given the burgeoning population of students with disabilities and federal legislation that mandates improved higher education accessibility for these students, school counselors will increasingly be called on to share their expertise in college and career preparation and to assist in developing appropriate transition plans for students with ID.

The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) position statement on students with disabilities says that the professional school counselor’s role includes “providing assistance with developing academic and transition plans for students in the IEP,” or individualized education program. Staying aligned with the ASCA National Model, school counselors can support students with ID in achieving postsecondary educational and vocational goals in a variety of ways, including through individual and small group counseling, consultation to teachers and parents, and advocacy for children with ID.

Cognitive behavioral interventions can be used to help students with ID modify their thinking, feeling and behavior. Specifically, these interventions can be applied to help these students reduce their anxiety and increase positive characteristics that contribute to success, including development of an internal locus of control. When engaging in individual and group counseling, school counselors can use cognitive behavioral interventions to help students with ID recognize their strengths and rephrase negative thinking into positive thinking and subsequent positive self-talk. In small groups, students can help each other recognize strengths and reinforce rephrasing of negative thinking into positive thinking and self-talk. School counselors can serve as group facilitators by praising rational and positive self-talk when it is displayed, while providing a safe and calm environment for these students to share their concerns and feelings about postsecondary transition. For example, school counselors can help students with ID to identify negative feelings or self-talk (for example, “I don’t think I can succeed in college”) and turn it into positive feelings or self-talk (“I know I can succeed in college because I have sought help when I’ve needed it in high school”). In addition, school counselors can provide these students with tangible steps for reframing negative comments (for example, “Identify one way you have been successful in school in the past”).

School counselors can provide consultation to teachers and parents concerning the current needs of students with ID. This might include offering guidance on how to identify those needs (understanding the defining characteristics present in children with ID), and preparing and sharing material that identifies learning strategies that are helpful for students with ID. It might also include facilitating and delivering workshops with guest speakers who can share strategies to help support adolescents with ID with their postsecondary educational and vocational goals.

As students with ID are preparing to graduate from high school, school counselors can also emphasize to teachers the importance of providing these students with emotional encouragement and strength-based feedback that communicates a belief in their ability to succeed. The more information school counselors can share with teachers and parents, the higher the likelihood that students with ID will be properly prepared to face the challenges of the final year of high school, make appropriate postsecondary plans and feel supported throughout the transition.

Counselors can also promote awareness of the unique needs of this population by advocating on their behalf with current teachers, university admissions committees and future employers. When writing letters of recommendation, counselors can highlight the strategies these students have used to succeed academically — strategies that will further benefit them as they pursue their postsecondary educational goals.

Postsecondary educational options

A variety of postsecondary educational opportunities are available for students with ID. School counselors can collaborate with special educators, parents and school psychologists to ascertain students’ needs and ensure an appropriate fit when exploring postsecondary options. Options range from separate programs held on college campus grounds wherein students with ID take courses separately from their mainstream peers, to inclusive programs that permit students with ID to enroll in or audit regular college classes, participate in college activities/clubs and intramural sports and, in some cases, reside on campus. For students residing nearby a higher education institution that supports students with ID, opportunities may also exist for concurrent high school and college enrollment. Currently, eight higher education institutions across Massachusetts have formed partnerships with roughly 40 high schools in which students with ID are offered the opportunity to attend college while completing their high school education. Through these partnerships, students acquire a deeper understanding of interest areas related to their career goals, develop self-sufficiency in negotiating the complexities of the university and broaden their social contacts and use of free time.

For example, the Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment (ICE) Partnership Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMB) aims to improve opportunities for postsecondary education for students with ID. This initiative involves inclusive concurrent enrollment for high school students ages 18-22 who are receiving special education in high school. Educational coaches from the high school facilitate the transition to the postsecondary setting. The students with ID are enrolled in college courses, which they either audit or take for credit. Their career development is fostered through job shadowing, paid and unpaid internships, and integrated competitive employment.

UMB staff collaborated with educational coaches from Boston Public Schools (BPS) to implement this program through a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. During the fall 2012 semester, seven BPS students participated by auditing classes based on their interests — for example, creative writing, art history, sociology and so on. Five of these students completed the courses. During the spring 2013 semester, seven additional students from a nearby city enrolled in courses of their choosing. Additionally, a mentoring program pairing students in the ICE program with matriculated undergraduate students was initiated during that semester. Moreover, in an attempt to ensure best practices, a professional development workshop concerning universal design for learning was conducted for UMB faculty with the assistance of UMB’s Institute for Community Inclusion. In addition, an interagency advisory council was formed to provide guidance and feedback.

Initial results suggested that these students learned to advocate for themselves by arranging course accommodations through the UMB disabilities services center. The students also engaged in activities outside of the classroom (for example, pool, gym and track), and three of the students used their identification cards to visit the library housed on UMB’s campus. All of these students had the same access to the academic and social support services as UMB’s general student population. Postsecondary education for students with ID serves as a transition to adult roles and responsibilities.


As is evident from Courtney’s story of postsecondary success and entrance into the workforce, we cannot afford to marginalize any person. Everyone needs to contribute, and school counselors can share their expertise when supporting students with ID in exploring postsecondary options.

Some educators may think that students with ID are being set up to fail if they are encouraged to pursue postsecondary education — particularly inclusive postsecondary options. School counselors, on the other hand, are in position to recognize and celebrate these students’ interests and motivation to obtain postsecondary education just like their peers without disabilities. School counselors understand developmental changes and appreciate that students with ID pass through the same adolescent-to-adulthood transitions as students without disabilities. Consequently, these students need the same stimulation and support.

Through effective postsecondary opportunities, students with ID gain soft skills such as self-advocacy, self-confidence and self-determination that are critical for future employment. Postsecondary options, and particularly inclusive postsecondary educational programs, have resulted in improved outcomes such as better employment opportunities for individuals with ID. School counselors can play an important role in preparing students with ID to be independent adults and ready for college. The role of school counselors needs to be broadened beyond serving just the general student population to one that is inclusive and fulfills the needs of students with ID throughout the postsecondary transition planning process. For more information, refer to the AAIDD website at and the Think College website at




Amy L. Cook is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology, College of Education and Human Development, at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Contact her at


Laura A. Hayden is an assistant professor and school counseling program director in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology, College of Education and Human Development, at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Contact her at


Felicia L. Wilczenski is a professor and interim dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Contact her at


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