When you’re born into a “big Cougar family,” as Evan Henniger was, there’s a certain expectation that you’ll apply to Washington State University.
This expectation wasn’t a problem for Henniger, the second youngest of six. He wanted to attend the Pullman-based university “so badly,” his mom Lisa Henniger said. But for Evan, who is 21 and has Down syndrome, the path to WSU wasn’t clear.
“There really wasn’t a program, a place for him there,” Lisa said. “Until he was a junior in high school and we caught wind of this program that was under consideration.”
The program — called WSU ROAR — is now in its second year. Evan Henniger, the 26th in his family to attend WSU, is one of nine students with intellectual and other developmental disabilities who are enrolled in ROAR. The program lets students ages 18 to 29 audit university courses, work in internships and live independently on campus. ROAR students also take specialized classes devoted to life skills, such as how to stay healthy and manage a personal budget.
ROAR is one of just a handful of higher-education programs across Washington that bridge the learning gap between high school and adulthood for people with developmental and intellectual delays.
Children with disabilities or learning differences, such as autism or Down syndrome, usually go to elementary and secondary school alongside their neurotypical peers; federal law provides for special-education services until they turn 22. But few higher-education opportunities exist for this population, who may need extra support to live independently. About 271 programs exist nationwide, according to Think College, a national organization dedicated to higher education for people with intellectual disabilities. Of those up and running, most are concentrated east of the Mississippi.
This period of young adulthood is what’s commonly called the “service cliff”: Students with disabilities have a specific federal right to appropriate public schooling. After those special-education services end, people with intellectual or developmental disabilities are stuck navigating a fractured network of employment, school, housing and health programs on their own.
Government vocational agencies have traditionally served as a lifeline for this population. For instance, staff from Washington’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) assist with career planning, said Ann Martin, who oversees the DVR’s Seattle office. But according to state data, Martin said, her regional office serves roughly 100 people who age out of services each year, about half of those eligible for assistance. “That’s an ongoing challenge we continue to address,” through more outreach efforts, she said.
Unemployment estimates for this population vary, but recent American Community Survey findings suggest that only one third of Washingtonians with cognitive disabilities have a job. In 2018, state lawmakers considered a bill that would have eased the transition to adulthood. But the measure didn’t make it out of committee.
Colleges in Washington are helping fill the void.
Spokane Community College and Highline College, for example, have received federal grants to support specialized college programs for students with intellectual disabilities. Since the 1970s, Highline has offered life-skills training for this population. More recently, the college added a program called ACHIEVE, which pairs students with an adviser who helps them plan classes, find internships and participate in student groups. Roughly 50 students are enrolled in a given year. Some of them take classes for credit, said Julie Pollard, ACHIEVE program director. Data suggests the program is effective: about 65% to 85% of ACHIEVE graduates find paid work within six months of graduation, Pollard said.
It’s encouraging to see more programs such as ROAR pop up, she added. Skagit Valley College has a program, too, but there are too few options in some of the state’s major population hubs, Pollard said, such as Seattle.
“People are coming to ACHIEVE and taking four to five hours on the bus,” she said. “It’s important for our state to know that Washington state is behind in the number of programs we have available.”
ROAR is Washington’s first residential college program for people with intellectual disabilities. Don McMahon, an assistant professor of special education at WSU who helped found ROAR, modeled the program in part after one where he’d worked at the University of Tennessee.
Having on-campus housing was an important consideration, he said, and makes ROAR unique relative to the state’s other options. “You get to learn so many incidental things about learning to live independently,” he said.
Last year, about 50 families expressed interest in the program, and more than 20 students applied, said Thomas Falash, the program’s director. To be accepted, students need to be able to handle basic daily living tasks, such as laundry, taking medication and cooking. Within six years, he said, he hopes the program will grow to 30 students.
The program’s leaders were unsuccessful in securing a federal grant to support it, but have received donations, including about $40,000 from Evan Henniger’s parents. The Hennigers have supported the program in other ways, such as speaking at public events and fundraisers. Including fees and living expenses, ROAR costs about $26,000 a year. Six students have partial scholarships, Falash said.
Through his classes, which include subjects such as sports management and career planning, Evan has found his niche: He has an internship at the student recreational center, has assisted the women’s soccer team with equipment at home games and has a dream job in mind. “I want to get a job in Portland,” he said, as an assistant coach for the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team.
If Evan eventually moves there, he’ll be closer to his parents, who moved to a Portland suburb from Ferndale, north of Bellingham.
“The reason we actually moved here,” said Evan’s dad, Michael Henniger, “is there are some wonderful programs in Oregon. Particularly for Evan, once he gets out of WSU.”