Yes They Can: Opening a University's Doors to People With Cognitive Disabilities

Can people with intellectual disabilities succeed at university studies? A professor at Bar-Ilan University believes they can, and has developed a program that she hopes will prove it.

Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
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Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem

There's something odd about this class at the Bar-Ilan University School of Education: When the lecturer announces to the students in Introduction to Sociology that there will be a test the next time they meet, every single one of them looks overjoyed and expresses delight. For a few moments, the pale-marble face of Shimrit Kroitero of Tel Aviv lights up with joy. Then she buries her face in her hands, as though the excitement is too much to bear. For Kroitero and her classmates - nearly all of them people with Down syndrome - university studies had always been thought to be out of the question. That did not mean that she didn't want to learn and develop herself, but it seems that no one even thought to ask her about it.

At an institution where learning is based on various skills involving reading comprehension, probing and questioning, memory and memorization, it might seem that people with intellectual disability (ID ) have no place. However, Bar-Ilan's School of Education has developed a program that gives such people the opportunity to experience academic studies by means of what is called mediated learning. In this framework, learning materials are simplified and adjusted to the students' level, with the aim of enabling at least some of them to enroll in bachelor's degree studies the next academic year.

Bar-Ilan is the first university in Israel to make a real effort to integrate people with cognitive impairments into the institution. Elsewhere in the world, it has been attempted only at the University of Ontario in Canada, where about 100 such students are now working on a B.A. This constitutes a breakthrough in the perception of individuals with disabilities by both researchers in the field and society at large.

The new Bar-Ilan program, called Otzmot (Strengths ), is directed by Prof. Hefziba Lifshitz-Vahav, head of the master's degree program in special education for professionals who will work with people with intellectual disabilities, which she developed. Among the requirements in that program, students serve as lecturers for students with ID (i.e., with an IQ of under 70, according to the traditional definition ).

In our society, individuals with intellectual disabilities, adults in particular, are kept out of sight in day centers or special vocational centers intended for them alone. Integration into the Bar-Ilan campus has the effect of making them visible. The new project aims to change the attitudes of the university as an institution, via the lecturers and students with ID who work with them in the library, the encounters with the students in the cafeteria and, in the future, in the classrooms.

If the new endeavor is successful, Prof. Lifshitz-Vahav hopes it will foment a revolution in how society perceives people with intellectual disabilities, which could have implications for the state's investment in the future of adults with ID.

'Social rejection'

Under the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, signatory states "recognize the right of persons with disabilities to education. With a view to realizing this right without discrimination and on the basis of equal opportunity, parties shall ensure an inclusive education system at all levels and life-long learning," directed at enabling "development by persons with disabilities of their personality, talents and creativity, as well as their mental and physical abilities, to their fullest potential."

Although Israel is a signatory to that convention, the development of intellectual abilities among the population in question here has been somewhat neglected in the special education system. At the age of 21, after completing high school (usually in a special-ed track ), such people are directed to vocational centers where future aims include simple jobs in cleaning, washing dishes, warehouses and the like. This approach derives from the perception that cognitive ability - particularly memory - among adults with ID, degenerates earlier than in the general population, and so there is no reason to invest in bettering their intellectual capacities.

Lifshitz-Vahav, however, argues that these views "are an expression of social rejection and prejudice." According to a theory she has developed, which she calls "compensation age theory," at a more mature age adults with Down syndrome or ID are no less successful in terms of cognitive abilities. This is contrary to the assumptions of researchers like Jean Piaget, who held that early childhood is the best time for learning.

Lifshitz-Vahav based her work on Prof. Reuven Feuerstein's method of working with children. "All the studies and projects using mediated learning have shown that people with cognitive disabilities are able to change and progress beyond our expectations, beyond chronological age," she says. "Because of maturity, experience, exposure to more stimuli, a mature age enables understanding of tasks that were previously absent from their behavioral repertoire. That is, developmental delay is compensated for in later years. By means of mediation and correct teaching, people who have Down syndrome, for example, are capable of achieving a level of thinking that could be called abstract."

Another aim of learning at a mature age, says Lifshitz-Vahav, is to delay the decline in cognitive ability. Relying on research showing that cognitive activity can delay such decline as people age, she believes academic learning will help people with ID develop compensatory mechanisms that will maintain the abilities they already have.

Increased life expectancy has not bypassed those with Down syndrome, she notes, and "this raises the question of how to help them ensure a successful old age and prevent decline." Lifshitz-Vahav believes the university courses are "one means for them to work on themselves, advance, acquire new knowledge and not lose what they already have."

Currently, as part of the new program at Bar-Ilan, there are two classes for people with ID who have been diagnosed as having a mild level of ID. A total of 26 students attend these classes once a week, for four hours. The curriculum includes selected topics in sociology and psychology, geography and self-advocacy. Among other things, materials come from Open University curricula, with the language adapted for these students. Next year, those found suitable will be integrated into two regular bachelor's degree courses in the special-ed department at Bar-Ilan as auditors who can take exams. They will be assigned tutors who will accompany them in class.

"In this way, we will closely observe their ability and their ability to cope, how many repetitions are needed and the extent to which the studies have to be made concrete with respect to language and presentation," says Lifshitz-Vahav.

Recently, two of her master's degree students taught the material developed for the class in sociology. At the end of the lesson there was a review, during which the students with disabilities talked about behavioral norms, among other things. Some of them gave answers that were succinct and to the point.

"It's important for me to study here," said Kroitero at the end of the lesson. "Not to goof off, to learn. I am studying, I am doing homework, I am doing computer presentations about what there is in this country, in other countries, social skills, the planet earth and volcanoes."

When asked what she finds most interesting, she ponders for a while before she replies: "It's all interesting."

Her classmates Odelia Yona Gabai from Mevasseret Zion and Oded Naftali from Rishon Lezion nod in agreement.

"For me, this is a new world, the world of science," says Gabai, who works in an accountant's office. "I never in my life got to university, I never in my life knew what it means to be a student. I said to myself, 'Me? What does university have to do with me?' When I came, I said: Wow! People see me as someone different, someone who understands things. Give me a pencil and an eraser and I will sit for hours. My mind is open."

Despite her enthusiasm for university studies, Gabai is not certain that being mainstreamed into regular classes is suitable for children with Down syndrome. She herself attended a special-ed school. A debate on the subject develops between her and her classmates. Kroitero also supports special education, but Naftali disagrees.

"My mother and father," he says, "fought tooth and nail for me to attend a regular school. When you are mainstreamed, people treat you like an equal among equals and in that way you can integrate into regular society."

Developing awareness

In the 1990s, there was enthusiasm in Israel for the idea of mainstreaming, which was "imported" from the United States. The trend gained momentum thanks to the activity of the advocacy organization Yated (a Hebrew acronym for "children with Down syndrome" ), which is headed by Ada Oz, and debates on the issue in the Knesset. But starting in 2000, studies were published indicating that mainstreamed children feel isolated, and that education in separate frameworks is likely to strengthen them. Indeed, one might ask of those in the Bar-Ilan program: How do you feel in the library and the cafeteria? Among regular students, don't you feel the weight of your disability?

These questions seem more acute in light of the contents of the courses they take, some of which deal specifically with cognitive disabilities. In their self-advocacy course, for example, there is a unit on theoretical approaches to society's attitude toward the exceptional individual. "The course will provide information about the disability and also strategies for the individual with an intellectual disability to cope and become stronger," states a page distributed to the students. "In the course, learners will experience dealing with their difficulties and other people's difficulties. The students will be exposed to concepts like rights and obligations and they will learn to use models of self-advocacy."

So this isn't just a theoretical course, it seems, but rather one which aims to develop awareness. According to the coordinator of the new program at Bar-Ilan, Shoshana Nissim, a Ph.D student and former principal of a special-ed school: "They learn about their right to choose and they learn to articulate what suits them, from personal relationships through where to live and where to work, or different concepts like motivation and self-direction, which influence ability." At the same time, the students also learn about society's attitude toward its weaker sectors.

Asked if this might upset them, Lifshitz-Vahav says that in any case they are aware of their disability and people have "always talked to them about the perception of their disability, even in the schools." According to her, the studies in fact instill hope. "We are learning that the definition of cognitive disability according to IQ level is out of date. This has tremendous implications for the systemic policy in various countries, with respect to establishing educational programs for people with disabilities," she explains.

The students in the program "are diagnosed as having a mild degree of mental retardation and they achieve things beyond their IQ. Therefore, their IQ doesn't interest me, but rather their ability after they have received academic enrichment. All the studies of people with Down syndrome have found that their memory is impaired, but in fact on the ground we see they remember texts from the curriculum.

Today I wonder if there are gifted persons among those with disabilities," muses Lifshitz-Vahav. "For years they have been working as cleaners. Job offerings for them are very few. I want to prove that they can develop through studies. The sky is the limit, and this is just the start."

Students in the new program during one of their classes. A breakthrough in perception.Credit: Moti Milrod