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KNOXVILLE — College students with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities and autism will soon have the chance to attend the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

The new two-year vocational certificate program, set to begin in fall 2011, is being funded by a $321,683 grant from the Transition Program for Students with Intellectual Disabilities, part of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education. UT was one of 27 entities in 23 states to share $10.9 million in funding for these efforts. The grant is expected be renewed for four more years, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Education.

The UT program is being developed by Liz Fussell at Connections for Disability and Employment; David Cihak, associate professor of special education; and Melinda Gibbons, assistant professor of counselor education. The program will work in coordination with the Korn Learning, Assessment and Social Skills (KLASS) Center and the Boling Center for Developmental Disabilities, University Center for Excellence on Developmental Disabilities; Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities; Tennessee’s Statewide Task Force for Postsecondary Education; the Division of Special Education; and the Division of Rehabilitation Services.

“I couldn’t be more proud of our faculty and staff who successfully won the grant that will make this program possible,” said Bob Rider, dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences. “Providing post-secondary educational opportunities to students with intellectual disabilities helps to fulfill the mission of our college and the land grant mission of the University of Tennessee. There is no more important work to be done than helping students with special needs improve their life and job opportunities, and this will happen as a result of this program.”

Cihak said UT plans to enroll eight students the first year with plans to increase the class size by four each year, with the goal of serving 80 students during the five years funded by the grant.

Students will take a mixture of non-graded, traditional college courses and independent study courses focusing on career development, independent living, self-advocacy, problem-solving, communication, and interpersonal social skills, as well as participating in a competitive work-based internship.

Students will be encouraged to participate in campus activities. Although they’ll commute initially, in time students may be able to live on campus.

The goals are to help the students develop a social network, learn to live independently and become gainfully employed.

“Historically, these opportunities have never been available for these students,” Cihak said. “We’re trying to replicate what the university is already doing — but for a population that never had an opportunity to participate in college life before.”

The program also will provide both outreach and research opportunities for UT.

Students with intellectual disabilities and autism are able to attend public school through the end of the school year in which they turn 22 years old. However, under the New Tennessee High School Diploma Project, enacted in 2009, these students will not receive a regular high school diploma unless they earn 22 credits and pass end-of-course exams. Without the required academic credits, students may earn a transition certificate or an IEP certificate (formerly the Special Education Diploma).

Some go on to a state-run adult rehabilitation services program, although these programs often have waiting lists and are required to serve those with the most significant disabilities first, Cihak said. Consequently, many students are unable to find work and simply continue to live at home, dependent upon aging parents.

Nationwide, there are about 200 programs like the one UT is launching, Cihak said. The only other program in Tennessee is Next Step at Vanderbilt University, which began in January 2010.

The 2009 Annual Statistical Report for the number of children with disabilities receiving special educational services in Tennessee schools includes 23,260 students with intellectual disabilities and 5,754 students with autism.

Knox County Schools serve 791 students with intellectual disabilities and 604 students with autism, according to state records.

In 2009, statewide, 1,757 students with disabilities in Tennessee schools received an IEP Certificate and 191 students received certificates of attendance rather than a regular high school diploma. That same year, 100 special education diplomas and six certificates of attendance were earned by Knox County students, according to state records.

To be eligible for UT’s program, students with intellectual disabilities or autism must be capable of participating in class, have skills to adapt to new situations, be able to attend class alone and have transportation to campus.

The classes are expected to be housed in the Claxton Education Building on the UT Knoxville campus. The program will be run by faculty, graduate assistants, doctoral students in special education and counseling and staff members, including someone who helps cultivate potential employment for students.

Students will pay tuition, although some financial aid options may be available.

For more information, about the program, contact Cihak at or Fussell at

C O N T A C T :

Amy Blakely, (865-974-5034,