Pilot Program Opens the Door for Students with Intellectual Disabilities To Earn an Arts Certificate

The Including All Citizens Project enrols graduates of KPU’s Access Program in 10 Arts classes over five years

(From left) Colton Turner, Fiona Whittington-Walsh, and Katie Miller of the Including All Citizens Project pilot program. (Ashley Hyshka)

The Including All Citizens Project—brainchild of Kwantlen Polytechnic University Sociology Chair Fiona Whittington-Walsh and Teresa Swan of KPU’s Access Program—is an attempt to tear down some of the walls faced by students with intellectual disabilities.

The pilot program, which Whittington-Walsh and Swan started early last year, enrols five students with intellectual disabilities who have graduated from the Access Program into one Arts course every fall and spring semester. This includes five sociology courses with Whittington-Walsh and five additional courses with instructors in the sociology, journalism, English, creative writing, and Indigenous departments

Once all five students have completed their 10 courses, they will have earned an Arts certificate from KPU.

“It’s one of the first for-credit projects in North America, so we’re opening the doors to education to allow non-traditional learners into the classroom,” says Whittington-Walsh. “It’s not adapting curriculum. It’s transforming teaching so that we can reach a wide range of learners.”

A common barrier for students with intellectual disabilities is that they’re unable to attend university because they don’t meet the academic requirements. Most other post-secondary institutions attempt to include them by amending their curriculums and offering not-for-credit courses to students with intellectual disabilities. Students in KPU’s pilot program, however, are exposed to the same curriculum, assignments, and learning opportunities as their peers outside of the Including All Citizens Project.

“The whole philosophy of this pilot is that they aren’t any different from any other student,” says Whittington-Walsh.

She adds that the Arts instructors she’s approached about getting involved in the program are interested in becoming mentors and friends to these students.

“It is wonderful to have that relationship, and yet in academia, it … has been looked down upon that you can’t have a relationship with your students,” says Whittington-Walsh. “This project is really challenging that, because relationship-building is certainly a really important, viable learning outcome, and yet we don’t have that as part of our course outcomes.”

The Vancouver Foundation donated $117,875 that will be spent over a three-year period to support the Including All Citizens Project. Whittington-Walsh explains that this money will allow Swan and her to “focus more on the research part of the pilot project,” such as developing a teacher’s guide that will help other instructors accommodate students with intellectual disabilities.

The students currently enrolled in the program are slated to receive their Arts certificates in December 2020. Whittington-Walsh hopes that the project will be officially launched sometime before then.

“Everybody belongs in university. Everybody that wants to go belongs here,” she says.

For Colton Turner, Christian Burton, and Katie Miller, the Including All Citizens Project has opened the door to a new world of opportunities.

Turner praises the flexibility of the program, which allows him to balance both school and a part-time job.

“It’s a fun experience, and I mean, I’m happy that I’ve had this opportunity to have access to Kwantlen and be with Fiona and make new friends,” he says.

The students also speak highly of Whittington-Walsh’s teaching methods because she doesn’t alter assignments to cater to individual students. Rather, all students can choose to complete an assignment in a way that corresponds with their specific learning style.

Burton commends Whittington-Walsh’s ability to make all students feel welcome and calls her “extremely caring.”

In her previous academic environments, Miller says that she has felt excluded, bullied, and even singled out in class for having a disability. This caused her to feel ashamed of who she was, but now that she is in the program, she says that she feels like she doesn’t have a disability.

“I know I have one, but I feel more inclusive and able to be myself,” she says.

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