Go to school to show adults with special needs the college experience they missed 2022-04-28 19:25:29


But there is a big difference between them.

Ten minutes after Angel’s birth in 1973, her mother was told she had Down syndrome and might not walk or speak. Doctors recommended placing Angel in an institution.

“My mom said, ‘Can I see my baby,’” said Borsai. “They brought a warm pink packet, and my mom looked in the doctor’s eyes and said, ‘Thanks but no thanks. I’m going to take my baby home.’”

Borsai said that she and Angel shared a wonderful childhood. They loved to sing, dance and tell jokes. It wasn’t until Pursai went to Purdue University that she realized how different their lives had become.

“Angel was assigned to drop out of school at the age of 22,” Borsay said. “I’d come home and visit her, and she’d be on the couch the whole time.”

Angel was too busy to make ends meet in the day-to-day programs in her rural community, and there were no other local schools or colleges she could attend as an adult with special needs.

“I felt a lot of guilt,” Borsay said. “Because I really believe in my heart that she is smarter than I am in most important respects.”

Bursai earned her undergraduate degrees in elementary and special education and earned a master’s degree in education policy analysis from the University of Illinois. She later became a special education teacher in an elementary school.

In 2008, she met Dr. Pam Lindsey, who has a daughter with autism. Together they spoke about the lack of education options for adults with intellectual disabilities, and in 2009, they co-founded the nonprofit organization College of Adaptive Arts in San Jose, California.

The School of Adaptive Arts provides an equitable group experience for life for adults with special needs who historically have not had access to higher education.

“At first, Dr. Pam and I were going through everything,” Borsai said. Then the adults asked, ‘Can we try separating the hair? What about disconnecting the computer? We went with her and listened to them.

The non-accredited school is designed like a typical college experience and offers 10 majors, including business, theater, music, dance, and health and wellness. Students can pursue an undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate diploma.

Lindsay created the program model for educating adults with special needs and helped bring to life the unique curriculum.

CNN Hero Diana Borsai

“Our focus is not on ‘how high is your kick’ or ‘how good is the sentence to read,’” Lindsey said. “Our focus is, are you continuing to practice these skill sets and build your developmental cognitive skill sets?”

So far, they have had approximately 350 students enrolled. And in 2020, they formed a partnership with West Valley College and are now based on their campus in Saratoga, California, giving this program a full college feel.

Bursai says that many parents and guardians have expressed relief that their children have found a safe place to learn, grow and make friends.

“It is the integrity that we treat their children like educated adults,” she said. “It’s a palpable joy. Every class has the same level of pure joy.”

Hope they can expand this program to every campus.

“There are adults everywhere who suffer from being neglected because the traditional college is not for them,” Borsay said. “But when you give them a safe space, it’s an incredible transformation.”

CNN’s Meg Dunn spoke with Pursai about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

CNN: What education options are available for adults with special needs?

Diana Bursai: Nationally, by law, they can access the K-12 education system for four years after high school, which is called post-secondary education. Therefore, they have access to education until the age of 22. And then in all 50 states, it disappears. Therefore, at this point, if a young individual does not have the skills with which they can reach an accredited associate degree, their educational opportunities often cease to exist.

The resources available to adults focus a lot on vocational training, employability skills, and independent living. These are essential skills for adults of different abilities. We are adding an element of intellectual inquiry that will be there forever when they want to access it.

Once they have earned their diploma, we welcome and encourage them to re-enroll and continue learning at their own pace and price. They really want to get that certificate and diploma, just as they have seen their brothers, cousins, family members, and friends.

CNN: I’ve also started rehiring some of your students.

Borsai: We have begun to recruit our students to be associate professors and teaching assistants in our college. We have a new business school, and we’re starting this careers class to help build capabilities and give these students a chance to become part-time employees. And we’re really excited about this ingredient. It’s kind of a new wave of vocational training. They are very capable and motivated. It’s all about being cheerful and smiling, and just being a good role model for other students.

CNN: You consider one of your most important roles in life to be a sister. How has being a sister, Angel, changed you?

Borsai: My experience with Angel has shaped who I am as a person. It made me humble. And I hope to keep myself in check for a bit when I go down the rabbit hole to feel sorry for myself. Just step back and realize the larger context of how people navigate the world and how they struggle. And how this world is not prepared to receive and embrace certain people. It made me really humble and kept me focused on what’s really important.

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