Step into the school to give adults with special needs the college experience they’ve been missing

But there is a big difference between them.

Ten minutes after Angel was born in 1973, his mother was told she had Down syndrome and could not walk or talk. The doctors recommended that Angel be placed in an institution.

“My mom said, ‘Could I just see my baby,'” Pursai said. “They brought back a hot pink package, and my mom looked the doctor in the eye and said, ‘Thanks but no thanks. I’m going to take my baby home. “”

Pursai said she and Angel shared an amazing childhood. They liked to sing, dance and tell jokes. It wasn’t until Pursai moved on to Purdue University that she realized how different their lives had become.

“Angel was forced to leave school at 22,” Pursai said. “I would come home and visit her, and she would stay on the couch all the time.”

Angel was functioning too well to thrive in day programs in her rural community, and there were no other local schools or colleges she could attend as a special-needs adult.

“I felt a lot of guilt,” Pursai said. “Because I truly believe deep in my heart that she is so much smarter than me in most areas that matter.”

Pursai earned her undergraduate degree in Elementary and Special Education and later earned a Masters in Education Policy Analysis from the University of Illinois. She then became a special education teacher in elementary school.

In 2008, she met Dr. Pam Lindsay, who has an autistic daughter. Together they spoke out about the lack of educational options for adults with developmental disabilities, and in 2009 they co-founded the nonprofit College of Adaptive Arts in San Jose, California.

The College of Adaptive Arts provides an equitable, lifelong college experience for adults with special needs who historically have not had access to higher education.

“At first it was just Dr. Pam and I teaching everything,” Pursai said. “And then the adults said, ‘Can we try a poetry class? And a computer class?’ We went there, we listened to them.

The unaccredited school is structured like a typical college experience and offers 10 majors, including business, drama, music, dance, and health and wellness. Students can pursue an undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate degree.

Lindsay created the model for the Adult Special Needs Education Program and helped bring this unique program to life.

“Our focus isn’t on ‘How high do you punch’ or ‘How can you read a sentence?’” Lindsay said. “Our goal is, ‘Do you continue to practice these skill sets and develop these cognitive development skill sets?'”

To date, they have had nearly 350 students enrolled. And in 2020, they formed a partnership with West Valley College and are now located on its campus in Saratoga, California, giving this program a full college feel.

Pursai says many parents and guardians have expressed relief that their child has found a safe space to learn, grow and build friendships.

“It’s integrity that we treat their child like the intellectual adult that they are,” she said. “It’s a palpable joy. Every class is the same level of pure joy.”

His hope is that they can expand this program to all college campuses.

“There are adults everywhere who are pining because they have been sidelined because traditional college is not for them,” Pursai said. “But when you give them a safe space, it’s an amazing transformation.”

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

NC: What education options exist for adults with special needs?

DeAnna Pursai: Nationally, by law, they have access to the K-12 education system for four years after high school, which is called post-secondary education. Thus, they have access to education until the age of 22. And then in all 50 states, it disappears. So at this point, if a young person does not have the skills to qualify for that accredited associate degree, then for the most part their educational opportunities cease to exist.

The resources available for adults focus a lot on job training, job skills, and independent living. These are essential skills for adults with different abilities. We are adding the intellectual search component that will be there forever when they want to access it.

Once they graduate, they are welcome and encouraged to re-enroll and continue to learn at their own pace and at their own pace. They really want to get that certificate and degree just like they saw their siblings, cousins, family members and friends.

NC: You have also started to rehire some of your students.

Pursai: We started hiring our students as teaching associate professors and teaching assistants in our college. We have a new business school and we started this job class to help build capacity and give these students the opportunity to become part-time staff. And we are really excited about this component. It is a kind of new wave of vocational training. They are so capable and so excited. It’s all about encouragement and smiling, and just being a good role model for other students.

NC: You consider one of your most important roles in life to be that of a sister. How has being Angel’s sister changed you?

Pursai: My experience with Angel has absolutely shaped who I am as a person. It allowed me to stay humble. And I hope to keep my ego in check a bit when I go down the rabbit hole of feeling sorry for myself. Just take a step back and realize the larger context of how people navigate the world and their struggles. And how this world is not made to receive and embrace certain people. It’s kept me really humbled and kept me grounded in what’s really important.

Want to get involved? To verify the College of Adaptive Arts website and see how to help you.
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