PORTAGE PARK — For years, Catherine Henchek’s son Ian dreamed of going to college like his big sister.
But with minimal college support and accommodations for high school graduates with intellectual disabilities like Ian, Henchek worried he couldn’t get appropriate higher education.
Now, thanks to a new law signed by Gov. JB Pritzker last week to expand educational opportunities for young people with disabilities as they age out of high school, Henchek has hope for Ian, 19.
“He really wants to go eventually, and now it’s a possibility,” Henchek said, the local school council chair at Vaughn Occupational High School in Portage Park. “I am really excited because in the past I’ve been like, ‘Well, you know, there’s lots of things you might want to do that don’t involve college’ … but now there is that option there.”
The new law, which goes into effect immediately, was introduced by Northwest Side state Rep. Lindsey LaPointe and crafted with help from leaders and parents at Vaughn. The school serves students with special needs until they are 22 and offers various programs and partnerships to help them improve their language, life skills and explore occupational careers.
“We do better supporting our young people with disabilities than we do our adults, and so when kids are done with high school, there are no adult services that are just there waiting for them,” LaPointe said. “Yes, we have some, but the demand far exceeds the supply.”
Under the new law, passed unanimously by the House, young people with disabilities will have access to post-secondary education through dual-credit options and a range of education and programming options at Illinois community colleges. They will receive information sooner about college choices, starting with transition services in high school, and better accommodations and resources.
The law amends three acts and school codes related to special education and was originally introduced last year. The pandemic froze any movement until LaPointe reintroduced the bill in January.
Vaughn’s ongoing partnership with Wright College, which started in 2016 and offers transition-based lessons for life after high school to eligible students, was part of the inspiration to push for better college program options, said Noel Mcnally, the former principal at Vaughn. He brought up the idea of changing the law to LaPointe two years ago.
He helped write the language for the law, which amends the public community college act to direct community colleges to provide students with disabilities better access to higher education, vocational training, continuing education, certificates and life-skills courses.
“The law is like a spotlight or beacon rather than a resource,” Mcnally said. “Now, community colleges need to talk to high schools about this demographic of students and plan.”
It also encourages disability coordinators at community colleges to participate in meetings with high schools to provide information directly to students, families and their individualized education program teams about available programs.
Previous case studies showed Vaughn students with distinguished skills were accepted to college but could not get proper resources and aides, such as the option to complete assignments orally instead of in writing, reference guides or readers for test questions. All of that was the impetus to push for new rules, Mcnally said.
Mcnally, who retired this month after six years as principal, commended LaPointe’s team and his colleagues at Vaughn and Wright for working diligently to push the legislation through but said that’s only the beginning.
Funding issues still need to be ironed out, Mcnally and LaPointe said.
LaPointe said the law primarily provides accountability and leverage for implementation.
She said meetings with the high school community and hearing people speak passionately about the need for these programs was eye-opening.
Illinois has a low ranking in supporting children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The state ranks 44th in serving individuals with disabilities, according to a 2019 report by the ANCOR Foundation and United Cerebral Palsy.
“It’s heartbreaking,” LaPointe said. “Passing this law with overwhelming support, in addition to some other things we did related to intellectual and developmental disabilities, this spring, is a signal that elected officials in Illinois really care about this, and we are ready to prioritize it. We do it because we care, but we also do it because that’s what the people are demanding.”
In addition to this law, the General Assembly passed a bill that allows special education students to stay in school through the end of the school year in which they turn 22, as opposed to being kicked out on the day they turn 22.
The momentum around creating more educational opportunities for young adults with special needs is a welcomed sign of their broader acceptance and recognition, Henchek said. As the head of Vaughn’s LSC, she plans to work with local partners to implement the law at the school this year and push for greater inclusivity.
“Sometimes there is this attitude that they can’t really do things, and lots of these kids can, but we have to put the effort into finding the things that they can do and then giving them the help,” Henchek said. The law “is an acknowledgment of their abilities, not just their disabilities.”