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Successes and Challenges of Independence for Students with Developmental Disabilities

By: Krystle Taylor, M.S., CRC, Tayler Nichols, M.S., CRC, & Natacia Cordle, M.S., San Diego Community College District 

Going to college may be one of the biggest journeys a student goes through. Thinking of this new journey stirs a variety of feelings amongst students, including excitement, stress, and uncertainty. For students with disabilities this is intensified due to the differences between a new postsecondary education system and the high school and transition system they are accustomed to. Postsecondary education means saying goodbye to teachers automatically offering support and modifying curriculum, and saying hello to independence and self-advocacy. While moving into a postsecondary education setting may be a time to foster new relationships, work toward new goals, and experience new successes, it is also a time of new challenges. In postsecondary education, students with developmental disabilities experience challenges working with a variety of service providers, the education system itself, and moving into employment post-academics.  

Service Providers & Coordination of Services 

“Welcome to college!” also means “Welcome to newfound responsibilities and expectations!” College students with developmental disabilities are expected to communicate academic, employment, and independent living needs to Department of Rehabilitation (DOR), Regional Center, Tailored Day providers, and other support agencies. As adults with possibly minimal experience advocating their own needs, this new responsibility may prove to be confusing and overwhelming. Emailing DOR counselors all necessary college documentation (proof of financial aid application submissions, course schedules, lists of required textbook, etc.) must be done with perfect precision and timing to ensure all documentation is processed prior to the start of each new semester. Regional Center funds transportation needs but wait a minute; does the student even know how to use public transportation to get to their new college campus? Maybe not. A student must then remember to request mobility training from Regional Center or add it to their Tailored Day goals (assuming the student already has this service) to ensure they are able to transport themselves to and from campus. 

While students have expectations and requirements outlined to them by agencies like DOR and Regional Center, the student must still understand the processes in which to meet these expectations. The challenging piece is navigating each complicated system when each counselor or service coordinator has different operating procedures and responsibilities for services. Remembering DOR can fund education, interview clothing, and assistive technology, while Regional Center can fund transportation, tailored day services, and independent living services can be a daunting task. To add to the confusion, students must remember or have access to their counselor and service coordinator’s contact information. Counselors and service coordinators change occasionally, meaning the student must keep track of these changes and update contact information. What about when a student must know when to direct DOR questions to: the Service Coordinator? DOR counselor? Both?  For a student with a developmental disability, this presents great challenges when trying to navigate the system independently.  

As we know, students with developmental disabilities experience challenges with executive functioning tasks. This presents a major challenge when attempting to build independence in a postsecondary education setting. In the initial college semester, it is expected students will require support to follow through and complete all tasks crucial to college success. Support team members may provide reminders, walk the student through any necessary steps, create step-by-step instruction sheets for To Do’s or processes, develop strategies to store counselor contact information, role play scenarios, develop speaking scripts, etc., all while teaching and developing strategies for the student to know how to complete these steps on his or her own. The goal is to fade away this support and empower and encourage the student to fulfil these duties mostly independently, if not fully independently. 

Education System 

Coming into the college setting is challenging for anyone, but especially for someone with a developmental disability.  The community college system is an entirely new system to learn: from navigating the college application, to completing the FAFSA, to understanding the difference between Associate’s Degrees and Certificates versus transfer to a four year university and the classes needed to achieve each goal.  Other challenges students with developmental disabilities face are having and demonstrating the soft skills needed to approach an instructor to ask for clarification, regulate appropriate behaviors when faced with a challenging obstacle, and how to interact with classmates. Additionally, students are expected to be able to navigate this system with more responsibility and independence than what they received in high school or transition programs. What can be done at the community college level to help students with developmental disabilities navigate and be successful in their new environment? 

There are a number of things community college programs can do to assist in preparing these students to be successful.  An initial step is to prepare the students before they get to campus.  Establishing relationships with high schools and transition programs is essential to preparing students to be successful in completing the college application as well as developing self-advocacy skills.  It is also crucial to educate the students about the increased responsibilities and expectations they have in college.  Once the student is at the college, it is important for DSPS faculty to continue to re-iterate, review and educate. For many students, this repetition and re-explanation of information is one of the best ways to process and understand that information.  Meeting with students consistently (and establishing when the next appointment will be in the current meeting) will assist with getting the student familiar with and be successful in the system. Additionally, if the college offers a universal design/disability learning community, it can help integrate the student into the college. The learning community can help students with developmental disabilities feel comfortable and get familiar with the college, as well as get to know their peers and professor on a deeper level.  By building these relationships the students can be more invested in their education. 

Internships & Employment 

Finding value and identity through employment is an important aspect of our society.  While the monetary rewards are often requirements of basic living, the pride that workers have in their position, and their contribution to a larger whole, are also critical pieces of our culture as a country.  In a competitive California labor market, people with developmental disabilities face significant barriers in accomplishing their employment goals, and successfully integrating into the workforce.  Whether it’s overcoming limitations due to their disabilities or employer discrimination, people with disabilities must work harder and smarter in order to achieve their job goals.  Maximizing available vocational services and natural supports are an invaluable part of making progress toward those goals. 

To assist with building independence and overcoming barriers to employment, the College 2 Career (C2C) program through the San Diego Community College District provides services and support to students with intellectual disabilities (ID) who are motivated to utilize education as a pathway to employment.  The C2C program provides assistance with acclimating to college life, becoming more familiar and comfortable with using accommodations, and building students’ skills and abilities in the world of work. Since students with ID have adaptive behavioral delays, it takes more time adjusting to the job duties and expectations of various work environments.  The C2C program has developed a stepping-stone strategy that plants the seeds of work in their first year of participation and waters those ideas with purpose-driven activities such as a Work Experience Workshop and C2C Internship. The C2C Internship is a customized employment program that partners with local businesses and agencies.  Business’ needs are being met by the customized job description developed in partnership with C2C, and students are given an opportunity to work in a real paid position while continuing to build their work tolerances and adjust to work culture.  This Internship also exposes them to the competitive employment process in a more gradual and supportive format – students compete with their peers for internship placements, interviewed, get hired, and have satisfactory performance evaluations in order to participate in the Internship opportunities.  

Building partnerships with employers is a critical piece towards successful employment for C2C students.  Working with employers on internship sites also opens the door to potential competitive integrated employment.  Over the years, C2C has developed working relationships with several employers who have continued to hire students directly into paid positions.  One such employer is YMCA Childcare Careers who has hired four (4) students in the past year.  While this is excellent news for our child development majors, there are many other industry sectors and employment fields who could also benefit from hiring people with ID. Promoting our clients’ value in the workforce and their ability to contribute to our local employment culture is an ongoing process that requires dedication and creativity.  Not only do our students benefit from these opportunities, but our society as a whole is improved when people with disabilities are integrated naturally into many different environments.   


Although students with developmental disabilities face many challenges, there are many ways in which they can be successful. Through coordination of services at the service provider, education, and internship/employment levels, students may build skills that can lead to increased independence.  There is an African proverb that says “It takes village to raise a child.”  For students with developmental disabilities, it takes a village of support services from multiple levels to maximize their independence and be successful in their journey.  These “villages” have never been more needed than they are today.