At UT, many individuals work to provide an inclusive experience for people of every lifestyle. FUTURE is the post-secondary education program for individuals with an intellectual or developmental disability at UTK.
The program prepares students for a competitive career after graduation, with audit courses, internships and FUTURE courses designed for students to gain independence skills, as well as discover their personal career goals.
FUTURE is only one of the five inclusive post-secondary education programs in the state of Tennessee, with a few more that could be developing soon. After the passage of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, these programs became possible, and students also became eligible for federal student loans and grants.
Meredith Abercrombie, outreach coordinator for FUTURE through AmeriCorps, a service that connects individuals to nonprofits that need assistance, plans to expand FUTURE's reach both on and off campus.
“My goal is to expand the scope of FUTURE’s reach on campus and the Knoxville community. Additionally, I want families with students that are eligible for FUTURE to know about our program as early as possible in order to prepare for college,” Abercrombie said. “Up until a few years ago, families thought that their children with I/DD (intellectual and developmental disabilities) would never go to college. Now, it is surely possible. My goal is to change that perception and make society a more inclusive place.”
FUTURE works to accomplish many different tasks. Firstly, they work to prepare their students for a career of their own choice and to enter the competitive market where they're able to receive equal pay to someone without a disability.
Additionally, they work to promote the idea of inclusion, both in academics and society. The FUTURE program focuses primarily on the academic side of things, as their students take two to three campus classes per semester.
“We believe that our students deserve to be in the classroom just as much as anyone else. They are oftentimes the students in class that are the most excited to learn and get involved. I also believe that the classroom model prepares students for their careers by teaching group work skills, scheduling and planning and critical thinking,” Abercrombie said.
Natalie Campbell, peer mentor in the program and senior in the college scholars program, learned about the program through the disability community because her sister Olivia has Down syndrome. She began mentoring and became aware that students in the FUTURE program weren't receiving help from the Office of Student Disability Services and realized that changes needed to be put into place in the program.
“I gathered information from various offices, administrators and students on campus and proposed a bill to the Undergraduate Student Senate in SGA that passed unanimously. Following the passage of that bill, I was able to begin advocating to administration with new research and defined student support for this issue,” Campbell said.
Through continuous persistence and communication with the University, Cambell reached her goal in getting services from the Office of Student Disability Services.
“After many conversations with administration and other stakeholders of the university, we finally won this battle and we couldn't be happier,” Campbell said. “This allowance of services has reaffirmed our students' position and legitimacy here on campus.”
Even with the services from Student Disability Services, there are some areas that still require improvement regarding the inclusivity of disabled students.
“The under-representation experienced by students with I/DD at UT is representative of the social exclusion and resulting under-representation in those areas of larger society, but UT has the ability to affect that and change it,” Campbell said. “We are already more representative of these students than other universities who do not have programs like FUTURE at all, but we still have a long way to go to be competitive with our other institutions who do have such programs, and that is so, so exciting to me.”
Although FUTURE is making great strides in terms of representation for those with disabilities on campus, there are some obstacles that the program is trying to cross.
“While I think that universities are starting to see the importance of having students with I/DD on campus to make the learning environment a more inclusive and diverse place, there is still a lot more that needs to be done. The fact that many students at UT don’t know that our program exists is an issue, which of course is one of my job duties to improve,” Abercrombie said.
One example of how FUTURE is already increasing its representation on campus is with internships for their students like Alex Cole, who has an internship with interim president of the university system Randy Boyd.
“This is a really exciting opportunity that I hope will give FUTURE more visibility all over campus. He was really adamant about having Alex work with him, and that is a fantastic thing to see,” Abercrombie said.