By design, camps for students with disabilities take anxiety out of step to college

Aug. 11, 2010

by Chris Barncard

"I know what you're all thinking, 'What the heck?'" says 16-year-old Adam Proue, waving his hands and holding up his own presentation. "But this is going to make sense eventually."

That's the overarching idea of "Exploration by Design: How Stuff Works," where Adam was laying out a game he had designed with a team of peers — each with a physical or behavior disability — to other teenagers and everybody's parents.

A series of summer camps at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, "Exploration by Design" is aimed at helping high school students with disabilities and their parents understand the transition to college.

The step up to higher education comes with unique challenges, according to Jay Martin, UW-Madison mechanical engineering professor and head of Midwest Alliance, which organizes the camps with a grant from the National Science Foundation.

"In high school, the accommodations kids need to be successful are required to be there for them, and someone is required to sit down with them and work out a plan for those accommodations," Martin says. "But the higher education philosophy is that all students have equal opportunity. It's not the same as requiring success. When you get to higher education, you have to know who and where to ask for help. Self-advocacy is vital."

Students and parents who attended July's three-day engineering camp were split into groups. Parents met with staff from UW-Madison, Madison Area Technical College and the Madison Metropolitan School District to discuss the living and learning environment at college.

The kids tore down engines and video game controllers and built up designs (like the game Adam's team drew up) according to client specifications — the sort of topics and assignments that await in college engineering courses.

"We teach them the same way we teach freshman," said John Murphy, a lecturer in UW-Madison's engineering physics department and instructor at July's camp. "The kids and their families are used to 'Yes, we want kids with disabilities, as long as they're good enough.' They don't hear that from us. We emphasize possibilities."

As many possibilities as possible.

"We're trying to take this idea to disciplines across science, technology, engineering and math," said Martin, who is running a computer-aided design day camp this week for Madison students with disabilities. "But the topic seems to be less important to the students than the environment — a place where they can share questions and interests with someone they relate to."

That goes double for the parents.

"It puts you in contact with people from all over with the same problems, the same struggles," says Barry Londoff, who brought his son, Caleb, from Chicago for the July camp. "You get a great influx of options."

The Midwest Alliance draws from Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa through their website (stemmidwest.org) and venues such as support groups and high school counselors. Each of the summer's camps filled to capacity in short order.

"Clearly, there's tons of anxiety," Martin says.

Piled on top of the usual nest-emptying fears, parents of disabled children are disconnected — by distance, logistics and even by privacy laws aimed at protecting college students — from the struggles their children may be having during their freshman year.

"You're so involved for so long, standing up for them and working so closely with their teachers and the school," says Adam's mother, Tammie Proue, of Hudson, Wis. "And then all that changes. They have to take on a lot of that themselves."

Martin said four-year colleges are not the only options presented. Technical schools, community colleges and other paths to a career may fit better even for students whose interest in science brought them to the Madison camp.

"We've learned a university like this just isn't an option for my son," Londoff says. "He sees that for someone with his disability this would be too big, too scary."

For others, it's a surprisingly powerful motivator.

"For my son, it opened up doors," says Sandra Lindell Harms of North Freedom, Wis., who attended the July camp with her 16-year-old son, Noah. "He's talking non-stop about chemical engineering versus nuclear engineering. He's saying 'When we get back to school we need to change the courses I'm going to take this year.' That's new for him, for us."