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By Ignatius Plato

Mary, a student with Down Syndrome at Regis University in Denver, wanted to live in a dorm on campus for her second year. Her parents questioned whether she would be able to live away from home. However, with support from Regis’s GLOBAL Inclusive Program, Mary is living on campus and thriving socially, even showing newer students around campus and encouraging them to attend events.

Mary is one of the Regis students who benefit from opportunities offered through the Global Inclusive Program. Fourteen of the 18 students in the program, now including Mary, live on campus alongside other classmates, learning skills for independence as an adult and contributing their own perspectives to the academic culture.

Inclusion programs in Jesuit high schools and colleges are broadening their scope to include students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. These programs respond to the challenge of meeting the secondary and higher education needs of students with these disabilities. Frequently, academic support that is available at the elementary school level does not carry over into high school or college. However, students with intellectual disabilities have voiced a strong desire to continue learning and developing skills for self-sufficiency into adulthood.

Jesuit schools of today are continuing the Jesuit tradition of going where the needs are and developing programs that promote success for marginalized groups.

Helping students with intellectual disabilities enjoy the typical college experience is at the heart of Regis University’s GLOBAL Inclusive Program.

Regis University’s GLOBAL Inclusive Program

The GLOBAL Inclusive Program at Regis University started as a response to the historical exclusion of people with disabilities from college classrooms. The program’s director, Dr. Jeanine Coleman, believes that the Inclusive Program is a clear example of the Jesuit principle of cura personalis (“care of the whole person”).

“Students with intellectual disabilities are getting to do what all of our students do,” Coleman said. “This opens the hearts and minds of faculty, students and administration. They start to think about what inclusion is and how it fits into diversity.”

The program focuses on self-sufficiency for people with intellectual disabilities. Physical, social, emotional and spiritual wellness are given as much importance as professional development, allowing students with intellectual disabilities to shape their own lives for success.

The GLOBAL Inclusive Program bases its approach on the Universal Design for Learning, a framework for education that keeps accessibility at the forefront of curricula. This makes self-actualization a reality for all people, furthering the spirit of cura personalis and preparing students for life beyond college.

“The program has removed barriers for students with disabilities, students like Mary,” said Coleman. “I hope that students who experience the program in the future, whether they have an intellectual disability or not, will take that experience into the world and help people from all back- grounds.”

Coleman hopes that in the future Jesuit schools can come together to form a network that gives all students opportunities to realize their goals.

A peer mentor assists a student with intellectual disabilities at De Smet Jesuit High School in St. Louis.

De Smet Jesuit High School’s Inclusion Program

De Smet Jesuit High School in St. Louis launched a new inclusion program this school year, one aimed at providing students with intellectual disabilities access to a Jesuit secondary education.

De Smet Jesuit’s Inclusion Program stemmed from an identified need for supportive programs for students beyond middle school. It also serves as a response to Pope Francis’ calls to create opportunities to foster belonging and inclusion for people with disabilities as an objective of ordinary pastoral action.

“In this way,” writes Pope Francis, “we will be able to be credible when we proclaim that the Lord loves everyone, that he is salvation for everyone and invites everyone to the table of life, no one excluded.”

“We wanted the Inclusion Program to shape a vision of service at De Smet Jesuit that includes everyone,” said Fr. Ronald O’Dwyer, SJ, president of De Smet Jesuit. “High school students need to learn that not everyone thinks or develops in the same way. Embracing that truth and using it for good is a big part of what the Inclusion Program plans to do.”

De Smet Jesuit’s Inclusion Program began with the current academic year and serves two students with intellectual disabilities.

Along with special education classes that teach essential skills like writing, reading and math, the two students also take four traditional courses with their peers. Junior and senior peer mentors accompany them in these classes, allowing the classroom environment to integrate different developmental perspectives into the high school’s culture.

“The spirit of service is core to the foundation of a Jesuit school,” Principal Kevin Poelker said. “It’s one thing to talk about service in the classroom, and it’s another thing to go beyond the school and serve. The Inclusion Program seeks to go beyond even that: We want to embed service into the daily operation, the culture of De Smet Jesuit itself.”

De Smet Jesuit is partnering with Saint Louis University’s School of Education to study the impact of the Inclusion Program on the whole student body. This research will help Poelker and Fr. O’Dwyer fine-tune the program and further its spirit of inclusion in an informed way.

“We’re making it all about service, inclusion and learning,” Fr. O’Dwyer said. “Starting from within De Smet and making inclusion a part of the culture, and then spreading that spirit to the rest of the world.”