East Tennessee State University recently received a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education for a program that prepares students with intellectual disabilities for future careers.

The Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities grant will go toward Access ETSU, a two-year non-degree program that allows young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to participate in internships and attend classes.

The funding will allow ETSU to provide tuition assistance to eligible students in the Access ETSU program beginning in fall 2021 and will go toward a program coordinator, an academic coordinator employment specialist and additional staffing.

Dawn Rowe, an associate professor of Educational Foundations and Special Education, said the grant will put more hands on deck for the initiative.

“We have a goal around working closely with schools to develop targeted action plans for change focusing on implementation of evidence-based practices to help increase expectations for youth with intellectual disabilities and better prepare them to have the prerequisite skills needed for inclusive higher education,” she said.

The program, now in its second year, aims to enhance students’ “academic, career development and social skills and experiences in a way that is identical to their peers at the university.”

Rowe said ETSU hopes to prepare students for employment through the program. She said the program currently serves two students, but they hope to serve 10 students per year with additional funding.

Rowe is the principal investigator on the grant project. She’s joined by Dr. Jennifer Cook as co-investigator and Pamela Mims, Cynthia Chambers and Lori Marks, all from ETSU’s Department of Educational Foundations and Special Education in the Clemmer College of Education.

Rowe said Access ETSU was developed as a grassroots, volunteer program through the help of Marks, Mims, Cook, Chambers and others.

“It’s one of six inclusive higher education programs across the state of Tennessee,” she said, adding that the closest similar program is at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

Rowe said expanding programs like Access ETSU is important for young adults with intellectual disabilities navigating future careers.

“Having the opportunity to continue post-secondary programming with an emphasis on employment and employment skills will make the difference,” she said. “It’s really important that they have opportunities alongside their same-age peers so they have better employment opportunities after high school.

“We are super excited, and we can’t wait to start recruiting new students and get the program off and running.”