TOPS Programs Provide Experience For Grads With Intellectual Disabilities

Sabrina Wilson, right, will be heading to The Ohio State University this fall, as part of the Transition Options in Postsecondary Settings (TOPS) program – where students with Down syndrome, autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities are able to earn certificates and prepare for the workforce. Sabrina is joined by her sisters including Juney Wilson (left), who is earning her masters in social work at OSU, and Samantha Wilson, who is a 2023 graduate with a degree in social work. PHOTO COURTESY OF LIZ SWANTACK

BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — The toddler with Down syndrome and the grade-schooler on the autism spectrum need to hear “you can go to college” from their parents just as often as any other child.

“Research shows that the higher the expectations shared with a child – no matter what their disability status – the better their outcomes will be,” said Jessie Green, Ph.D., program manager for The Ohio State University’s Transition Options in Postsecondary Settings (TOPS) program.

The program, launched in 2011, is one of 317 TOPS programs nationwide, providing students with intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to earn certificates, prepare for the workforce and live independently. 

Sabrina Wilson, an Anthony Wayne High School graduate, is heading to OSU this fall, where she will live in a dorm, navigate campus with an app on her phone, take classes, volunteer and work. She will be one of more than 25 TOPS students at OSU this fall. Sabrina is considering all of her course options, including computer science, with a goal of getting a job after college.

“This doesn’t only benefit Sabrina. She brings value to students, staff and faculty at the university,” Green said. “I’d like to think that as an entire institution, we are building leaders, and these leaders will go out into the workforce and hopefully use their experience with TOPS to make their workplaces more diverse and more inclusive.”

Sabrina’s mom, Liz Swantack, is on a mission to spread the word about TOPS programs and the opportunity for students like Sabrina, who has Down syndrome, to set and achieve their goals. As the founder of Circle 47, Swantack advises families of children with intellectual disabilities on how to navigate school, work and life. She encourages parents to talk about college as a goal at a young age, and then take incremental steps to boost independence along the way.

Think College, at www.thinkcollege.net, has information on all 317 programs, including the nine in Ohio: Bowling Green State University Firelands, Cleveland State University, Columbus State Community College, Kent State University, Marietta College, Sinclair Community College, The Ohio State University, University of Cincinnati, The University of Toledo and Youngstown State University.

For most parents, the idea of their graduate heading to OSU – which is the size of a small city – is daunting enough. Yet students with intellectual disabilities are guided on how to get around campus alone using a phone app, stay safe on and off campus, and structure their time. Students can live in a dorm, participating in social activities, maintaining their living space and going to the dining hall.

Working and employment is a priority. Students audit courses from the course catalog and take classes with TOPS staff, learning about independent living  and career development, building resumes and interview skills, job shadowing and completing paid or unpaid internships. Community service on or off campus is also part of the program.

“Students are building their self-determination and self-advocacy skills to lead what they consider their best life,” Green said.

For some, that best life is graduating, getting a place to live and having a job lined up. For others, it might be working toward an associate degree. Some of the TOPS graduates have gone on to earn certification as a vet tech or even work at OSU, making $15.00 an hour and – if working more than 32 hours a week – earning health insurance and other benefits. 

“For individuals with intellectual disabilities, this can be life-altering,” Green said. “For years, many of these people have had to be reliant on the system. Now, our graduates who are working are paying into the pool with their taxes and will be able to retire and draw on their own pensions.”

So far, the OSU TOPS program has had 43 graduates with eight more crossing the stage in a few weeks. Of those who graduated, 90 percent are employed and making $13.00 an hour working 28 hours a week on average, Green said.

“We’re talking about a population that might not be able to work 40 hours a week,” Green explained. 

Nationwide, the graduation rate is 75 percent, and of those, 15 to 30 percent are now employed. 

“When we look at these numbers, while small, it’s a huge difference, especially considering that this movement is not even 15 years old,” Green said. “We’re seeing a shift in outcomes and looking to the future. Expanding this program to other universities and letting families know about it is a priority.”

Also a priority is expanding funding, which is the biggest deterrent to enrollment. OSU students pay $17,000 a year for the TOPS program, which doesn’t include living expenses. That’s why students typically come from wealthier families. She encourages families to begin a 529 plan early to get started saving.

“Getting a job, going to college, living alone – these are all indicators of quality of life,” Green said. “It’s different for every person. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to falter along the way. We all do. We allow the student to have the dignity to take risks and falter but with the higher expectation to keep going.”

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