Colleges Work to Empower Special Students

UA EMPOWER students Grant Alley, Mary Borman and Nick Lange

All parents worry about the future — no matter if the child is typically developing or not. Knowing that attending school and learning alongside peers is an option means every child has the opportunity to follow any dream.

When I learned my daughter would be born with special needs, I started my research with parents who had experience. Through my guides, I learned two hopeful points on education:

  • Forget the segregated special education classrooms from the ’80s and ’90s. The field has advanced with early intervention and therapeutic resources. Today there is a focus on inclusion, and most classrooms are combined.
  • Sending your young adult with special needs to a university for the traditional college experience is a real possibility.

Many universities across the country have given young adults with special needs a path to success. Special Family talked with Ashley Bradley, director of the EMPOWER program at the University of Arkansas to learn more.

What is EMPOWER?

Our goals [for students] are to gain a college experience and enhance independent living skills and employability through volunteer services and on- and off-campus internships.

Most students have class in the mornings with an hour or two break where they have social mentors or academic mentors to help with their studies. Social mentors have lunch with our students, take them off campus for activities, attend workout classes, etc.

Who can enroll?

EMPOWER is a four-year, non-degree program for individuals with mild intellectual and cognitive disabilities. Our students take classes for non-credit on campus, live in the dorms, participate in clubs and games and have academic and social mentors, all while taking functional academic courses.

Students must have an IEP or 504 and must be able to live somewhat independently to be part of our program, but every program is different and requires different components. We have residential mentors who live on the dorm wing with our students, but we are not allowed to do personal care services or administer medications. We do help with other independent living skills such as laundry, cleaning and navigation.

What can parents do to help their children?

Nick, a senior in the EMPOWER program at the University of Arkansas, plans to work in hospitality when he graduates. “Nick has shown so much success over the last three years. When he first stepped foot on this campus, he was shy and introverted. Now, with the help of the program through mentorship and academics, Nick attends all the football and basketball games (dressing up and waiting in line to be on the front row), works in our recreation department and holds an on-campus internship through our hospitality department,” said Bradley.

Inclusion! There have been so many studies that focus on the inclusion of those with disabilities in high school. Some of these studies have shown that students who were included in mainstream classes are more successful in college and in gaining successful employment.

Students with disabilities do great in mainstream classes with the necessary accommodations and modifications to make them successful. Every student is different, but advocating for and moving to advocating with your student as they get older is so important.


Heather Honaker is circus ringleader for three kids 4 and under — two typical, one not, but they all think they are special. You can follow along as the messiness unfolds around her family by reading the Typically Not Typical blog.

Originally published in the October 2020 issue of Little Rock Family.

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