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First-of-its-kind law improves college access for students with autism, intellectual disabilities

Brian Heffernan, 31, who has Down syndrome, attended Mass Bay Community College through a program that provides college access for students with intellectual disabilities.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Massachusetts students with autism and significant intellectual disabilities will gain unprecedented access to postsecondary education at state colleges and universities under a law signed late last month by Governor Charlie Baker, lauded by disability rights advocates as the first of its kind in the nation.

More than a decade in the making, the breakthrough legislation will require all of the state’s public college campuses to offer accommodations to young people whose severe disabilities prevent them from earning a standard high school diploma, allowing them to take classes as nondegree-seeking students and join extracurricular activities alongside their peers — experiences that can transform their lives for the better, according to experts.


“It’s truly a joyous and historic milestone, for the state and for the country, because it really will allow people with disabilities to reap the same benefits of higher education,” said Julia Landau, director of the Disability Education Justice Initiative at Massachusetts Advocates for Children. “They have shown that they can exceed societal expectations when they’re given the same opportunities to learn.”

The law will create pathways for students whose intellectual challenges have often left them stuck in high school as their classmates graduated and moved on without them. Unable to pass the state MCAS exam or gain admission to college — and unlikely to thrive there without support — many students with Down syndrome, autism, and other conditions have instead languished in isolated classrooms, facing poor employment prospects and limited social options as they wait to age out of high school at age 22.

With expanded access to state campuses, some will now be able to transition to the next stage of learning, aided by more flexible options for meeting admission requirements and more assistance on campus if they are admitted. Individual campuses will determine their own criteria for acceptance and their capacity for such students, and schools should not face added costs, said Landau. The legislation includes $4 million for colleges to hire support staff and allows existing special education funding for individual students from school districts or state agencies to follow them to their new schools.


Some see the seeds of societal transformation in the legislation.

“This is how it begins,” said Andrea Callahan, a longtime social worker whose son Max has autism. “It’s a generation of neurotypical college students, sitting next to students like Max in class and seeing what they come up with ... that will change their viewpoint.”

While the state’s total population of college-age young adults with serious intellectual disabilities and autism has been estimated in the past at 3,500 to 4,000, a smaller number are likely to seek college access under the new law, advocates said. Those admitted will improve their chances of employment: According to one national study of adults with intellectual disabilities, those who attended college were more than twice as likely to find paid employment as those who did not.

Existing state and federal laws already require equitable access to college for students with disabilities who can meet high school graduation and college entrance requirements. But because college is not a legal right, unlike K-12 education, those whose disabilities prevent them from meeting requirements could previously be excluded.

The more inclusive approach already has a track record in the state. Since 2007, a voluntary program has paired students with intellectual disabilities and their school districts with state campuses willing to enroll them; it served 220 young adults last year, according to Massachusetts Advocates for Children. Known as the Massachusetts Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative, the effort provides grant money to colleges to help support students. Nearly half the state’s public campuses have participated.


At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the program has had profound effects for students with intellectual challenges as well as their professors and nondisabled peers, participants and observers said.

For Max Callahan, a student with autism who enrolled at UMass Amherst in 2019, even routine experiences were thrilling, like sitting in the cafeteria at lunch and joining in discussions in his film and literature classes.

“I had been in special education groups where we were segregated, and it was hard to make your own choices,” said the 22-year-old, who now works as an alumni liaison at UMass. “This was a much more natural education experience, and it gave me more confidence.”

Another UMass student, Hannah Gold, assisted Callahan as a peer mentor and described the experience as transformative. Gold, a psychology and public health major who was once consumed by an unhealthy quest to be a “perfect” student, found an unexpected role model in Callahan, whose example helped Gold find perspective and self-acceptance.

“I used to feel shame about my shortcomings, and now I realize I can forge a different path and be an individual ... and that is just as valuable,” said Gold, who plans to work full time with the university’s inclusion initiative after graduation.


Faculty, too, gain fresh perspective from the presence of more diverse learners in their classrooms, said Lyndsey Nunes, director since 2012 of the Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative at Westfield State University, which has enrolled more than 100 students.

“They often say they’ve become better professors, because they think more about different ways of learning,” she said.

To Tom Sannicandro, a disability attorney and former state legislator who was among the first to fight for the new law, its passage is the natural next step in a slow expansion of access to higher education — once a privilege of wealthy white men — to include other groups such as women and people of color. It took time, he said, to explain why it benefits those with significant intellectual challenges, whose goals and successes “may not look like success for everyone else.”

Brian Heffernan, 31, traces his success back to his college experience. As a senior at Newton North High School, he saw his friends applying to colleges and longed to do the same. Heffernan, who has Down syndrome, tapped the state grant program to attend MassBay Community College, where he studied acting and communications, served in student government, and started a glee club.

A college internship taught him to advocate for disability rights and eventually led him to the State House, where he has worked in the offices of several legislators.

“I wanted to go to college to get more independence and to be with friends,” he said. “I think it made my life better for a bunch of reasons. … Other students should be able to get the same things I did.”


Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.