EnCOMPASSing, inclusive education

Emma Polen | News Editor | Nathan Pearson (left) and Colton Vazquez (right) study a monologue from Sleeping Beauty Vasquez has for acting class.

Emma Polen | News Editor

March 09, 2023

Every week, Colton Vazquez meets with his friend Nathan Pearson to practice for his monologue for Acting IV class. This is more than a study session, though. Vazquez has Down Syndrome, and he is taking classes in the liberal arts school alongside his peer mentor, Pearson, who is a fourth-year occupational therapy student. Vazquez and Pearson were paired through the Compass Inclusive Education pilot program, which could receive official program status here at Duquesne later this spring.

The pilot program was launched in the spring of 2019 by co-administrators Dr. Alia Pustorino, the director of extracurricular community engagement, and Dr. Meghan Blaskowitz, an associate professor of occupational therapy.

The main mission of the Compass program is inclusivity in higher education, Blaskowitz said.

Inclusivity, in the way the Compass program approaches it, is the ability of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) to complete college degrees alongside the general student population in educational settings. IDD incorporates hundreds of disabilities, which individuals typically have had since birth, that include autism, Down Syndrome, Fragile X syndrome and Williams syndrome, Blaskowitz said.

When a student with an IDD enters higher education, they might be seeking a degree or a certificate, Blaskowitz said. “And that certificate really…focuses on building upon educational background, as other students do, as well as…career exploration.”

The scarcity of current opportunities in higher education for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities makes Compass’ offerings important.
Blaskowitz shared that out of high school, 70% of students without disabilities move on to college, while that percentage is less than 20% for students with IDD.
Even for those seeking higher education, not every university has opportunities for people with IDDs. Of the 6,000 official college institutions across the country, Blaskowitz said, “There’s only 316 programs like ours.”

In fact, Duquesne’s Compass program is the only truly inclusive education program for students with disabilities, besides Slippery Rock, in western Pennsylvania, she said.

Without these inclusive opportunities, Blaskowitz said students with IDD tend to fall into jobs in the “Four F’s,” flowers, food, filth and filing.

Career experience through the university is what Blaskowitz said impacts students’ ability to find fulfilling work.

“We’re trying to increase somebody’s ability to go successfully into the workforce of their desire, with competitive wages,” she said, “because that will help to increase their ability to live independently, to… live the good life that I think all students want to be able to live.”

Right now, as a senior in Compass, Vazquez said he is looking to go into acting after graduation. He is currently completing his theater major, and he has participated in extracurricular theater events as well, including last year’s Red Masquers production, Mamma Mia.

Blaskowitz and Pustorino secured funding to operate the Compass pilot from the Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disability (TPSID) Grant to operate the pilot. The grant guarantees funding for Compass for five years, allowing the program to offer monetary compensation to peer mentors and graduate assistants, Blaskowitz said.

They are currently submitting Compass for official academic program approval, she said, which would also allow more staff and time to be allocated to the program.
Approvals like these will be announced later this spring, but Pustorino emphasized their current pilot program’s impact on Duquesne’s campus community, despite their hopes to grow their number of students with IDDs and peer mentors following this semester.

The Compass program has provided students with IDD typical college experiences, including involvement in student clubs and activities.

“We really encourage our students to have that autonomy to choose their classes the way that any other student would do, or to choose the clubs that they’re going to live in like any other student would do, to choose their career paths,” Pustorino said.

Current seniors in the program, Vazquez and Ben Guthrie, have participated in “extensive advocacy experience” in the city of Pittsburgh and even on Capitol Hill, Blaskowitz said. “They are advocating for others who are not capable of advocating for themselves.”

Historically, people think of “inclusion in terms of race and ethnicity, or even the LGBTQ+ community,” Blaskowitz said. “I think students with disabilities are lower on the totem pole when you’re talking about diversity and inclusion.”

“If Compass can help our students with disabilities be more included, then I think it sets a precedent or a model for how the university could make sure that all students feel included,” Blaskowitz said.

The way that Compass addresses inclusive education is through the model of universal design for learning.

The goal of a universal design is to provide students with a variety of ways to demonstrate competency, Pustorino said, rather than having every student write a 20-page paper.

“Why can’t we really capitalize on the skill sets of a 21st century learner? Because you all communicate differently than we did,” Pustorino said.

Diverse learners are already evident to Blaskowitz through her student evaluation surveys at the end of each semester. Some students said they preferred the lecture part of her courses, she said, while other students preferred the experiential learning side of it.

“Inclusive education should be the standard of what’s offered to students with and without disabilities, that they feel like their professors get them, that they’re really learning skills that are delivered at their level,” Blaskowitz said.

“That ability for a student to have ownership, and to be able to advocate for what they need…is ideally what a student should be doing in any educational space,” Pustorino said.

Within Vazquez’s classes in performing arts, his professor, John Lane, the director of the theater arts program, said how all students benefit from classes that teach students to speak and stay organized.

“Performing classes really teach you presentation skills, collaboration skills and cooperation,” Lane said.
Theater classes are very “individually-geared,” Lane said, but class instructions are optimized for Compass student learning strategies to assure that everyone learns as best they can.

In Vazquez’s acting class, they have adapted memorizing lines to meet him in a learning method he can use, which is breaking up the lines into words accompanied by pictures.

In addition to the Compass-enrolled students themselves, peer mentors in the Compass programs have the chance to explore fields of study that they otherwise would not cross with their own major.

”I would never have had an interest in anything theater related,” said Pearson. “And it really pulled me out of my comfort zone that way to enhance my educational experience.”

“This is a career option, and several of them [peer mentors] have really started to look at their work in this field,” Pustorino said.

Nicholas Fetzer, a Compass peer mentor and a junior in biology with a focus in pre-dentistry, said, “this idea of creating an inclusive environment is something that I want to take with me in my pursuit of becoming a dentist.”

Already, Fetzer is looking to apply for dental schools with “the intent of becoming a dentist who can specialize in helping kids and adults with intellectual disabilities be able to tolerate their dental appointments,” Blaskowitz said.

“I think [creating options is] important when we think about the institution, and our role in supporting [its] mission, because this work doesn’t just impact the university. It impacts our ability to build an inclusive workforce,” Pustorino said.

“And an inclusive education,” Blaskowitz finished.