Martha Haythorn is adamant that having Down Syndrome isn’t going to hamper her dream of becoming disability rights advocate.
“It’s not a disease,” said the Decatur High graduate. “I don’t let it stop me doing what I want to work for.”
Haythorn is on the way to fulfilling her dream with the help of the Expanding Career, Education and Leadership (EXCEL) program at Georgia Tech. Launched in 2014, it’s part of a growing national movement to create programs that serve students with mild disabilities who might otherwise not have college on their radars.
“These are students with intellectual or developmental disabilities who would not qualify for a degree or associate program,” said Director Ken Surdin, who joined Tech to launch the initiative. “Many are coming from spec ed progs, and if they could get a degree or associate’s, they wouldn’t qualify for EXCEL.”
The program began with a small cohort of eight and has hosted as many as 12. Currently, a total of 32 students are enrolled, and 26 have successfully completed the requirements to earn certifications through Tech’s professional education division.
“It’s a work-based program, so students take a career class the first semester and then do internships,” said Surdin. “By the time they graduate, they’ll have had a minimum of seven internships.”
Coursework centers around academic enrichment, social fluency, social growth, leadership and career exploration.
“We work with students to gain additional certifications in areas they’re interested in,” said Surdin. “We had one student who wanted to work in a warehouse, so we helped him get certified in forklifts, and he got a job with Lufthansa at the airport. We’ve also helped students get certified in supply chain logistics, customer service and education.”
The EXCEL staff works with more than 100 employers to find a broad range of internship opportunities and teaches skills around resume building and job interviews. Participants also take courses from Tech’s catalogue that have been modified to their abilities, and they attend those classes alongside degree-seeking students.
“They’re not in competition with degree-seeking students, but their presence enriches the overall environment and allows our students access to all kinds of classes,” said Surdin. “We also have a mentorship program of about 100 degree-seeking students who volunteer and are paid to coach our students.”
EXCEL participants are invited to complete a four-year program, but they have the option to leave with a certificate after two. Haythorn has opted to complete the entire program and expects to graduate in 2024.
“I’ve started taking intro to psychology, sociology, gender studies and human rights,” she said. “I’m not going to lie: It can be hard. But I can tell you it’s so worth it in the end. You meet new friends, learn new skills, have mentors to guide you and have tutors to help you. If you have the strength, you can get what you work for. It’s a really great experience.”
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