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Vision for the future: WCU program helps intellectually disabled students achieve their dreams

Program Director Kelly Kelley (left) celebrates with a  University Participant Program student following  the spring 2016 commencement. WCU photo Program Director Kelly Kelley (left) celebrates with a University Participant Program student following the spring 2016 commencement. WCU photo

As he entered his sophomore year at Andrews High School in Cherokee County, David Maennle started to notice his classmates talking about college.

He was intrigued. One day, he came home with a sheaf of papers explaining various higher education opportunities, gathered from a college fair held at the school.  

“I’m going to college, too,” he told his mom, Becky Garland.

Garland didn’t know what to say. Maennle, who was born with Down Syndrome, didn’t fit the normative definition of “college material.” Every year, Garland said, she’d fought to keep her son in the classroom with other students, but it was a constant struggle. By 2010, when he graduated with his occupational course of study certificate, Garland was “pretty wore out.”  

“We had all pushed the envelope through school, but I didn’t really know how [college] was going to work,” Garland said. “I just thought, ‘Well, he’ll think about it and the next bright shiny object will come along, and I won’t have to worry about it.’”

But even after he graduated, Maennle kept talking about college. Eventually, Garland started researching and found that her alma mater, Western Carolina University, now had a program specifically for people with intellectual disabilities. In May, the University Participant Program became the first of its kind in the nation to receive national accreditation. Maennle took a gap year, and then he enrolled.

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“He did fabulous,” Garland said.

Birth of the program

The University Participant Program was born in 2007 during a master’s-level class at WCU when Kelly Kelley, professor and UP program director, was still a student.

“We were all talking about there were no services for people after high school really, and all of their friends were going off to college, and they were just kind of sitting there … I raised my hand and I said, ‘Well, why are we not doing anything at Western about this?’” Kelley recalled.

Shortly thereafter, Kelley and her professor, David Westling, cofounded the UP Program.

At the time, it was an unusual endeavor, with WCU’s program one of only a handful of college programs for people with intellectual disabilities nationwide. But that was soon to change with the federal Higher Education Opportunities Act of 2008, which created grants to fund such programs and allows students to access federal financial aid. Now there are 328 postsecondary education programs in the U.S. for students with intellectual disability, including 13 in North Carolina.

But not all programs are created equal. Together with Appalachian State University and University of North Carolina Greensboro, WCU is one of only three programs in the state that includes residential living. The UP Program prioritizes inclusion — it’s set up so that participants can audit classes, go to campus events and otherwise partake in any parts of university life they may wish too, just like their nondisabled peers.

“The first thing I say is, ‘What are we doing for all students on the college campus?’ Then that’s what we do for these students as much as we can,” said Kelley. “We provide a service — we’re not a place, really.”

That said, UP students need different accommodations and work toward different goals than students in the general population. The application includes a video submission as well as copies of an individualized education plan and most recent psychological examination. The university doesn’t consider test scores or academic level when sifting through applications but focuses instead on social communication skills.

“When they’re really motivated, reading is not the issue,” Kelley said. “I have very successful students who have limited reading skills, but they have been employed in their jobs for 10 years since they’ve left us.”

Maennle was certainly motivated, Garland said. As they worked on the application together, he articulated a clear vision of what he wanted his future to look like.

“He said, ‘I want a log cabin, I want a job with an ambulance, and he said I want a red pickup truck and a hound dog,’” Garland said. They placed corresponding images on a vision board for him to take to college.

A life-changing experience

Once enrolled, UP students spend the next two years working toward their goals. To graduate, they must complete 1,800 hours of learning activities and meet 80% of the goals in their individual plan. These goals span five areas: vocational preparation, accomplished through 10 hours per week of off-campus work experience; community participation, which includes skills like using public transportation and leaving tips; social participation through attending campus events; and personal development, which includes student-led goals that may range from eating healthier to reading better. These goals come from monthly student-led meetings with UP staff.

Spring 2017 graduate Cody Thompson, 27, said that, like any college student, he was nervous about being on his own and sad about leaving his family in Rutherfordton when he came to live in Cullowhee — but excited to start trying new things and working toward his goals.

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Since graduating in 2017, Cody Thompson has maintained a job and his own apartment in Cullowhee. Photo courtesy Cody Thompson

There were challenges. Thompson found it difficult to make a schedule and manage his time well, and some classes were especially hard. He had to figure out the right time to ask his teachers questions and learn how to use technology to help him take notes. But overall, Thompson was enthusiastic about his college experience, especially the social aspects. 

“I enjoyed going to sporting events and campus activities,” he said. “I looked forward to weekend events with the UP students and supports. It helped me learn about my community.”

Students have limited engagement with UP staff — they prefer to be with their peers, Kelley said. The program relies on a force of 200 volunteers and student supports to help UP participants navigate the details of their day. That relationship is transformative for both parties, Kelley said. She’s seen people change their attitudes and even their majors as a result.

“In their reflections that they talk about this experience, [the student supports] are getting more out of it sometimes I think then they feel like the student’s getting from them,” Kelley said. “So it’s a very mutual learning experience.”

For UP students, it’s a life-changing one. Thompson credits his time at WCU with allowing him to build the life he has now — a studio apartment in Cullowhee, a car and a landscaping job with B.H. Graning, where he’s worked for more than six years.

“I think the UP program helped make this possible to live on my own and finding my career path,” he said. “I have learned how to be independent and how to budget my money to save for bigger things. I think I have learned better communication and working with people around me better. I enjoy being a role model to others showing if they set their mind to achieving their goals, they can make it happen with hard work, saving money and staying focused.”

These aren’t typical outcomes. Nationwide, only 18% of people with intellectual disabilities are employed in a competitive work environment, according to a 2013 study.  A 2014 study published in the journal Behavior Analysis in Practice found that only 24% of subjects with disabilities lived in a home or apartment without a family member.

But of the 46 students who have graduated from the UP program since its inception, 90% are employed, and 55% have their own place.

“He’s being quite independent — way more independent than what any doctor told us he’d ever be,” Garland said of Maennle. “So, you know, I call it a win.”

Nation’s first accredited

The program has had a profound impact on the students it’s served, but that’s a relatively small number. The UP Program serves only 12 students at a time — a number designed to ensure it can provide a quality experience to each student, and to keep the rate of intellectual disability within WCU’s student body consistent with the 0.1% rate in the general population.

“Our goal is to not inundate and flood our campus here with a bunch of people with intellectual disabilities,” Kelley said. “It’s to create and provide opportunities at various colleges so that they can have more choice in where they want to go.”

To that end, Kelley has helped other universities shape their own version of the UP program — and agreed to let WCU be the pilot for national accreditation from the Inclusive Higher Education Accreditation Council. IHEAC set the standards for accreditation in 2021 after about a decade of development, a process in which Kelley and her team were actively involved. Standards focus on things like inclusion, student services, support to help students file a complaint or navigate a complaint filed against them and program sustainability.

Once the standards were complete, IHEAC had to choose a program to test out the process.

“Part of it was selecting a program. And then the other part was recruiting it,” said Martha Mock, executive director of IHEAC. “It’s a lot of work for them, but they wanted to do it.”

The process involved significant paperwork, interviews with 140 stakeholders, including faculty, staff, students and former students, and a site visit from the IHEAC board. But there was a “clear commitment” from all levels of university leadership to see it through, Mock said. The site visit took place in March, and WCU offered valuable feedback on the process, which IHEAC will incorporate for subsequent accreditations.  

Accreditation is important for prospective students and their families, Mock said, confirming that, “both before, during and after, the students get what they expect to get from being enrolled in a college program and that parents and family members have the assurance that a program has been through a really thorough review, and it is going to provide their family member with what’s necessary to be successful.” 

Home sweet home

After graduating in May 2013, Maennle got to work making his vision board a reality. He soon landed a job as an EMS bay custodian with Graham County, a job he still holds 10 years later, achieving his dream of working with an ambulance. Several times a year, he gets to go on ridealongs. And after five years of exploring independent living in an apartment — first near his mom in Andrews, and then near his job in Robbinsville — in 2020 Maennle moved into his log cabin, built new on family land with money he’d made on his own.

“I don’t think that he or I either one can quite believe that what has been his dream for over a decade has finally come to pass,” Garland wrote in an April 2021 post to the Facebook page for David’s Vision, the nonprofit they started to raise money for the log cabin and help other intellectually disabled people access safe, debt-free housing.

Maennle still needs help. Six days a week paid supports, covered through Medicaid, help him stay on task at work and home, and Garland is always on call should he need her. But from an economic perspective, the taxpayer cost is far less than would be required for any kind of group home situation, and he’s living a far better life than the one the doctors predicted when first delivering the diagnosis.

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In 2020, class of 2013 graduate David Maennle realized his dream of owning his own log cabin. Becky Garland photo

Most importantly, Garland said, “He’s happy. He’s content. He’s in his own place. He’s living the life he envisioned for himself.”

She credits the UP program with making that possible. Maennle’s time at WCU saw his confidence and social skills shoot “through the roof.” He made friends with nondisabled peers and learned life skills like navigating public transportation, cooking meals and caring for a home. Garland learned new skills, too — how to set expectations, and how to transition from mothering an intellectually disabled child to supporting an intellectually disabled adult.

“In short, he learned how to be a responsible adult, and that’s the goal that I had all along,” she said. “Every year when I’d have to fight my way for him to have an opportunity to be in his inclusive classrooms, I always had to lay that out with the teachers, that I want a happy, healthy and well-adjusted person when he becomes 21. And now I have a happy healthy, well-adjusted person that’s 34.”

Explore the University Participant Program

The two-year UP Program at Western Carolina University is open to adults who are 18-25 years old at the time of admission and have a documented intellectual disability with an IQ of about 70 or lower.

The application deadline for fall 2024 is Dec. 15, and program representatives will be at Open House events on Feb. 24 and March 23, 2024. Federal financial aid is available. The total cost of attendance for the 2024-2025 school year is $12,282 per semester for in-state students.

Learn more at

Make a donation

The University Participant Program relies on a hodge-podge of funding sources to serve its students, including charitable donations. To make a tax-deductible donation, visit Learn more about David’s Vision at .

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