Go inside the school offering adults with special needs the college experience they were missing

The College of Adaptive Arts provides a lifelong, equitable collegiate experience for adults with special needs who historically have not had access to higher education.

By Meg Dunn, CNN

(CNN) -- Growing up in rural Indiana, DeAnna Ellenberger Pursai and her sister, Angel, were constant companions and playmates. Only a year apart in age, they called themselves twins.

But there's one big difference between them.

Ten minutes after Angel was born in 1973, her mother was told she had Down syndrome and may not walk or talk. The doctors recommended Angel be placed in an institution.

"My mom said, 'Could I just see my baby,'" Pursai said. "They brought back a warm pink bundle, and my mom looked the doctor in the eye and said, 'Thanks but no thanks. I'm gonna take my baby home.'"

Pursai said she and Angel shared an amazing childhood. They loved singing, dancing and telling jokes. It wasn't until Pursai went off to Purdue University that she realized how different their lives had become.

"Angel was mandated out of school at age 22," Pursai said. "I would go home and visit, and she would just be on the couch all the time."

Angel was too high functioning to find fulfillment at day programs in her rural community, and there were no other local schools or colleges she could attend as an adult with special needs.

"I felt a lot of guilt," Pursai said. "Because I truly believe in my heart of hearts that she is so much more intelligent than I am in most ways that matter."

Pursai received her undergraduate degree in elementary and special education and went on to get a master's in education policy analysis from the University of Illinois. She later became an elementary school special education teacher.

In 2008, she met Dr. Pam Lindsay, who has a daughter with autism. Together, they talked about the lack of education options for adults with intellectual disabilities, and in 2009, they co-founded the nonprofit College of Adaptive Arts in San Jose, California.

The College of Adaptive Arts provides a lifelong, equitable collegiate experience for adults with special needs who historically have not had access to higher education.

"At the start, it was just Dr. Pam and I teaching everything," Pursai said. "And then the adults asked, 'Can we try a poetry class? What about a computer class?' We went with it. We listened to them."

The unaccredited school is structured like a typical college experience and offers 10 majors, including business, theater, music, dance and health and wellness. Students can pursue an undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate diploma.

Lindsay created the program's model of teaching adults with special needs and helped bring the unique curriculum to life.

"Our focus is not, 'How high do you kick,' or 'How well can you read a sentence?'" Lindsay said. "Our focus is, 'Are you continuing to practice these skill sets and building these cognitive-developmental skill sets?'"

To date, they've had nearly 350 students enrolled. And in 2020, they formed a partnership with West Valley College and are now located on its campus in Saratoga, California, giving this program the full collegiate feel.

Pursai says many parents and guardians have expressed relief that their child found a safe space to learn, grow and create friendships.

"It's the integrity that we are treating their child like the intellectual adult they are," she said. "It's palpable joy. Every class is the same level of pure joy."

Her hope is that they can expand this program to every college campus.

"There are adults out there everywhere who are languishing because they've been sidelined because traditional college is not for them," Pursai said. "But when you give them a safe space, it's an unbelievable transformation."

CNN's Meg Dunn spoke with Pursai about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

CNN: What education options exists for adults with special needs?

DeAnna Pursai: Nationally, by law they have access to the K-12 education system for four years after high school, which is called the postsecondary education. So, they do have access to education until age 22. And then across all 50 states, it goes away. So, at that point, if a young individual does not have the skills where they're going to be able to access that accredited associate degree, then for the most part their educational opportunities cease to exist.

The resources out there for adults focus a lot on vocational training and employment skills and independent living. Those are essential skills for adults with differing abilities. We're adding the component of intellectual inquiry that's going to be there forever when they want to access it.

Once they get their diploma, they are welcome, and encouraged, to reenroll and continue learning at their own pace and rate. They really want to earn that certificate and diploma, just like they've seen their siblings and their cousins and their family members and friends.

CNN: You've also started hiring back some of your students.

Pursai: We have begun to hire our students to be associate professors of instruction and teaching assistants at our college. We have a new school of business, and we started this employment class to help build capacity and give these students an opportunity to become part-time staff members. And we're really excited about this component. It's kind of a new wave of vocational training. They are so capable and so excited. It's all about encouragement and smiling, and just being a good role model for the other students.

CNN: You consider one of your most important roles in life that of a sister. How has being Angel's sister changed you?

Pursai: My experience with Angel has absolutely shaped who I am as a person. It's kept me humble. And hopefully kept my ego a little bit in check when I go down the rabbit hole of feeling sorry for myself. Just stepping back and realizing the larger context of how people are navigating in the world and how they're struggling. And how this world is not set up to receive and embrace certain people. It's kept me really humble and kept me anchored on what's really important.

Want to get involved? Check out the College of Adaptive Arts website and see how to help.

To donate to the College of Adaptive Arts via GoFundMe, click here

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