HUNTINGTON, Ind. (WANE) — For many, graduating college is right a rite of passage and the final hurdle in the race toward a career. However, for students with intellectual disabilities, many never get to have a college experience. A program at Huntington University is looking to change that.

The ABLE Program provides individuals with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to be a student at the university.

Director of Teacher Education at Huntington University Dr. Tyanne Bailey explains intellectual disabilities like a filing cabinet.

“We all have a filing cabinet in our brains,” Dr. Bailey said. “We have all these files may be alphabetical. An intellectual disability is not like a learning disability. In a learning disability files get messed up and it might take a while to find them but the files are there. For intellectual disability, some of the files are missing. A lot of their social cues need to be taught to them. It doesn’t mean that they can’t learn those things but they are not going to pick it up naturally.”

ABLE stands for Achieving Balance in Life through Education. Students participating in ABLE get to take college courses like public speaking and understanding the Christian faith with the rest of the student body. However, they also attend specific ABLE classes that are meant to teach them life skills, like cooking and doing laundry.

Though the program is four years, the university works with each family and student to create the best experience. By the time students are in their senior year, most have jobs off-campus and are more independent.

ABLE students are also paired with a mentor on campus. That mentor is another college student on campus. Seaman says that the mentors are very valuable and help students learn more outside of the classroom. Seaman herself was a mentor and speaks highly of the success of the program.

“I absolutely fell in love with the program as a mentor and that’s why I came back,” ABLE coordinator Amanda Seaman said. “It was the best part of the college career getting to build those relationships with the students. So now it’s fun to get to be on the other side of it.”

The program started as a collaboration with neighboring Huntington North High School. Students from the high school would attend classes. Over the past seven years, the program has grown and now allows students across northeast Indiana to participate.

All students commute to campus every day and attend classes from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon. Currently, there are 11 students in the program.

Junior Brooke Bolinger works with Maddie on ‘The Foot Book’ inspired project.

On the day that WANE 15 stopped by campus, ABLE students were working with a junior Brooke Bolinger, an elementary and special education major, to create a learning activity for a kindergarten class. The activity was inspired by Reading Across America Day and Doctor Seuss. Students traced their foot and then used objects like markers and pennies to see how big their it was.

When asked if students were having fun, ABLE participant Maddie couldn’t answer fast enough.

“Ya, especially (with) my friend, playing, hanging out with her,” Maddie said.

“We do have fun together,” Brooke Bolinger said.

Other students were taking a break before their next class and were just as excited to tell WANE about their favorite part of the program.

“I think my favorite part is the relationships that have been built here on campus and getting to see everybody everyday with people like William,” ABLE student Bryce Lippe said.

“It gives me a college experience and that it lets me take college courses that challenge me,” ABLE student William McAnich said.

A majority of students who take special education classes from Dr. Tyanne Bailey are also required to help with the ABLE Program. She says the experience has been a life-changing experience all around.

“The number of times people come to class and say that was the best part of my day and can I go tomorrow.” Dr. Bailey said. “It makes me excited for new teachers who are going to be excited for kids in their classroom.”

For the first time this year, students of the ABLE Program will get to walk at graduation with fellow classmates. Students will not receive a traditional diploma. However, Dr. Bailey says they are given the skills and references to help them succeed in the future.

To learn more about the ABLE Program at Huntington University click here.