Dr. Bernard Graney was there from the start. The long-tenured Springfield College professor in the Rehabilitation and Disability Studies department has been working at SC since 1990 and was around for the foundation of the partnership that began between the school and New England Business Associates. Fast forward nine years later and NEBA’s program to empower people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is flourishing in Locklin room 103.
“We’re creating opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities to be part of a college campus,” Graney said.
Graney serves as the liaison to NEBA’s program on campus, which serves as a fieldwork opportunity for Springfield College students in several majors, because of his connection to the first program coordinators. Before arriving at SC, Graney served as the executive director of Pioneer Developmental Services, a community organization that provided emergency services to people with disabilities in the Holyoke and Chicopee areas. One of the organization’s main goals was to prevent individuals with disabilities from attending certain state schools, such as Belchertown State School, where Graney saw examples of improper and inhumane treatment. Through his work with the organization, Graney built relationships with many other directors of various organizations around the area, one of which was NEBA.
He worked with now-former directors Jenice Germain and Amy Lunden to design a solution to what he refers to as one of the last places where segregation of people with disabilities can occur: colleges and universities in the United States. According to Graney, people with intellectual disabilities are not encouraged to get advanced degrees because they are not considered to be a part of the “intellectual elite.”
“When we started this program, the notion was, ‘God, let’s break that barrier,’” Graney said.
The program, called “On Our Way,” was created to give people with developmental disabilities the chance to attend college and be a part of the campus community without taking everyday classes. The program is an offshoot of what NEBA normally does to fulfill its mission.
“New England Business Associates is here to empower individuals with disabilities, whether that’s through employment and having a positive role in society and contributing back to society and also exploring different interests and exploring other post-secondary education,” Melissa Spear, the program coordinator of the “On Our Way” program since 2006, said. “NEBA is about developing the person as a whole and helping them explore different options.”
The “On Our Way” program reaches out to people with developmental disabilities that are usually around the ages of college students, although they do not exclude others who do not fit into that age group and want to participate. The program is known as a “school-to-work transition” program, according to Spear, because it helps its participants to prepare for the workplace. This goal is what shapes the program’s criteria.
“We really focus on where is a person when they start, their skills – social skills, money skills – you name it, and then we work from there,” Spear said.
NEBA uses a computer program, called Successmaker, to teach classroom skills, such as reading and math. It is a very individualized program that allows the participants to learn at their own pace.
The second part of the program involves learning social skills. In order for this program to be successful, it requires more manpower than Spear can muster on her own. Enter SC interns and volunteers, such as junior Rehabilitation and Disability Studies major Molly Goldberger.
As a volunteer, Goldberger’s role is one of mentor and friend to the students that she works with. She not only assists whenever needed with Successmaker, but also serves an important role in the social skills aspect of the program.
“It’s very important for them to learn math skills, reading skills, but it’s also important for them to get the social skills,” Goldberger said. “Not everyone will treat them the way they need to be treated. For them to know that there’s someone in their life who they can talk to or they can be excited to see someone, it’s important to have more than just the class.”
Goldberger, along with the other volunteers and interns, can often be seen taking members of the “On Our Way” program to places on campus, such as Cheney Dining Hall, to promote interactivity and social skills. Goldberger sees herself as more than just a mentor to the students that she works with.
“The level I try to take with the students is a friendship. I don’t try to be, ‘Oh, I’m smarter than you, I’m better than you,’ because that’s not what they’re there for,” Goldberger said.
SC students from the Rehabilitation and Disability Studies major, in addition to others from Psychology and Art Therapy, make up the bulk of the volunteers or interns completing fieldwork on campus. The opportunity not only benefits the individuals with developmental disabilities who are learning through the program, but also the SC students who partake in it and learn many valuable lessons of their own.
“In the human services field, you really need to think on your feet. You need to be flexible, but you also have to be empathetic, because we’re dealing with people,” Spear said. “They’re not just a diagnosis.”
Through her experiences thus far this semester, Goldberger has perhaps gotten back just as much as she’s given.
“Just for me to see them learning is huge. I leave NEBA every day with a smile on my face because they are the happiest people,” Goldberger said. “I’m in the major to help people, and NEBA does exactly that.”
Likewise, Spear is grateful for the SC students and all of the work that they put into making the program “the longest continuous program for people with intellectual disabilities for the region, which goes from Worcester to New York state,” according to Graney.
“The Rehab. department especially, and also the Psychology and now the Art Therapy departments, they really have supported us, and without the really supportive Rehab. faculty, I don’t think a program like this would work,” Spear said.
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