Unique program at UA helps students with intellectual disabilities

Published: Jan. 15, 2016 at 10:04 PM MST|Updated: Mar. 12, 2016 at 1:02 AM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Project Focus, a program at the University of Arizona, is giving students with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to attend college, learn life skills and develop skills to enter the workforce.

"They're learning to make their own choices and decide what they like to do here. There's so many accomplishments. And they want to work and be fully involved in the community," said Stephanie MacFarland, program director.

Students ages 18-21 work with peer mentors and instructors with the College of Education.

The two-year program started five years ago with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The program works with school districts across Pima County. It's the only one of its kind in Arizona.

Parents of students in this program said they didn't think college would be a possibility for their children.

"For other kids with special needs that transition from being a child to an adult is very, very difficult. And this has really helped," said Terry Gale, a parent. "We've seen him become much more independent."

Tony Ekloff is one of eight students who will graduate in May. He graduated from Sahuaro High School and didn't think college would be an option.

"Students with disabilities like us. Would we ever be able to go to college?" Ekloff said.

He said he's happy to be able to experience college through Project Focus, just like other students.

"[I've gone to] a lot of sporting events and I met a lot of people but the most important thing I'd have to say is I've been learning a lot about work experience," Ekloff said.

He hopes to get a job at Bookmans after he graduates.

But it's not just the students who benefit. Instructors and peer mentors are getting hands on experience as well.

"I've learned a lot from working one on one with adults who have intellectual disabilities. Patience. Wait time. Things like that. Everything you learn in your studies you really get to practice those," said Kristen Lansey, a graduate student and instructor with Project Focus.

For more information about Project Focus, visit their website:

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