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Pamela Lindsay

College of Adaptive Arts — Saratoga, California

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Photo by Stephen Voss

I cofounded the College of Adaptive Arts (CAA) with DeAnna Pursai in 2009 to provide structured higher education on a private diploma track system for adults with Down syndrome, autism and other developmental or intellectual disabilities. Historically, adults with these disabilities have not had access to an equitable college education. CAA gives adults with special needs the same opportunities for lifelong education and personal development as other adults in the community.​

The problem I’m trying to solve​

At age 22, adults in the special education system in California lose access to higher education. Intellectually disabled adults are often low-income and face disproportionate loneliness and isolation after being mandated out of the school system. They are marginalized and lack equitable access to employment opportunities and community connections.

We are working to provide an equitable collegiate experience for adults with special needs so that they have access to the skill-building they need and the community involvement that will help them become successful, contributing citizens in ways they have not been able to before now. ​

The World Health Organization estimates that 16 percent of the world’s population — or 1.3 billion people — have significant disabilities. CAA’s philosophy is similar to the Special Olympics, which provides lifelong access to athletic opportunities for those with an interest in them, regardless of their skill or ability. At CAA, we’re applying this philosophy to the educational space by providing access to learning for adults ages 18 to 74+ with intellectual disabilities. We want to empower them to see themselves as successful, contributing members of the community and to change the way people perceive those with intellectual disabilities, a​nd we are committed to sharing this model with other organizations that serve adults with intellectual disabilities. Our goal is to help other organizations replicate the CAA model in their own communities, to expand access to high-quality higher education for people with disabilities across the U.S. and beyond.​

The moment that sparked my passion​

My personal life has been a driving force for this work. My background is in performing arts, business and education. I also mentored my three children through the education system. My daughter was diagnosed with high-functioning autism at age 9. That diagnosis placed her outside the scope of available services, so our family creatively quilted together individualized strategies for her learning and social development. I then worked with other families to develop individualized curricula for their special learners. This provided a deep understanding of the challenges they face, the realization that something like CAA needed to exist, and my research to develop related instructional models.

What I wish other people knew​

The most important thing is that families know that the option is there for an ongoing college education for adults with intellectual disabilities. There are programs that are built for and accessible to these adults.

There’s sometimes a sense of hopelessness or frustration when people with disabilities see other students pursuing learning journeys. When families come to our tours, it’s like the shutters are opening and light is coming in. They see people they can relate to achieving their goals.​ My daughter, now 32, has worked at CAA, and recently achieved her goal of an associate of science degree at Columbia College in Sonora, California.

Why my approach is unique​

We’re the only college program in California providing this kind of liberal arts education. While our campus at West Valley College delivers classes to individuals in the San Francisco Bay Area, our online course offerings have allowed students from New York, Indiana, Virginia, Texas, Hawaii, Washington and other states to participate. From pre-pandemic to the winter quarter of 2023, CAA’s enrollment has increased 66 percent.​

We are listening to the adults when it comes to what they need and want, and where the gaps are in their access to adult learning and vocational training. Each of our students needs something different. We’re not asking adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to fit into a set approach. Our students can learn at their own pace with the accommodations and assistance they need. They can take classes online as well as on campus. They get to pick their classes and they can come and go, which is important because some have medical or transportation issues. This approach is built for them: We are designed to meet every adult where they are in their personal learning journey, and help them achieve their dreams. ​​

Advice to others who want to make a difference​

If there’s a need for the service you want to provide and you’re filling a gap, just do it. Listen to people in the community and the people you’re planning to serve — they’ll tell you what they need. Let people know it’s happening and connect to others to create as broad a net of support as you can. Then, those who need these services will find you.​​

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