Intellectually disabled UCCS students protest graduation policy

Intellectually disabled UCCS students in the Comprehensive Higher Education certificate program and student mentors are protesting that certificate earners can’t walk in graduation ceremonies, under CU-system policy.

More than 6,000 signatures have been collected on an online petition by a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs student with Down syndrome calling for allowing students with intellectual disabilities who earn certificates to walk with students who earn degrees at commencement ceremonies.

“Every student deserves to have the same opportunities as their friends and classmates,” UCCS junior Nick Harmon states on his petition seeking supporters to “advocate for inclusiveness and equality on campus.”

University officials say the CU system’s graduation policy — bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree earners are permitted to walk at commencement, but not those in certificate or endorsement programs — is not discriminatory because it applies to all students.

But the petitioners, who are in a four-year pilot Inclusive Higher Education Certificate Program established by state legislation in 2016, argue that they should have the same privilege as other students because they pay the same tuition and fees and their program requires 55 credit hours — much more than other certificate programs. A four-year bachelor’s degree requires 120 credit hours.

Harmon said he and two others receiving their certificates in May 2020 would like to “have the same opportunities to celebrate” their accomplishments.

“They’re asking for a change in policy,” said Harmon’s mother, Julie Harmon, “so that students who earn over a certain number of credit hours, say 50, get to be in the graduation ceremony.”

The University of Northern Colorado and Arapahoe Community College also are part of the pilot program, for which Nick Harmon attended the gubernatorial signing.

Sixteen intellectually disabled students are participating at UCCS. From the time the program formed three years ago as a way for intellectually disabled students to obtain higher education, students thought they would be able to walk in the school’s graduation ceremony, Julie Harmon said.

But that’s not the case at UCCS, which offers certificate and endorsement programs in various disciplines, such as a mini-MBA course, said campus spokesman Jared Verner.

“Students with intellectual or development disabilities may participate in commencement if they’ve earned a degree like any other student, which is in line with CU’s nondiscrimination statement,” Verner said.

Mariah Escobar said online that she signed the petition because “the idea of equality is not that hard to understand. It isn’t fair or right. If they earned it, they deserve it.”

Verner said the situation seems to be a misunderstanding, since the university’s graduation ceremony policy applies to all certificate earners and does not single out any one group, including intellectually disabled students.

“Many people “equate a four-year program with a bachelor’s degree, but that’s not what the students are completing,” Verner said.

Twenty-eight-year-old Nick Harmon, who works as an office assistant at PEAK Parent Center and at a carwash, decided to spotlight the university’s commencement policy as a final project in an Arts and Activism class he’s taking this semester.

His mother said he had no idea the effort would attract so much attention from social media promotion. Nick will have a table set up on campus next week to get more signatures before taking the issue to the administration.

Verner said the university is “looking at ways to recognize their accomplishments” when the first batch of students in the pilot program finish next spring.

“For a lot of certificate programs, we hold a separate ceremony,” Verner said. “Because these students are doing something very unique and special, we’ve got a year to figure out what to do for them.”

Julie Harmon said the students oppose that idea.

“A separate ceremony is not acceptable,” she said. “If this was another minority, this community would be in an uproar. The only thing the intellectually disabled students can earn is a certificate, and they are asking to participate like all the other students.”

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