CINCINNATI -- Like any sibling, Arielle Bachrach always looked up to her older sister.
Bachrach, 25, was born with an intellectual disability, which made walking across the stage at a university seem impossible.She wanted to achieve all the same milestones, including graduating from college.
"I never thought I would be able to go to college, but it was my dream," Bachrach said.
When a family friend told her about the Transition Access Program (TAP) at the University of Cincinnati that dream became possible.
Bachrach and six of her classmates will be TAP's first graduating class to walk across the stage in Fifth Third Arena on Saturday at UC's commencement ceremony.
UC launched its TAP program in 2012 within the College of Education, Criminal Justice & Human Services. It offers a four-year non-degree option for students with mild-to-moderate intellectual and developmental disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome and Asperger’s syndrome. There are currently 35 students in the program.
“We know that college is a way to continue education and support a better quality of life, income, self-determination, and vocational opportunities,” director Diane Clouse said. “Our students are accessing it, just in a different way."
Clouse said students with disabilities are somewhat secluded in their educational experience.
“They are often told ‘college isn’t for you,' ” Clouse said. “This provides a college experience to break that barrier with diversity in mind. They are ecstatic that they are out having social experiences, going to class, and it’s fully inclusive.”
TAP helps the students develop social, independent living and vocational skills on a college campus.
The students take program-specific courses to support their skill development based on their individual goals. They take two UC courses per semester, either for audit with modified material or to earn credits. They also participate in a vocational internship every year.
The TAP program staff offer academic support and disability services to help students make the transition.
“There’s a wide continuum of students and their strengths and abilities,” Clouse said. “Some need very little help approaching college at a slower pace while others need a lot of support.”
The TAP students have life coaches, social workers, residence assistants, student mentors and tutors, job coaches and a transition specialist all working to help them graduate and prepare for life after school.
“We’re working towards them having the strategy and skills to make the right choices that support their success and their goals,” Clouse said. “Their coursework is geared towards that.”
Outside of academics, the students are fully integrated into the UC experience. They navigate the campus on their own, have access to the recreation center, go to athletic events and eat in the dining halls, just like any other UC student.
Many college campuses provide programs similar to TAP, but what’s unique to UC’s program is the ability for them to live on campus in a dorm room.
In 2013, it opened the 26-bed Tap House residential community in its Stratford Heights Complex.
The students live independently in the house, giving them an authentic experience. They have a resident advisor and share the house with other UC students.
Bachrach said living on campus was one of the best parts about being at UC. She felt like she was just like every other Bearcat.
She said she was really shy at first and scared to be on her own, but living with the other students brought out a confidence in her she didn’t know she had.
Bachrach quickly made new friends, became much more outgoing and joined campus organizations. She also jumped into the university's athletic spirit organization.
“I love being a RallyCat,” Bachrach said. “We make signs for games and cheer on the sidelines. It’s a lot of fun.”
With her experience in athletics, Bachrach hopes to get a job in the UC athletic department after graduation and live on her own.
Most of the other students also plan to continue working after graduation and either live at home or get an apartment.
Clouse said one student said it best, “Just because we learn differently doesn’t mean we don’t want to achieve the same thing as everyone else.”
Federal law requires that schools provide an appropriate education for everyone in a K-12 setting.
“We’re saying, 'why does it have to stop there,' ” Clouse said.
The cost for the TAP program is about the same as a traditional UC student. They pay about $26,000 a year, which includes room and board, a meal plan and the TAP program support, plus any courses for credit.
The program is funded in part by a federal TPSID grant (Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities), which is shared with other colleges in Ohio. The money from the grant will allow TAP to offer two $5,000 scholarships starting next year, and staff members are actively working to find additional funding to expand and diversify the program.
Bachrach said she gained confidence, independence and lifelong friendships from the program and would encourage others to pursue it.
"Follow your dream," Bachrach said. "It was my dream to come to college and be able to graduate."
She said to be able to walk across the stage just like her sister did is "amazing."