Ten years after Clemson opened its doors to young adults with intellectual disabilities, the University and the community have come to embrace a program that equips students with skills to live more complete lives.
By Michael Staton
Photography by Craig Mahaffey ’98, Ashley Jones and Josh Wilson
As McIver Thomas ran in a 5K on the Clemson campus, a nagging voice kept pace with him. With every landmark he passed, it told him he shouldn’t be there.
During his time on Dorman High School’s track team, Thomas ran to get away from that voice. It reminded him, as it did during this 5K, of the constant social pressure. The feeling of not belonging. The uphill battles in class. The occasional cruel joke at his expense.
“I moved between public, private and home school; I struggled with academic and social skills,” Thomas says. “Track was my release. To be at Clemson was a whole other level. It was a shocker. It just didn’t seem real.”
For the better part of 22 years, he and his family operated under the assumption that the doors to a place like Clemson were closed to someone with an intellectual disability. Just a few years prior to this Race to the Rock benefit run for Clemson’s library, they were correct.
BUT IN 2011, Thomas was accepted into the ClemsonLIFE (Learning is for Everyone) program, a postsecondary education program for young adults with intellectual disabilities that teaches employment and independent living skills. Thomas’ realization of what the program was doing for him came into focus after the race when then-University President James Barker called him and his fellow LIFE students to the podium.
“We lost! Why were we being called?” Thomas says, laughing. His laugh is more of a bellow; he throws his head back and belts it out. “I didn’t understand it, but then we saw a whole community going out of its way to show love for kids with disabilities. I was overwhelmed. It taught me something I’ve taken with me ever since: I am a guy with different abilities, but I can also be valued and give something back.”
Now, more than five years since his graduation, Thomas is a success by anyone’s standards. He lives in his own apartment, holds a full-time job at an event rental company and serves as a member of the LIFE program’s advisory board. He’s witnessed the program grow firsthand and now helps steer it toward an even more successful future by providing his feedback.
That future, by all accounts, appears brighter than ever. This spring marks the 10th anniversary of the program, and over the course of a decade, it has evolved from an untested idea to a vital piece of the Clemson experience, with programs both academic and athletic in its orbit.
Clemson and the surrounding community have embraced the program. In its work to equip students with occupational, social and independence skills, the LIFE program has not only influenced its students’ careers and independence; it’s brought inclusion into public conversation and prompted people to see disabilities in a different light.
“It taught me something I’ve taken with me ever since: I am a guy with different abilities, but I can also be valued and give something back.”
A PROGRAM WITH A PURPOSE
THOMAS WASN’T THE ONLY PERSON frustrated by a lack of options after high school. More than 10 years ago, Donald Bailey Jr. told his father that despite his intellectual disability, he wanted to go to college just like everybody else. The elder Bailey, a financial planner and lifelong South Carolinian, couldn’t think of a good reason to tell his son it wasn’t possible.
“I told him he had the option to stay in high school until he was 21, and he didn’t see that as acceptable,” Bailey said. “That conversation lit a fire under me, so I started making some calls.”
Bailey quickly found programs based in the Northeast, and he became motivated to start something similar in his home state. With the guidance of national experts, Bailey teamed with other interested families to form a nonprofit devoted to expanding educational opportunities for young adults with intellectual disabilities.
He approached the state legislature for funding and later hosted 12 institutions in a symposium to discuss how these programs could work. That day, Bailey met Joe Ryan, then an assistant professor of special education at Clemson and later a founder of ClemsonLIFE. Bailey also received a phone call that day confirming the nonprofit would receive the money required to get five state programs, including ClemsonLIFE, off the ground.
Ryan was already familiar with intellectual disabilities, both personally and professionally. His older brother had an intellectual disability, and for years, Ryan had worked at both residential and day schools for students with disabilities.
He wanted to launch something to equip students with skills that would help them land a job and live independently. “Job skills and independent living” is Ryan’s credo. Other than students’ safety, everything else is secondary.
“Lack of preparation for the real world is a major deficit in the K-12 system for these students,” Ryan says. “Some schools and districts do better than others, but overall, it’s a glaring inconsistency across the country.”
Bailey’s son eventually attended the CarolinaLIFE program at the University of South Carolina, his alma mater, but he’s followed the progress of ClemsonLIFE and still actively engages with the program.
“To go from an unknown to one of the leading programs in the country in less than 10 years is unbelievable, and I say that as a Gamecock fan,” Bailey says. “It was all new, and nobody knew what to expect, but Joe was on board right from the get-go.”
What a great article and a fantastic program. It makes me proud to know my alma mater is doing such great things with these wonderful people.
Having a family member facing the same challenges, it brought tears to my eyes seeing the incredible impact of the ClemsonLIFE program on so many in such a short time! So proud to be a Tiger! 🙂
In Short awesome post. thanks for sharing with us.
Congratulation on 10 years of the best program. Giving these young people a chance to experience college life, make friends and to become productive citizens.