by Patricia Bowman and Tim Weinkauf


For the past 17 years, Inclusive Post-secondary Education (IPSE) has been evolving in scope and practice at post-secondary institutions in Alberta, Canada. IPSE programs include and support adults with intellectual disabilities to participate alongside other post-secondary students in a normative university and college experiences. This article will discuss how socially valued roles can be attained through post-secondary education, and careful attention to constructs such as model coherency. Organizational structure, role coherency, and the supports necessary to maintain integrity, are seen as key factors in achieving Social Role Valorization (SRV). Although organizational structure and practice vary across Alberta, the authors present an effective model for implementing SRV through post-secondary education.


The underlying goal of Social Role Valorization (SRV) is the attainment of valued social roles. Osburn (1998) explains that achieving a valued role provides to the bearer the "good things in life that are available to that society"(p.1). This link between valued roles and opportunity is undeniable. This truism is easily demonstrated by our North American fascination and adulation with professional athletes, movie stars, and other icons whose status in society translates into the North American popular concepts of the good things in life; opulent amounts of money, influence, and opportunity, far beyond the reach of the ordinary citizen.

Admittedly, the above examples may be extreme, but they are poignant examples of the power these roles have in our society. Therefore, it appears logical that one would want to attain valued roles; the question then becomes one of 'how'?

For the athletes, movie stars and others with super-star status, beauty, ability, determination, intelligence, luck, and opportunity all play an important part in attaining valued roles. However, for the vast majority of citizens the path to role status is much different. Given the North American economic framework, where knowledge and technical skills are valued commodities, post-secondary education is increasingly the means to that end (Drucker, 2001).

Post-secondary Education as a Status Enhancer

Certificates, diplomas, degrees, and most importantly post-graduate labels of achievement provide to the bearer opportunity for status and value that would otherwise be difficult to achieve. The bearer of a Ph.D. label is afforded far more opportunity for perceived value and success in our society than is someone with a high school diploma, although there are anomalies.

By association, college and university students achieve a degree of status that non-students cannot attain. College and university students attain value in our society for the sheer fact that they are working towards and attaining the competency enhancements and earning potential that will lead to 'success' in North America.

Aside from attaining value for their potential, college and university students achieve status in our society through their association with their post-secondary institution. In North America, colleges, and more so universities, are revered. Having the status of being a college or university student brings with it value.

For most of us, we do not achieve the status that comes with a role by imitating the role. You may be able to pretend to be a post-secondary student simply by spending time on campus and/or in class, but unless you have a legitimate role, your status and/or value in the eyes of others and perhaps yourself, can be precarious.

For credibility and legitimacy, we need to participate in the activities associated with the role. For years, adults with intellectual disabilities have been imitating and playing roles, not necessarily achieving them. It is not uncommon for adults with intellectual disabilities to volunteer at a workplace to work at similar jobs as others and not get paid, but still be referred to as 'employees'. The same illusion has been applied to other valued roles such as neighbour and friend, with little concern of the impact of this untruth.

The same is true for post-secondary education and other adult learning experiences. Some services have attempted to draw on the status of post-secondary education by imitating the student role. Over the years numerous segregated learning experiences on segregated campuses, as well as segregated learning experiences on community-based campuses have been created. Life-skills programs offered 'in house' by human service agencies, and vocational training programs are just two examples. In both cases, 'students' are never able to achieve the same status as other post-secondary students. They achieve a similar role, even imitate the role, but never truly achieve it in the eyes of others.

Inclusive Post-secondary Education

Inclusive Post-secondary Education (IPSE), a relatively new phenomenon, has been able to draw on the inherent value and status of post-secondary education and enable students with intellectual disabilities to assume the valued role of 'student'. This has provided IPSE students with more credibility than ever before, and helped them attain the status and value held by other post-secondary students.

IPSE is available to any adult with an intellectual disability and as such, supports a diverse group of learners. This means that IPSE programs are open to any adult with an intellectual disability including adults labeled as severely, profoundly handicapped who may not have formal means of communication and who require personal care for their health and transportation needs. Conversely, students who are able to read, write and interact independently with others are also included into college or university. The process of selecting applicants deliberately avoids using disability labels, communication skills, or intellectual ability as criterions for participation.

IPSE is inclusive and coherent with other post-secondary student experiences, meaning that students are included in the same academic, social and recreational experiences as others. There are no separate classes, classrooms, academic or non-academic activities specifically for IPSE students. To ensure successful inclusion for students into these areas, a number of modifications to regular delivery are utilized:

  • Students have formal audit status in classes. Rather than attempting to meet the academic requirements of post-secondary classes, there is an emphasis on students participating (learning and socializing) to the best of their abilities and to learn in a very individualized fashion.
  • In collaboration with participating instructors, curriculum and learning objectives are modified to meet the capabilities of each student. Instructors are not asked to modify delivery of course content, rather the role of the IPSE staff is to consult with them to determine key areas of focus for the classes, and to modify learning materials and activities in conjunction with what is covered in class. If a student can participate in any portion(s) of the class without modifications, that would be the preferred manner. In this way, students share the same access to expert instruction, but in a way that makes the experience challenging, and meaningful to them.
  • Program staff spend time with students outside of class on a regular basis, going over modified materials (i.e., plain language notes/readings, assisting student's with getting assignments done, studying for exams or any other class related activity) to support and facilitate learning. This academic support can also be provided by classmates and instructors using many of the same mechanisms available to other post-secondary students i.e. study groups, instructor office hours.

Students are encouraged to become involved in the same everyday activities as other students. This can include study groups, clubs, student association, recreation, leisure, fraternities and other activities available to students. Participation in these activities may or may not require modification, depending on the activity and the person. Modification may mean partial participation or other related adaptations, so that students can participate at a level suitable to their abilities and the demands of the environment. The recruitment and support of natural supports in all of these experiences is a central idea and practice.

IPSE programs are year-round with students supported throughout the calendar year. Generally this would mean that students are included in college or university classes from September through April and then supported to find summer jobs. These summer jobs prove to be valuable opportunities to develop work related skills and make connections to future employers.

All in all, attending IPSE means that the experience of attending college or university for adults with intellectual disabilities is the same as other post-secondary students. Their role and status is validated by formally registering as an audit student, which brings legitimacy to the student role. As well, meaningful involvement in the everyday activities of student life, alongside other students, means IPSE students live their role, not imitate it.


One of the guiding constructs utilized in the formation of IPSE has been model coherency. When examining practices, strategies and organizational decisions against the standard of model coherency, IPSE services recognize that coherency needs to extend to the systemic level as well as the personal level. In order for IPSE services to promote and support socially valued roles for their students, they have considered how they are organized and housed within their governing institutions. As much as possible, IPSE has sought to be embedded within post-secondary settings.

The first systemic consideration when implementing SRV in service delivery then becomes model coherency within the institution, allowing for organizational role valorization. Human service organizations typically occupy a devalued role themselves within society, making the social role valorization of their 'clients' even more problematic. By seeking to improve the perception of value of the organization by aligning and weaving it within the educational system, IPSE improves the ability to enhance the value and social roles of students. For the organization, this has meant examining practices with regards to three main components:

  • Role coherency for staff
  • Organizational or Structural coherency
  • Temporal coherency

Role Coherency for Staff

In order to achieve role coherency for the staff it becomes critical that IPSE services are operated by the post-secondary institution, making the support staff college employees, not human service workers. For example, the primary support role in IPSE services, the Educational Assistant, is essentially an amalgamation of a number of roles found within a post-secondary setting such as Student Advisor, Instructional Assistant, Instructors and Counsellors. Making Educational Assistants college or university staff ensures that position is coherent with other related post-secondary staff positions. Even the choice of job title reflects language familiar in the educational setting, not the human service community.

For Educational Assistants, this allows them to regard their role as that of an educational facilitator within a post-secondary setting-- providing support to the learner/student just as other positions do. By identifying with the educational context, they actualize their role differently than they would in a more traditional human service or disability context. Their role becomes one of education facilitator, not human service worker, and the activities they perform in their job reinforce this.

For the students of IPSE, the normative educational role of their support staff means their relationship with them is similar to the relationship they have with other faculty associated with the post-secondary institution. This not only allows themselves and others to see the expectations to be those of an adult learner, but also ensures they have, in their eyes and others', less differentiation in role expectations from other students.

The final outcome of the role coherency of staff is the legitimacy it provides for interactions with other post-secondary employees. The similarities in roles and titles enable the other staff within the college environment to engage IPSE staff as fellow educators and partners in learning. This legitimacy is then transferred to the students being recognized as authentic learners.

Organizational or Structural Coherency

Organizational or structural coherency for IPSE means that IPSE services should be housed within the organizational framework of the institution, not outside of it. IPSE services are embedded in the post-secondary institution as opposed to 'stand alone' organizations operating a service on a campus. As a result, IPSE operates within the same governance structures and processes as other post-secondary departments, faculties and programs. Further to this, the administration of the IPSE service needs to be handled by the institution as well. Although the funding source can, and probably will be different, it still is provided directly to the institution for administration, just as it would for any other service or project within the college that bring in external funding. This implies there be no separate or parallel finance or administrative structures as there would be in a 'stand alone' human service model. This organizational alignment allows IPSE services and students, to be genuine members of the college community, entitled to all the benefits and services therein. All too often, human services are offered in generic settings at arms length. Recipients of these services end up 'field tripping' to community as visitors, but never achieve true membership. Ensuring that IPSE services are embedded in their governing institution ensures that staff and students are residents of the post-secondary community, not visitors.

Temporal Coherency

The third consideration in achieving model coherency on the organizational level is temporal coherency. On a very basic level, ensuring that the rhythms and timelines of IPSE services reflect those of the post-secondary institution further the aim of embedding these services in the institution and legitimizing their presence as an inherent member of the college. This can be as simple as ensuring that funders adhere to the post-secondary institutions' fiscal year, as opposed to government fiscal year.

Further to considerations of time, is important to think of the student's path over time being similar to other post-secondary students. Planning their education over time needs to take into consideration that the IPSE student experience be reflective of the same rhythms as other post-secondary students; day-to-day, week-to-week, term-to-term and year-to-year. It should be expected that the nature and intensity of support will fluctuate with the changing rhythms of the post-secondary experience and that IPSE needs to be coherent with the natural 'lifespan' of post-secondary education.

Socially Valued Roles for Post-secondary Education: Students

The final lesson learned in implementing SRV in the post-secondary setting is the importance of considering what supports will be necessary to assist someone to assume the student role, and how to shift the focus of support from a deficit context to enhancing competencies. A key concept in this is enabling others to provide what is termed 'natural supports'.

In order to maximize the student's role as learner and enhance their competencies, IPSE programs first adapt the classroom learning environment. Project staff adapt and modify materials, provide tutoring, assist students to complete assignments and generally work outside of the classroom to build on their knowledge. Project staff also spend time helping students understand their roles and responsibilities as a classmate and student. Project staff provide guidance to students who may not have much experience in inclusive settings understand the culture and expectations of the post-secondary setting. As well, peer supports are recruited from within the student body of that particular class to provide guidance, mentoring, partnership, and camaraderie, as they understand the role of student best. These natural peer supports often begin in the classroom and expand to include the more informal time's studying together and hanging out on campus.

In the area of volunteerism and employment, project staff support students by helping them identify and then gain access to those specific areas of interest and activity. Peer or natural supports are then recruited from within these settings, and provided with information and support to better enable them to understand how they can help IPSE students be successful in their role in that workplace or volunteer setting. By shifting the focus of support from the IPSE student to their peers, or 'supporting the supports', IPSE builds the capacity of the community to include people with intellectual disabilities. Supporting natural supports to be involved also facilitates students with intellectual disabilities to be seen and recognized as legitimate members of that environment.

In the area of friendships and relationships, IPSE programs recruit people who share similar interests and experiences and encourages them to invite and include IPSE students in the social life of the post-secondary community. Through the many contacts made in their varied student roles, and the shared experiences with other post-secondary students, IPSE programs enable people to find the common ground that friendships can be based on.

On an organizational level, the leadership of IPSE needs to be solidly grounded in the philosophy of social role valorization and understand how to apply the concepts when making organizational decisions. This level of consciousness is required to evaluate decisions and direction against standards such as model coherency in order to ensure consistent, knowledgeable leadership. Careful support and ongoing mentorship is necessary as traditional human service practices, and sometimes conflicting assumptions about the ability of students with intellectual disabilities to learn and truly be a 'student', create powerful opposing forces to working towards achieving socially valued roles for people who have been historically devalued and marginalized.


In the 21st century it is generally accepted that education and knowledge are valued commodities. Post-secondary education is a vehicle to enhance one's competencies and image, and therefore enhances one's status and value in society. Post-secondary education is a common and accepted mechanism to achieving meaningful work, friendships, status and value, a place in community, and continued growth. Historically, adults with developmental disabilities have not had access to socially valued roles, nor the primary mechanisms in achieving them.

IPSE enables people with developmental disabilities to achieve the socially valued role of post-secondary education student, and the benefits associated with it. By ensuring that services are coherent with the post-secondary model; that the roles for both students and staff are aligned with other post-secondary roles; and carefully considering the supports required to achieve the role(s), IPSE demonstrates that people with developmental disabilities can achieve socially valued roles and ultimately have access to 'the good things in life.'


Drucker, P. (2001). The next society: A survey of the near future. The Economist, Nov.3 2001, p. 2-20.

Osburn, J. (1998). An overview of social role valorization theory. The International Social Role Valorization Journal, 3 (1), 7-12.

Submitted by

Patricia Bowman and Tim Weinkauf


International Journal of Disability, Community & Rehabilitation
Volume 3, No. 1 SRV Edition
ISSN 1703-3381