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Podcast – College Support for Students with Disabilities

June 15, 2018


The Pioneers podcast convenes the world social change makers to share their knowledge, challenge our assumptions, and offer practical solutions for a more equitable future. The Pioneers podcast is hosted by HeartShare Human Services, a non-profit supporting and empowering marginalized New Yorkers since 1914.

Today, we would like to talk about transition and counseling support for students with disabilities.

Mitch Nagler is the director of the Bridges to Adelphi program, and it’s designed to enable students with Asperger Syndrome and other nonverbal learning disorders to transition from a secondary school setting, into Adelphi College. Mitch also has a clinical practice in New York, and Merrick, New York, which provides specialized clinical and educational counseling services for individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome and other related conditions.

HeartShareNY: Welcome, Mitch.

Mitch Nagler: Hi Jen, how are you?

HeartShareNY: Good, thank you. I’m very interested in learning more about your program. I don’t know if a lot of colleges have a specifically tailored transition program for students with disabilities. I’d really like to learn about the scope of your work at Bridges to Adelphi.

Mitch Nagler: So, most colleges do not have a defined structured program for students who are on the spectrum. Most colleges, or all colleges, must have a Disability Support Services office where students can get general academic accommodations like extended time for exams, for note takers, and classrooms, but the students that we work with need much more comprehensive services than that. Also, to have a place, an office where they can come to get all of their needs met, is unique. There aren’t that many colleges that are that are doing that right now. So, the design of the program is, well we currently have a hundred students in the program. They do not apply to the program, they apply to the University. If and when they’re accepted to the University, they can choose to enroll in the Bridges program. We do not demand documentation because I prefer to see the students as individuals rather than diagnoses, but the program is designed for folks on the spectrum. We have a certain framework that we work for work with. 90% of the students in the program, so 90 out of the 100, actually are on the spectrum. They have Asperger Syndrome, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, or whatever we’re calling it depending on how they diagnose people, but we have at least 10% of the students who have something else. We have a young lady who’s had two major brain aneurysms. We have people with other diagnoses, and by the way, being on the spectrum does not make you immune from other mental illnesses. So, we have a wide variety of people that we deal with. The beautiful part of the program is that we try to create individual service programs for everybody here. We offer academic, social, and vocational services so the students can get help day-to-day staying up to date with their assignments: assignment completion, study skills, research papers, breaking big assignments down to little assignments, help with readings, it really doesn’t matter. The students can get whatever they want. We have some students that get two meetings a week and we have some students that get 10 meetings a week. It depends on their individual needs.

HeartShareNY: What would a service plan for one student look like? I’m sure it really varies because it is customized, but can you give some examples?

Mitch Nagler: Academically, the basic service plan is like this: twice a week they, and let me say the entire staff are graduate Adelphi students, they’re studying to get their graduate degrees in something like psychology. So, work education and communication disorders. The students in the Bridges Program meet with the graduate students who are doing internships here. Twice a week the student would meet with one of the graduate staff, who we refer to as an academic coach, and they would review the syllabus for each class with them, “Today is Friday. I will see you again on Tuesday. Here’s everything you need to do between today and Tuesday.” They deliver to the students in a variety of ways. Some students want a word document. Some students share a Google Doc. Some students program into their phones. Some students get a 24-hour-a-day, 7-days-a-week color-coded spreadsheet.  This is everything you need to do. Buy the class, buy the assignment. Is it online? Is it in a textbook? Is it a handout? Do you need to go to the library? They get as much detail as they need, “This is where this is. What you need to do until the next time I see you?” Then, when they meet the second time, the question is, “Did you do this stuff?” If they didn’t do it, what got in the way? Then, we begin to try to strategize with them about how to deal with anything from procrastination and avoidance, “I don’t like that class. I don’t like that assignment. I don’t like that professor. I never had to do that in high school.” Whatever it is, we try to problem-solve with them, and then try to avoid the same problem happening twice. That’s all about executive functioning. That means, “You have an exam coming up. When are you going to study?” Things like that. So, all executive functioning stuff, and that’s twice a week. Then, there’s another meeting with a different staff member that’s called a learning strategy meeting. That’s when we work on the assignments that are on that list, “So, here’s what you need to do. Do you want to work on your history assignment? On your computer science assignment? On your psychology assignment?” Whatever. That also occurs twice a week. Now, often one graduate student trying to get all of the work for four or five classes with one student becomes overwhelming for everybody. So, we only add a third graduate student. A second, what we call, “learning strategist,” and we’ll separate the courses. The learning strategist one will take two courses, and learning strategist two will take two courses, and it will be defined that when you meet with learning strategist one, you’re going to be working on these courses when you meet with learning strategist. Two, you’re going to be meeting and working on these courses. Additionally, we have a relationship with the Math and Computer Science Department. So, we have a math major and a computer science major that provides individual tutoring to the students in the program, if they need it and they want it.

HeartShareNY: It sounds like the students have everything that they need to get through their classes. I mean that’s very intensive support.

Mitch Nagler: We also offer what we call, “Executive organizational” stuff. Sort of planning out, “Okay, here’s everything you need to do. When are you gonna do it? Where are you gonna do it? How long are you gonna take doing it?” We also go through their backpacks or help them clear out folders, and keep their papers in order. We offer the service. The students have to come and get it. We don’t go into the dorm rooms. We’re not going out onto the campus and dragging people into meetings. It’s up to the students to feel connected to the program, and to feel like the services that we offer can be helpful. When that happens, we have unbelievable academic outcomes.

HeartShareNY: Yeah, tell me about the outcomes.  

Mitch Nagler: Over the last 5 years, 96% of the kids are still in school, and our average GPA is 3.2. This past fall, we had a 100 percent retention rate, which is way ahead of all curves. So, when the students work with us and are honest with us, then it works. We also help them register for their classes, and we get written consent to talk to their faculty. So, if there is a problem, we can try to help them out by talking to the faculty.

HeartShareNY: I mean this just seems like you’ve cultivated this team of support for this cohort of students. What happens when that support isn’t there? Because I could just imagine that there was such a huge need, and that’s probably why you created this program model, but what happens when they don’t have that support?

Mitch Nagler: Well, they typically fall through the cracks. Either they appear as being too demanding and needing too much service that faculty and staff can’t deal with them, or they just sort of fade away. They sit in the back of the room and you never hear from them again. Then, their grades aren’t good, and they just sort of disappear into the sunset. So, another thing about the program on the Adelphi campus is that we interact with faculty all the time. We’re doing training. We’re meeting individually with departments. We’re meeting the whole department. We’re doing faculty training for the entire faculty at once. We’re meeting with individual professors about problem-solving. We’re creating an atmosphere on the campus. That we’re not here only to support the students, but we’re here to work with and support the faculty as well because many of them have never worked with anybody who had Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, or any sort of different learning style. So we provide the faculty with support as well, which helps the outcomes for the students.

HeartShareNY: Have you seen a large change in the faculty response when you bring this information to them?

Mitch Nagler: Yes, every single time.

HeartShareNY: What’s usually the reaction?

Mitch Nagler: Well, usually when they come to us they’re like, “What is this? Who is this? Why is this student here? I don’t understand this. He or she is being a problem.” Then, when we explain to them that they’re adult students that are just in the support program and that they are students. They are human beings. They do have different learning styles, but if you can work around that you usually find a wonderful student underneath it all. That sometimes, they don’t understand the right way to behave in your class. Sometimes, they have trouble following the criteria for an assignment, but if the professor will work with us and work with the student, we have concrete suggestions that we can give to them to deal with students, depending on who the student is. Once they get that, they feel supported. There’s usually a big change in how they feel about the whole thing. Then, the students are very successful academically and creatively on campus. One of the students in the program created the mobile app at the University. Everybody knows that. We had an art show of student art in the Performing Arts Center. Everybody on campus saw and they realized that, “Oh my goodness. Look how creative the students in the Bridges program are.” We also have we have a writer on the school newspaper. So, over time, the word has gotten out, and a program like this needs the support of the administration and the faculty. Without that, it would be very difficult for the program to be successful, and the students to be successful.

HeartShareNY: I think that sort of lends to my next question because I was going to ask you what are the challenges you face bringing this program to different colleges? Because I know that you have actually implemented this program model at other colleges as well. It seems like one, yes, you have to have the faculty on board. Two, the students have to be willing to be open and honest. What are some challenges that you face?

Mitch Nagler: Well, first of all, I’ve trained other schools to do it. I haven’t actually brought the program there, but it has provided training for schools across the country. They’re not known as the Bridges program, they have their own names, but I have consulted with them to help them get the programs going. In terms of the challenges, well, the first challenge is the administration has to be open to having an identified program for students on the spectrum, and they have to get over their stigma of thinking that that somehow is a bad thing. At Adelphi, it’s viewed as a good thing. You know, it’s diversity. It is inclusivity, and the students bring something special to the University. They bring a different way of thinking. At any college that is something that we should want we should want to hear, what other people think. So, that’s the first thing. There is the problem of getting the faculty to accept it. There’s a cost associated with this. This is a fee-for-service, so not everybody can afford it unfortunately. The students sometimes, the students who have been in special ed their whole lives, just don’t want to be identified as being in special ed anymore. They’ve been stigmatized by it, and getting them past that is often a difficulty. Everybody talks about the transition for the students. The transition for the parents is often at least as difficult, if not more so because they have managed their students K through 12. They talk to the teachers. They talk to the guidance counselor. They talk to the principal. They talk to everybody every day. When you come to college, mom and dad cannot talk to anybody anymore. Except me, and then only if the kids give written consent. So, the transition for the parents is very painful. That first semester is very painful for freshman students who have autism or some similar diagnosis, and getting the parents to trust the system, as well the Bridges program, is a process that we go through.

HeartShareNY: How are you able to do that? How are you able to one, get the students on board after they’ve been stigmatized for their whole lives being in the special education category, and how do you get the parents on board? What do you do about that?

Mitch Nagler: For the students and the parents, both of them, I am very open about not caring what peoples diagnoses are. I’m only interested in who you are. I refer to the people as whole objects. “What is it that we can help you with?” I don’t really care what your diagnosis is. What’s the difference? We try to identify strengths rather than weaknesses. Yes, we try to give the kids the idea that we’re non-judgmental. We are unconditionally positive. We will work with you in any way that you wish, and one of the things that’s really helpful is that the graduate staff that they’re working with is only a few years older than them. We don’t have a professional staff here. So, they’re working with graduate students who are in their young 20s, and the kids coming into school are in their teens. So, the staff is not viewed as threatening or authoritarian in any way.

HeartShareNY: That makes a lot of sense.

Mitch Nagler: Yeah, and most of the grad students have gone undergrad here as well. So, they know the teachers, and they know the courses, and they know where to get the good food, and they know all about the dorms and things like that. So that dynamic, I think, is very helpful for the students. When there’s a problem and the kids have given me consent, I do talk to parents. We have two parent meetings a semester that both are informational, and then become support meetings where the parents can talk to us about things that they’re worried about. Now we’re starting, we just started, a new part of the program where we’re providing the opportunity for individual counseling here, but also providing the opportunity for family counseling.

HeartShareNY: What will that look like?

Mitch Nagler: Typically on a college campus, there’s no family counseling going on. Students can go to the Student Counseling Center and just work with the folks there. Here, we have a licensed mental health counselor who’s worked with our program for three years. Now, she’s going to be doing individual counseling for students in this program, and because it’s going through this program, we could do family counseling because it’s not going through the Student Counseling Center. The Student Counseling Center would never do family counseling. We’re sort of running parallel to them, and I’m a big believer in family dynamics. So, for parents who are struggling in letting go, and for kids who are struggling in letting go and separating, that will be helpful. So, the students, in order to do family counseling, the students have to see the therapist individually as well, and then we’ll mix the family counseling into that. I’m sure there’s not another program anyway whose doing that.

HeartShareNY: I mean it really does seem like you’re tackling the issue from all ends.

Mitch Nagler: Well, they’re also doing social and vocational work, right?

HeartShareNY: Yeah, absolutely.

Mitch Nagler: So, the kids have some social opportunity here pretty much every day. Whether it’s just a big room to hang out in or some planned activity like Dave and Buster’s, or bowling, or shooting pool, or we set up video games here, or Friday night is movie night, all these things are available for them. We have a men’s group that meets once a week and a women’s group that meets once a week, and those are pretty focused on the same things about relationships and dating, and romance and things like that. We have a mindfulness group that meets once a week. They have a creative arts group that meets once a week. We offer yoga and meditation once a week. So these are all social events, and then the office is open Monday to Friday from 8 to 8, and Saturday from 9 to 4, and there are 25 students in the office at all times. Just being here in a safe environment where they feel accepted and comfortable. They eat meals in here. They will eat food in here. They play video games in here. They do schoolwork in here. It’s just a safe environment for them, and we always have staff out in the lounge area in case students need help with anything. We also offer a peer mentoring program where we get volunteers from the undergraduate population. We have 65 volunteers we partner up with one on one with students in the program, and we try to get the volunteers to get the students involved in campus life.

HeartShareNY: Are those volunteer students?

Mitch Nagler: Volunteer undergrads and they meet once a week with a student and the Bridges program. We partner them up and they meet with them once a week for an hour to try to get them involved in campus life. So that they shouldn’t just be doing things in the Bridges program.

HeartShareNY: Right. Well, it sounds like, from all the activities and supports that you described, that Adelphi is a happening place and is a good place for anybody.

Mitch Nagler: Yeah, and for a long time I thought that the goal of the program would be just to have them do well academically and socially. Then, I realized if we don’t help them get jobs, what’s gonna happen when they graduate?

HeartShareNY: Exactly.

Mitch Nagler: So, in the last two years I’ve developed a rather comprehensive job placement program, where we now have 1 full-timer and 3 part-timers who we give them a full vocational testing battery. We do resume writing, job interview skills, both individually and in groups, and we are developing corporate partnerships for summer internships and full-time jobs.

HeartShareNY: How long have you been doing that vocational component?

Mitch Nagler: This is the third year, and that is clearly the most important thing that we’re doing right now because our graduating classes are growing over time. Last year, we had 15 graduating, this year we have 16, and next year we have 25.

HeartShareNY: I was just gonna say, just tying this into the HeartShare Ability and Inclusion Summit — why are you participating in that event?

Mitch Nagler: Because I feel that this is the pressing issue in college programs for students on the spectrum. “What’s going to happen when they graduate?” So, I am looking to partner with corporations and other like-minded thinkers to be able to move students into careers in the areas that they study, where they get paid competitive wages, so that they can live independent and successful lives. That’s why, and I think that at the HeartShare group, I found on both sides, I found people who understand the difficulties that we have in getting the students into jobs and that the interviews probably need to be changed. The interview style needs to be changed. The interview setting may need to be changed, and people who are looking for folks with disabilities to fit their corporate needs have to be hiring. So, it’s a great match of people who are on all sides of the equation.

HeartShareNY: What would be the ideal outcome for you to create more inclusive employment, and what would you hope for an employer to do?

Mitch Nagler: Well, my ultimate outcome is that every student that graduates should have the opportunity to get a job in their field of study, where they’re getting paid competitive wages so that they can live an independent successful life. The ideal situation with an employer would be that they would understand that they’re gonna have to modify a little bit — how they’re gonna get that person in there and get them comfortable, but once our students get comfortable they grow their intelligence. They’re great. They’re creatives, and we will provide training for supervisors and staff in the corporate world. Then, we’ll also provide job coaching if necessary, to help everybody along. I’m not thinking that we should just be putting students into jobs and walking away. So, we want to follow it all the way through.

HeartShareNY: Absolutely, and if they receive that much support in the school setting that should continue, as you’re saying, in their position.

Mitch Nagler: Yeah, and we’ve had a couple students who, over the summer, were hired out of their internships into full-time jobs and that’s it. That’s the goal.

HeartShareNY: Absolutely, what can our listeners do to create social change? Whether it’s in the higher education setting or if you’re an employer, what are some things that we can do?

Mitch Nagler: Well, it’s about awareness, and it’s about understanding that diversity is nothing if we don’t have inclusivity. Just because we have a diverse population or a diverse workforce, if we’re not giving people opportunities to display their talents, then it’s not really as valuable as it should be. Inclusivity is more important for me, and being open to that there are people who learn and work in different ways. That we need people who think about things differently. We need to think about things in different ways than neurotypicals do. I mean these are problem solvers, but you may have to modify your expectations of time, or place, or style. That they may not work the same way as everybody else. If you are flexible and open, and you’re willing to take a chance, these are amazing people who have been identified by a diagnosis their whole life, who now have been liberated from that and are ready to change the world.

HeartShareNY: I mean that’s incredible. I mean, basically what you’re saying is that if you just give the investment of a little bit more time and attention there could be incredible outcomes resulting from including them in the conversation. Including them in the workplace, but also the results of what they could do is limitless.

Mitch Nagler: Yes, and we’re going to be there to provide support all the time.

HeartShareNY: That’s great. That’s really great. If we want to learn more, how can we find you or your work? Especially since you said that you’ve trained other college administrations in this program model.

Mitch Nagler: So, people can reach me directly at my work email which is:, or if they want to find out more about the program it would just be

HeartShareNY: Okay, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Mitch Nagler: The work that we’re doing is really important and really meaningful, and the outcomes are certainly supporting the efforts that everybody’s putting in. We offer the opportunity for the students and their families to see a bright future, where most of them, at one time or another, probably couldn’t figure out how it would work at all. So, we’re here to blaze the path for students on the spectrum to be able to live independently and successfully.

HeartShareNY: Well, thank you. Thank you for doing that work. It’s really very inspiring. So keep it up, and thank you for joining us!