Boise State program supports students with disabilities

Boise’s Ian Peachey grew up engulfed in Bronco culture.

Peachey donned blue and orange to watch Boise State University sports games on weekends. He admired Boise State athletes, and witnessed the sense of life and community that the university brought to his hometown. He pictured himself at the university after high school, getting the quintessential college experience in his own backyard.

But as a person with autism, Peachey wasn’t sure what his higher education journey would look like — that was, until he found PEERS (Providing Exceptional Education and Raising Standards), a two-year program at Boise State designed to give students with intellectual and developmental disabilities a typical college experience, while building up their confidence and preparing them for the workforce.

The intention of the program is to open the door to higher education for students with developmental and intellectual disabilities, who might not be able to access college otherwise.

So far, PEERS has done just that.

The PEERS program is still in its infancy.

Associate Professor Jeremy Ford first brought the idea to Boise State in his job interview in 2014, and the university’s dean was interested — but it wasn’t until 2020 that the program really kicked off, opening up opportunities for students who are typically underrepresented at the college level.

“Our students with intellectual and developmental disabilities see college as a normal pathway for so many people,” said Ford, now the program’s director. “They see their friends going and they see their siblings going. Having that opportunity available for them is something that is important.”

“College isn’t for everyone,” Ford continued. “But access to college is something that should be available for anyone who’s interested, and wants to do the work.”

PEERS’ first class of four graduates — Ian Peachey, Ryan McKay, Carter Anderson and Spencer Wheat — can attest to that.

The PEERS program had four graduates in 2023, left to right: Carter Anderson, Ryan McKay, Spencer Wheat and Ian Peachey. Photo via the Boise State University Facebook page.

Like Peachey, McKay had always planned on going to college. But finding the right program was difficult.

While college pathways for students with developmental disabilities have become more common in recent years, only about 323 schools in the U.S. have a program — that’s about 7% of colleges and universities nationwide, according to Think College, a directory under the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

McKay’s family had considered programs at Washington State University, the University of Idaho and Idaho State University. But the distance (combined with the pandemic interrupting their plans to tour the schools) concerned the Sand Hollow-based family. When Tara McKay, Ryan’s mother, heard about PEERS, it peaked her interest.

“It was a program and it was local,” she said. “We knew we wanted to continue his education, this was the next step.”

Through the PEERS program, Peachey, McKay and their classmates got the chance to explore their academic interests, and expand their social circles at Idaho’s largest university.

The PEERS program application can be found on Boise State’s website. PEERS asks that applicants name their disability, have some type of work experience (either paid or volunteer), write an essay about why they’re interested in attending Boise State and submit letters of recommendation.

They attended a series of required classes, but also took elective courses, either audited or for credit.

“(Ian) was going to class, he was hanging out with neurotypical students and he had homework assignments, but they didn’t affect his grade,” said Brad Peachey, Ian’s father. “There were times where there’d be a huge assignment, and he would work as hard as he could— that’s all we want. We just wanted him to try it, and to experience what it was like, without it being detrimental to his academic performance or hindering other students in the class.”

But the social component is just as important as the academic side of PEERS, Peachey continued.

“(Ian) grew up here and he’s always been a huge fan of Boise State,” he said. “He’s always wanted to be part of that, and that was the thing that we liked the most…he would go to school, get to know his way around campus and eat in the SUB building. He experienced as much of the college experience as he could.”

Ian Peachey on graduation day, via Dana Peachey.

Peachey and McKay worked at the Rec Center, made friends across campus and closely followed Boise State athletics — Peachey showed at nearly every softball, football and basketball game his first year at the college; McKay went to a few games, and was thrilled to be in a kinesiology class with a football player.

But the students didn’t get to live on campus — something both families said was a drawback, and an issue that many students at Boise State and other Idaho universities are facing. For McKay’s family, the daily drive from Sand Hollow to Boise was taxing, and sometimes caused him to miss out on social opportunities.

A group of current students and recent graduates at the bowling alley in BSU’s student union building, via PEERS Director Jeremy Ford.

“I think they miss a lot by not living on campus,” said Tara McKay.

The housing issue, along with a lack of faculty awareness about inclusive classroom practices, are barriers PEERS leaders are constantly working on.

The PEERS program also focuses on career readiness.

“Individuals who participate in inclusive postsecondary education programs are much more likely to find employment after school,” said Ford. “Our students graduate from the PEERS program and they are alumni of the university, they have access to…career services for help with developing resumes and job applications, and things of that nature…We’ve also been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a comprehensive transition program.”

In May, Peachey, McKay, Anderson and Wheat graduated with two-year certificates in Community and Career Readiness Studies — an undergraduate certificate approved by the university and the State Board of Education — and officially became Boise State alumni. Boise State president Marlene Tromp honored the PEERS program graduates at commencement.

“Congratulations to all of you on a job well done,” Tromp said. “And thank you for your contributions to fostering a thriving community here on campus, and beyond.”

Since graduating, Peachey and McKay say they’re more confident and are ready to tackle the workforce, thanks to PEERS. Both students are currently looking for work.

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber

Reporter Sadie Dittenber focuses on K-12 policy and politics. She is a College of Idaho graduate, born and raised in the Treasure Valley. You can follow Sadie on Twitter @sadiedittenber and send her news tips at [email protected].

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