Innovative BC program helps students with cognitive disabilities earn college degrees

Date posted: June 20, 2013

Of the hundreds of students who walked across the stage of KeyArena to accept their diplomas during Bellevue College’s commencement ceremony recently, nine extraordinary graduates were among them. They have cognitive disabilities that have made it difficult to pursue a college education. But thanks to OLS at Bellevue College, a pioneering occupational and life skills program, combined with their own hard work and dedication, these students have earned associate degrees that will help them get jobs so they can support themselves and live independently.

One such student is April Berning of Bellevue. She recently completed an internship as part of the degree program at Bellevue Fire Department. Her duties included managing documents; creating a process for the use and storage of 50 years’ worth of photos; compiling pictures for the department’s 50th anniversary; and assembling supply kits for all nine fire stations.

“During my 4 years at OLS, my self-confidence grew, which allowed me to strive for the best for myself.  I learned to become more aware, which allows me to work more successfully as a team. Over all, OLS has been a life changing experience. I used to think having a learning disability was a bad thing, but now I am proud to be who I am, disability or no disability, and I don’t want to change that about myself,” Berning said.

Created in 2006, OLS is a four-year, 90-credit associate degree program designed for adults with cognitive disabilities. This means they have serious difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions, which interferes with their ability to learn in a traditional college environment.  And the majority of students have multiple diagnoses, which may include a significant learning disability, sight impairment, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, an autism spectrum disorder, or even a traumatic brain injury.

OLS, the only program of its kind in the nation, seeks to build students’ skills in critical-thinking, job readiness, and interpersonal communication. The fully-accredited program also emphasizes self-determination skills, in which students learn how to advocate for themselves and set goals. Additionally, students develop career paths based on their strengths, skills and interests. As part of the program, they complete intensive 200-hour internships related to their career paths with area businesses, which often lead to full- or part-time jobs.

Students who successfully complete OLS are much more likely to be employed. In King County, the number of people ages 18 to 64 with a cognitive disability is just over 50,000, with only 25 percent of those employed in any capacity. In contrast, 85 percent of OLS program graduates are employed, at an average wage of more than $10 per hour. This is in contrast to most persons with disabilities, who are paid minimum wage, if they are employed at all. And many graduates are working more than 20 hours per week in skilled jobs with advancement opportunities.

Because of the unique nature of the program, students come from all over the region, and even from other states, to participate. Bellevue College is working to bring this innovative program to other community colleges in the state, and, eventually, throughout the country.

“This program provides access to higher education for a population that has never had the opportunity to be part of the college experience. It’s amazing to see the positive changes in the lives of our students, who are able to work in higher-level positions, at higher wages, as a result of OLS,” said Marci Muhlestein, OLS program director.

The program, which has a selective admissions process, is currently accepting applications until July 15 for the fall quarter. For more information on how to apply, contact the program office at (425) 564-5206 or, or visit