Special-needs student tastes college life in new inclusion program.

Staff Writer

Micah’s going to college. And while thousands of Americans go every year, Micah Fialka-Feldman, 19, of Huntington Woods is a pioneer.

Out of 7.5 million people in the United States with developmental disabilities, Micah is one of the very few who attends college. And he’s one of only three students in a pilot transition program started this January at Oakland University (OU) in Rochester.

Micah at Oakland University with one of his peer volunteers, Nicole Bertrand of Troy, left.


Micah with his family, father Rich Feldman, mother Janice Fialka, and sister Emma, 15.

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The Details

For those interested in more information about inclusion (and to read Micah Fialka-Feldman’s article on the subject), go to the Web site of Inclusion News at www.inclusion.com

Also see KASA (Kids As Self Advocates), a national network of teens and young adults with disabilities and special health care needs, sharing information and resources around healthy and successful transitions to adulthood, www.fvkasa.org.

To learn more about Micah and see a video of his high school run, an interview of him and of his high school teacher Sharon Berke, click here.

For more information about the Disability Pride March in Chicago, July 18, click here or call (773) 263-6378.

The program is designed to help students with special cognitive needs transition from high school into college classes and to help them participate in campus life. Few programs of this kind exist across the country.

Usually, special-needs students are segregated throughout their lives in special-education classes through high school and in living situations that can provide supportive environments. But little is available for those, like Micah, who want to be included in the daily lives and dreams of the general population.

“The value of this program for Micah is if he wants to perform as a non-disabled person, he needs role models to see what that looks like,” says Rebecca Craig, assistant director of special education in the Rochester Community Schools. “He has the right like anyone else to be with his peers and to make connections to jobs.”

Craig worked with OU to create the pilot program called the Rochester Community Schools Post-Secondary Transition Program in Partnership with Oakland Schools.

“Micah is teaching us that he’s capable of many things,” Craig says. “The general student population will also gain from this program and get a better understanding of students with disabilities and see that they have many abilities.

“The program teaches compassion for others — it’s a win-win situation,” Craig says.

“It’s a fun program and I like taking my classes and meeting people,” says Micah, who cannot read or write well, and whose speech is slightly impaired. He also participates in campus activities, such as Hillel and the Social Work Club.

But Micah is no stranger to inclusion. He was the first student with cognitive disabilities in the Berkley Public Schools to be fully included from elementary through high school. His parents, Janice Fialka and Rich Feldman, translated their 1960s activism and ideals into building a supportive community of friends, family and professionals around Micah.

Micah’s achievements, like celebrating his bar mitzvah or earning his letter in cross country, were double victories — for Micah and for the students and teachers who worked with him, Feldman says.

“He’ll be an inspiration to everybody at Oakland University,” says Sidney Schechet, 17, of Southfield, who met Micah through a Friendship Circle program five years ago. The two have been meeting once a week ever since. The Friendship Circle is a Lubavitch-based social service agency in West Bloomfield.

“It takes guts for Micah to go to Oakland University,” Schechet says.

His first few visits as a Friendship Circle volunteer with Micah were formal. Eventually, the two started biking, doing homework together and going to the JCC. “Micah taught me the value of friendship — to see the inner goodness of people.”

Oliver Hersey, 21, went to Berkley High School with Micah. He admits he was looking for an easy credit when he volunteered to take class notes for Micah, but their relationship grew into a friendship.

“I learned what inclusive education is with Micah,” says Hersey, who is studying to be a teacher.

“We all learn differently,” Hersey says. “But it’s time for people to step out of their boxes and meet Micah. We get scared when people look a little different. But for inclusion to work, we need to swallow our fear and find something out about the person.”

Mainstreaming or inclusion is an important part of current thought in special education, says Robert Wiggins, associate dean in the OU School of Education and Human Services.

Students in OU’s program learn coping skills and how they can become independent adults, he says. “They learn what kind of assistance they need so they can transition from high school into a full, satisfying life. The emphasis is not to put limits on Micah.”

Under the program, Micah takes classes for the experience. He won’t earn a college degree, but he’ll discover ways to put his interests and college experience to work for him.

“Micah could probably tell you more about the upcoming presidential campaign than anyone else on campus,” Wiggins says.

Politics is Micah’s passion. He is an award-winning political activist who is currently interning for state Rep. Andy Meisner, D-Huntington Woods, in Lansing.

“Micah inspires me to fight for what’s right,” Meisner says. “He’s not going to be a second-class citizen. Micah has a vision for the way things should be and he’s taking affirmative steps in making that a reality ... like having a productive life.”

Micah says he hopes to work in Lansing to increase awareness on issues from disabilities to the environment, to lobby and to pass legislation.

This summer, he will be part of the first national Disability Pride Parade July 18 in Chicago.

“Unless you have a child with special needs or health needs, you have no idea what that’s like,” says Micah’s father, a researcher in national organizing for the American Federation of Labor and author of End of the Line: Auto Workers and the American Dream.

“All parents want their child to be healthy and capable of interacting and shaping the world around them. So when Micah was born [needing early help, like physical and speech therapy], the fear for his future was a constant concern.”

Micah’s mom, who has a master’s in social work, became an expert. She’s now a national speaker, author and trainer on strengthening the partnership between parents and professionals, inclusive education and other related disability issues.

Micah’s parents came to the realization that every new relationship — whether going to school or meeting a friend — was not just about Micah learning a new skill. “It was also about another person becoming conscious of respecting and including Micah in their world,” his father said.

Micah’s younger sister Emma, 15, remembers trying to change her brother when she was in second grade. She wanted to “make him the fifth grader he was supposed to be” — the older brother who didn’t stutter or who could help her with her homework. But that didn’t happen.

Over the years, she says, she learned compassion from her brother, how to be patient and to smile.

“There’s nothing easy about being a brother or sister to anyone,” Emma says. “But I love lots of things we share, like playing basketball and soccer, talking politics or just making each other laugh.”

Protective of Micah, she’s also aware of how people unconsciously use the “r” word — retarded — that implies a put down, she says. It pains her that anyone would pass judgment on her brother before meeting him.

Working with these difficulties, however, have yielded great triumphs for Micah and his community.

A major achievement was Micah’s bar mitzvah at Workmen’s Circle-Arbeter Ring in Oak Park, feldman says. Micah’s project included videotaped interviews with three Jewish politicians: U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich.; Manette Miller, Wayne State university board member; and then-state Rep. David Gubow.

At Berkley High, another triumph surprised everyone. Though Micah could run only a block, he wanted to join the cross-country team.

“Because the coaches worked with Micah and set clear goals, and his classmates were so supportive and cheered him on, Micah ran a two-mile run in 23 minutes and earned a varsity letter in cross country,” Feldman says.

Another special event, Micah says, was being nominated to the homecoming court in his senior year. The triumph was also a victory for inclusion, says Fialka. Michael Boyd, the senior who nominated Micah, has known him since second grade. “Michael will always have a different view of people with special needs or who are different,” Fialka says, “because of his relationship with Micah.”

Micah’s relationship to his peers continues to grow, along with the skills he learns from them.

One skill he had to learn quickly was how to take the bus to college, an hour-long ride with a transfer in Pontiac. A friend traveled with Micah a few times, showing him the route until he was ready to travel alone.

Once at school, depending on the day, Micah works at the campus day care center, exercises with a trainer at the gym, and takes three classes. For the classes to be most effective, Micah asked students in his class, his peers, to study with him. Two volunteered from his sociology class. They meet with Micah an hour before class twice a week to review their notes together.

One result of their meetings, says OU Sociology Professor Linda Morrison, is that Micah does as well as the other students on quizzes, which he takes voluntarily and are given to him orally (he does not read or write well).

“Micah’s more friendly than most students,” says Nicole Bertrand of Troy, one of Micah’s peer volunteers. “I was surprised how open other students are talking to him. I never witnessed that before [with special education students],” she says.

His other peer, Theresa Bjoerke of Rochester, recruited for the OU soccer team from Norway, hopes to get her master’s degree in psychology when she returns home. She says she and Micah have gone out to eat and to basketball games because Micah wanted to experience college culture.

“He doesn’t pick up class information easily, so we help him,” she says.

The peers learned ways to help Micah from his mother, she says, who suggested tape-recording their discussions so Micah could review them.

“Inclusion in college is a good idea,” Bjoerke says, adding that she hopes to bring the idea back to Norway. “It’s important not to limit people’s lives. I’ve learned a lot from Micah, like how different people function and how you can adjust and adapt to that.”

Professor Morrison says the goals set out by pilot program director Suzanne James is to give these young people a chance to experience college life. Each person in the program does that differently, with different goals and abilities.

Micah, she adds, is motivated, very optimistic and positive about enlarging his experience in the world.

His mom emphasizes the importance of the simple things people do for Micah.

“His story is of many people doing ordinary things that end up with extraordinary results.”