More than 2 million people watched — and wept — as Rion Holcombe, a 20-year-old man with Down syndrome, joyfully opened an acceptance letter from South Carolina’s Clemson University in 2013. Behind the camera, Rion’s mom was crying too.
“I always knew Rion would have a great life,” Susan Holcombe told TODAY Parents. “But I didn’t ever imagine he could go to college, no way.”
In fact, when Rion was 5, a school psychologist told his parents to expect their son to plateau at age 13. Many parents of children with Down syndrome recall hearing similarly dire predictions — that they should brace themselves for lives of hardship, or even that their kids would be better off institutionalized.
These days, though, special college and university programs are changing that storyline. There are more than 265 postsecondary opportunities across the United States for students with Down syndrome, autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities. They range from career-focused programs at community colleges to offerings that focus on liberal arts and academics at four-year colleges and universities, and they all have this in common: They foster self-help and independence, preparing students to hold down jobs and take good care of themselves.
Rion Holcombe is a 2016 graduate of Clemson’s two-year LIFE program in South Carolina, the 25-year-old is juggling two jobs that allow him to pay for all his own expenses, including medical care and bowling dates with his girlfriend, Rachel Lewis, who also has Down syndrome. (He works as a water-slide attendant at a local YMCA, and he’s also an office technician at an occupational therapy practice.)
While at Clemson, Rion lived on campus and took classes such as functional literature, self-advocacy and traffic safety. Rion also developed listening skills that saved the life of his 81-year-old grandmother, Pam Copeland, last summer. “He didn’t like the way she sounded when they were on the phone, so he texted me to check on her,” Rion’s mom Susan recalled. Copeland was rushed to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia and heart failure.
“The confidence and focus that Rion gained at Clemson made him acutely aware that was something was very wrong,” Susan said. “He’s become extremely observant.”