“You Are Not Alone” is both a class and a promise at the College of Adaptive Arts (CAA) for adults with special needs. The students are not alone as they fulfill dreams of attending and graduating from college—dreams once impossible for many who don’t fit the traditional student mold.
“Teaching at the College of Adaptive Arts has expanded my experience of what’s possible for differently-abled people—or even for normally-abled people. We are all different,” said Khalilah Ramirez, who heads the School of Dance. “Everything I’ve learned from the students has shattered my expectations of what’s possible.”
The “You Are Not Alone” student check-in class was initiated by CAA student Brighid. She discovered an organization that told orphans and abandoned or bullied youth, “You are not alone.”
Seeking approval for such an affirming class at CAA, Brighid created and gave a PowerPoint presentation to the CAA Board of Directors. She is now an Associate Professor of Instruction of the hybrid (in-person and online) class, which includes out-of-state students.
“We’ve discovered that through our programs, we can train and actually hire from our pool of students for positions such as Associate Professor and Teacher’s Aids,” said CAA Executive Director and co-founder DeAnna Pursai, named a CNN Hero in 2022. “It opens up a new world to what is possible.”
Some once may have thought the College of Adaptive Arts an impossible dream. It began in a dance studio in San Jose. Nobody showed up for the first class.
That was back in 2009. Friends DeAnna Pursai and Dr. Pamela Lindsay, then special education teachers, had just dared to dream of post-secondary education for special needs people aged 22 and over, the cut-off age for learning accommodations under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Now, fourteen years later, the nonprofit CAA is housed on the campus of West Valley College in Saratoga and enrolls nearly 200 students. It fills 850 class seats per quarter, with students taking classes in ten schools of instruction. Expanding beyond the initial arts and music focus, classes include business, science and technology, communications and library arts.
The college’s vision is to be a Special Olympics-type model for life-long education. In 2022, it launched a Global Council on Special Adult Education and Lifelong Learning (CAA SAELL) to collaborate and introduce its model of expanded college education to campuses of higher learning nation and worldwide.
“We want to be a think tank for others. We want to connect, collaborate, and share resources,” said Dr. Lindsay, who developed the educational model for CAA classes.
CAA is “moving the mountain” to bridge the gap between its current annual budget of $1,350,000 and the $2 million needed for ongoing fiscal sustainability.
CAA student Saida, 26, takes public transportation from Oakland to West Valley College, transferring twice. She leaves home before 8 a.m. to be on time for a 10:30 a.m. class.
“It [CAA] helped me become a strong woman in life. I’m a more open-minded and resilient person in this world with my disabilities. It helped me be more independent and find my voice and be more free from my limitations,” said Saida.
“The school made a huge impact on me in so many ways,” continued Saida. “I can continue here as long as I want. It’s life-long learning.”
CAA’s oldest student is in his mid-70s.
For information, visit CAA online at collegeofadaptivearts.org. You can volunteer to support and advocate for CAA or schedule an online or in-person tour, as State Senator Dave Cortese did last December.