For many high school seniors, choosing a college to attend next fall depends on a lot of factors – the academic program one wishes to pursue, proximity to home, available scholarships – for Zach Mecham, the list includes wheelchair accessibility on campus, personal attendant care and other accommodations.
With the help of his IEP team including Lisa Smith, a physical therapist at Heartland AEA, Zach was able to find a college that both suited his academic and physical needs.
Zach was initially referred to Heartland AEA when he was 2 years old due to concerns with his gross motor development. He later received a diagnosis of congenital muscular dystrophy, which causes severe muscle weakness and joint stiffness.
During his early years of working with Smith, the goal was to get Zach walking independently with a walker. As Zach grew older, his condition progressed and his goals changed to being independent with his power wheelchair. Smith continued to work with Zach throughout his elementary years to master skills that broadened his mobility and independence.
Smith also worked with Zach’s teachers and school district to accommodate Zach’s needs.
“In middle school and high school, my role changed to helping the school secure equipment to assist Zach, teaching others how to evacuate him from the second floor and helping Zach maintain as much independence as possible with his mobility and managing classroom materials,” Smith said.
“She (Smith) has been a great resource for us,” Zach’s mother, Brenda, said. “His school years would have been much more difficult, and we appreciate all she and everyone we have worked with at Heartland has done to help us.”
Now a senior at Pleasantville High School, Zach’s attention has turned to life after high school. His IEP team has helped him explore post-secondary options, including Smith who accompanied Zach and his mother on a campus visit to Drake University this spring.
Smith helped Zach look at wheelchair accessibility of the campus, buildings and dorms, helped him problem-solve options for a personal care attendant and met with the University’s disability consultant to discuss what accommodations it would provide for him.
“Lisa provided a lot of help for the college visit,” Zach said. “She thought of a lot of things I didn’t and made sure I asked the right questions.”
Zach recently decided to apply at Drake University to major in psychology and has hopes of becoming a forensic psychologist. He looks forward to his future and hopes to enjoy a rewarding career that interests him. “The AEA has done a lot to prepare me for life outside of high school,” Zach said. “With great advice and excellent resources, I’m confident I’ll be ready for college and life beyond.”
As Zach gets ready to graduate, Smith has mixed emotions as she readies herself to see him start the next chapter of his life. “It is always exciting to see a student graduate and move on to post-secondary education,” she said. “As a PT (physical therapist) who gets to work with children from birth-21, it’s easy to get attached to the kids and families that I work with. I look forward to seeing what Zach pursues and wish him much success.”