This month’s topic is extraordinarily sensitive and delicate. I want to start by saying that I’m only expressing my opinion in this piece and not the opinion of anyone I am affiliated with.
I graduated from university in 1997. Then the ADA was only six years old and assistive technologies were nowhere near as good as they are today. Graduating from university seemed to be an extraordinarily elusive target at the time. Every semester I was only able to take three classes. Two or three times I enrolled in a fourth but was never able to complete all four. I was an extraordinarily independent student according to the disabled students programs at the various schools I attended. They said this because I rarely went to them to find readers or for exams. I look at the services offered to students today from various universities and realize if I had had those types of services while in university I could’ve finished much quicker and possibly even gone on to a second or third degree.
Students in postsecondary education in the United States have fantastic opportunities that nobody would’ve imagined 20 years ago. Almost every private and public school has staffing to support these disabled students throughout their entire education. Some schools have additional resources to support students even beyond legally mandated services. Students with disabilities have basic rights now protected by law. A student with a reading disability is guaranteed access to their texts in a format that works for them. Students with mobility impairments are guaranteed the right to classrooms and other facilities at a school that they need to use. Students with psychiatric disabilities can receive accommodations that will allow them to complete their education. I am proud to work at an institution that has always embraced it students with disabilities and help them to achieve what they wanted. The institution I work for receives additional funding from the Department of Education to provide non-mandated services for our students. Many of the services provided by this funding I would argue should be mandated. However, as they currently am not I appreciating our ability to provide the services.
Colleges the opportunity for young students to change from children to adults. Many incoming freshman are shocked and overwhelmed by the level of independence college brings. Few students adapt easily to the change. By graduation most college students have not only adjusted to the independence and freedom but have become extraordinarily effective independent adults. However, students with disabilities are at a higher risk of not achieving the same independence as their peers. Students with disabilities can become as dependent on a disability services program as they were to their parents and support network they had through grade school. Disabled students programs help their students negotiate their accommodations such as accessing course materials or facilities. Disabled student services are there to guarantee the students access. In my opinion sometimes these programs may cause students to miss out on some of life’s valuable lessons.
My philosophy when working with my students is that students should be served as effectively as possible. But the students should be deeply involved in every step of the process. This is known as the interactive accommodation process. The interactive process fails when students are not given the ability to contribute as much as they can to the process. For example if a disabled student services office automatically distributes accommodation letters to faculty students can very easily avoid communicating their needs. By being able to effectively communicate with their faculty students can learn how to then effectively communicate in other life situations. A student that has never had to explain what accommodations they need may not even know. I’m not saying that students instructor should not be automatically informed with an accommodation letter but disabled students also have the responsibility to work with their instructor to see that their needs are met. If an accommodation letter says that a student needs a room alone I believe the student should be responsible for working with the instructor. At some point in time well in advance the student should at least sit down with the instructor and explain what a room alone can consist of in their situation. Can a room alone be in an office? Can the room alone have a window? Both of these factors are very important. If the room alone may be an office with a ringing phone that may be okay for some students but not for others. Some students may be highly distracted visually so a window may cause problems.
Students receiving their course materials in a specialized format should also be extraordinarily involved in the process. A disability service provider can only really determine, by using students documentation, what types of accommodation may be effective. However, the disability service provider needs to engage with the student to be sure how that accommodation is realized. A student with a learning disability that affects their reading may benefit from one of several assistive technologies. Only by closely working with the student to try the variety of products can the best fit be found. For example, does the student need to hear the text, or do pictures distract from the content, how should mathematical formulas be represented, does the student want the footnotes in-line or somewhere else. If an alternative media Center creates all their alternative media exactly the same they can’t serve all the students who require alternative media. Even to students with the same disability may have extremely diverse needs. Students should never step out of this process. Students should also learn how to create their own alternative media. Students should be provided the opportunity to experiment with the tools used by alternative media to create the material. If the student is not provided this opportunity I feel they are cheated later in life. If someone has always scanned your books for you and you graduate there is no one left to scan your books for you. The most valuable skill I learned as a student was to create my own electronic texts from hard copies. I admit I prefer using a human reader for most of my work because I find it quicker and better for me. But knowing how to scan something quickly when no one else is around that can read I wouldn’t give up for the world. Some schools allow students use of assistive technology that the school owns. Our campus helps students find what’s best and then acquire their own. Any student I work with is offered assistance in acquiring their own personal assistive technology. Students then have the opportunity to use and learn as much about the technology that they can. They also are able to take what they used in college to their job and nonacademic life.
Sadly many students are not offered these opportunities. And others that are offer these opportunities do not take it vantage of them. The students who do not take advantage of these opportunities when they are presented are dependent on the system to receive their accommodation. By learning what is required to receive an accommodation students are better able to work live and play independently.