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Accommodations for Students and Employees With Disabilities Can Take Many Forms

November 10 2017

The Office of Disability Resources and Services fields a lot of calls from faculty, asking about their responsibilities when it comes to accommodating students with disabilities. Office director Leigh Culley understands why.

Zach Crighton, a 17-year-old high school student with cerebral palsy, meets with students in the Compassionate Design course taught by lecturer John Moalli. The students are hoping they can make improvements to Crighton’s wheelchair and communication tools. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

“We have a notion as to what ‘disability’ is and it’s typically a disability you can see,” Culley said. “The majority of students who are registered with our office have a hidden disability” 97 percent, in fact. “And ‘disability’ is a very broad term.” It may be an information processing disorder, involve sensory disability or stem from the effects of medication. It may be caused by a chronic illness, a psychiatric or learning disability or a traumatic brain injury.

“When there’s an obvious impairment, there seems to be a clear understanding of what that student might need,” she added. “There’s a challenge students have when they don’t appear to be disabled to demonstrate that they do in fact have a need.”

Culley has directed the office since 2014, after working there since 2002 as a disability specialist. She and her staffers determine student needs, ensuring they have equal access to the academic environment.

While the office is part of the Division of Student Affairs, staff and faculty members also request accommodations through the Office of Disability Resources and Services, although it is much less common, Culley said. Designing the accommodation involves employees and their supervisors assessing the unique tasks involved in each job.

Typical employee workplace accommodations include acquiring or modifying office equipment, software or devices; shifting work schedules; and adjusting or modifying training materials and work stations.

The greatest challenge for Culley’s office is ensuring the latest technology is accessible to those with disabilities, from applications to websites, including CourseWeb (Blackboard Learn), the University’s web-based learning management system.

Extensive course reading also may require that printed materials be made available to the student in other formats; lectures may need to be captured using the latest computer tools. For instance, a Livescribe “smartpen” can capture audio from a lecture alongside a student’s handwritten notes, synching them into a digital record, which allows students to review these classroom materials at their own pace afterwards. Culley’s office also can equip students with Sonocent software that pairs lecture audio with PowerPoint slides and other current multimedia presentations commonly employed in the classroom.

For other students, the accommodation may be as simple as having a volunteer peer provide copies of his or her notes from class.

But the most commonly requested student accommodation is extended time on exams.

Allowing for different course attendance standards is among the most difficult accommodations for faculty to implement, Culley said. Some students’ disability symptoms may flare up and subside unpredictably, affecting their ability to come to class. “We want to respect the fundamental requirements of the course,” she said, while still coming to a workable solution.

Faculty respond well to accommodation requests for the most part, she reported: “Reluctance is typically due to lack of understanding. We see that as an opportunity to provide some education around that disability, and that generally leads to a positive outcome.”

Creating a useful and usable campus environment for those with disabilities “is a campus-wide responsibility,” she concluded. “It’s being aware, asking questions, getting information and challenging our understanding of what disability means.”

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