Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dartmouth students with disabilities say access some better, LD services poor

From The Dartmouth:

Almost five months after the release of a student report arguing that the College’s Accessibility Services Office fails to provide students with disabilities the accommodations they need, several students with physical disabilities, in interviews with The Dartmouth, said the College has made progress addressing their difficulties, while students with learning disabilities were critical of the quality of services they receive.

Dean of Faculty Carol Folt, who now also serves as interim provost, and acting Dean of the College Sylvia Spears sent a letter to faculty at the beginning of Fall term reminding professors that they must comply with authorized accommodations for students. The College has also worked to improve the Accessibility Services web site and make other accessibility-related information more readily available.

These changes, according to several students with learning disabilities, have done little to address their concerns.

A female member of the Class of 2013, who wished to remain anonymous due to her continued work with Accessibility Services, said she encountered difficulty receiving her necessary accommodations this fall.

The student, who is dyslexic and requires her books to be scanned into a program that reads them aloud, said she did not receive the electronic form of her texts in a timely fashion because of a miscommunication about her syllabus.

“I’ve been behind in most of my classes because I don’t have books, and I need to read,” she said.

Accessibility Services director Ward Newmeyer, in an interview with The Dartmouth, said he could not comment on specific cases. He did say, however, that there have been a few instances when students did not give him pertinent information about their classes.

The student said that Accessibility Services gave her the impression that the office would have access to her syllabus via Blackboard. The office later informed her that her books were not ready for one of her classes because she had not sent in her syllabus.

“[Newmeyer] made it seem like it was mainly my fault because he said I didn’t send the syllabus,” she said. “I didn’t know I needed to do that.”

Derek, a member of the Class of 2011 who has high-frequency hearing loss and did not want to be fully identified due to the sensitive nature of the subject, said he experienced difficulty communicating with Accessibility Services when he first came to the College.

Derek said hearing aids would have improved his academic performance, especially in larger lecture courses his freshman year, but that he was unaware of resources he could use to address his situation.

“I didn’t really understand what accommodations were available to me,” Derek said, adding later, “If I had known, I think I would have used them freshman year.”

Derek, who is also a member of a committee formed this summer to advise College administrators on disability related issues, said he would like to see more results from the committee’s assessments.

“I’m happy that we’re identifying problem areas,” he said. “But I’d like to see more action.”

Newmeyer said Accessibility Services reached out to students with disabilities in a letter to the freshman class and that he worries about students who are not aware of their disability and might not know to seek help.

“I think we can do more to increase the profile of the [Accessibility Services] office so that students are aware that there are services available to them,” Spears said in an interview with The Dartmouth. “I think we can do more to help students understand what their rights are here, and do more to help staff and faculty to understand what our responsibilities are in meeting the needs of students with disabilities.”

The gap between primary school, where the brunt of the responsibility for diagnosing and addressing disabilities lies with the school, and college, where it is a shared responsibility, can create a stark culture change for students, Spears said.

The female member of the Class of 2013 said she experienced that change dramatically, as her mother primarily took care of coordinating her accommodations in high school.

“I’m a freshman, and I didn’t know how it’s supposed to work,” she said.

Newmeyer said he approves new accommodations for a “relatively short period of time” so that students are required to check back in with him.

In the best cases, Newmeyer said he meets with a student twice: once to approve accommodations for a disability, and a second time to renew the accommodation through the expected date of graduation if the accommodation is working well.

Jonithan Odland ’12, a student with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, said he met with Newmeyer once to approve his disability and again in the spring to renew his accommodations.

“After I met with him the first time, I was on my own,” he said. “No one really kept in touch with me to see how I was doing, if accommodations were working out.”

Spears said that the administration plans to further explore accessibility on campus.

“We’re actually going to study this issue more — where there either could be enhanced communication, enhanced education or enhanced follow-through for students to ensure that once we know what the accommodation is, that indeed it’s in place and that indeed the student is successfully making their way through the class,” she said.

While some students with learning disabilities struggle to receive the accommodations they need from Accessibility Services, several students with physical disabilities said the College has made substantial efforts to assist them.

Jonathan Sigworth ’12, who uses a wheelchair, said the College has “effectively and promptly” dealt with many of the issues he faces.

He gave the example of a door to Wilson Hall, where one of his classes is located, that provides access to the building’s elevator. He said the door was difficult for him to operate due to its weight and the presence of a concrete lip. Within a week, the sidewalk had been repaved and an automatic door installed, he said.

“I couldn’t characterize it as the typical experience for a student with disabilities,” he said.

Although Accessibility Services has been very responsive, Sigworth said, much remains to be done.

“The College is in dire need of [American Disabilities Act] compliancy,” he said.

Dean of Residential Life Martin Redman said that the campus is “where we want to be, legally,” but said the legal requirements are only a minimum that he would like to exceed.

More than 60 percent of undergraduate facilities offer accessible accommodations, Redman said. The Office of Residential Life also works with students on a case-by-case basis to ensure their needs are met.

“The law can’t take into account certain nuances — medical issues — that may or may not fall under [the American Disabilities Act],” he said.

Although ORL prides itself in its individual approach, the College still has further work to do, Redman said.

Karen Afre ’12, who had difficulty walking up stairs due to an injury over Spring term, said her experience being relocated to a more accessible room went smoothly. Afre said her community director contacted ORL.

“It only took her like a day or two,” she said.

Rachael Class-Giguere, director of housing, said that students rarely have to wait for new housing.

“I think that people generally feel like their situation’s been dealt with quickly and effectively, and that they’ve known what their options were,” she said.