Tuesday, November 2, 2010

California colleges opening more doors to disabled students

From The Monterey Herald in Calif. In the picture, Monterey Peninsula College instructor Alexis Copeland works with student.

Disabilities are a reality for many students at local colleges and universities, but cutting-edge technology, modern teaching methods and specialized services can make education less of an obstacle at CSU Monterey Bay, Monterey Peninsula College and Hartnell College.

Students at the schools are graduating despite speech and language impairments, hearing and sight disabilities, psychological issues and virtually any other problem that can hinder the learning process.

"We work almost exclusively with adults. I think our oldest student, many years ago, was 91," said Terria Odom-Wolfer, faculty coordinator and instructor in MPC's Department of Supportive Services and Instruction, which serves people with physical therapy and rehabilitation needs, heart problems, and students with issues such as blindness, hearing loss and learning disabilities.

"Our program is unique to many community colleges in the sense that we have a fairly extensive instructional side, along with services," she said.

Services provide whatever is needed to help a disabled student master course content.

"That might be done by providing an accommodation that levels the playing field," she said. "For example, we might allow extended time to complete a test, or provide a student with a quiet place in our testing center that would reduce the types of distractions he or she might encounter in a regular classroom. Something like pencil tapping or a quiet conversation between another student and the instructor might be very distracting to a person with attention deficit disorder."

The Department of Supportive Programs and Services at Hartnell College, which lost four of its eight staff members to retirements and budget cuts during the past two years, is more counselor focused, said program coordinator Kathy Noble. Disabled students are integrated into mainstream classrooms. Counselors lend support but teach self-advocacy.

"We don't notify our instructors that a student with a disability is coming into the classroom," she said. "We want our students to learn how to discuss their particular classroom needs with their instructors, in conjunction with working with our Department of Supportive Programs."

Both local community colleges help disabled students build learning strategies that will enable them to be successful in mainstream classrooms.

Adaptive physical education classes — courses that accommodate special-needs students — are widely used by locals who may have reached the limits of their medical insurance but require physical therapy.

While community colleges focus heavily on providing disabled students an opportunity to learn what kind of accommodations and support are available, and how to request equal access, CSUMB has an expectation that they will have the skills by the time they arrive.

"We have a very professional staff that is part of Health and Wellness Services here, so we work very closely with our Personal Growth and Counseling and our campus health center on the overall wellness of the student," said Margaret Keith, coordinator of Student Disability Resources at the university. "We have a focus on overall wellness in addition to academic success."

Technological advancements have been a boon to students with disabilities in recent years.

A computer program called Kurzweil 3000 provides students with reading, writing and study skills through electronic textbooks that allow the user to annotate the text by highlighting key ideas, inserting notes to themselves.

Dragon Naturally Speaking converts speech to text, or text to speech — invaluable to a student with limited physical mobility or vision impairment.

SmartPen is a device that records a lecture as the student takes notes, then instantly replays a point in the recording that coincides with a specific note when the pen is touched to that location on the paper.

A program called ZoomText magnifies everything on a computer screen up to 32 times for the benefit of people with impaired vision.

"We're actually seeing a big societal paradigm shift to a more auditory world," said Alexis Copeland, adaptive technology specialist at MPC. "This technology is becoming more universally accessible to everybody, not just disabled students. The SmartPen would be great for somebody trying to copy the minutes of a meeting. Older people who are losing their eyesight can benefit from ZoomText or Dragon Naturally Speaking or Kurzweil."

Students with disabilities graduate at almost the same rate at Hartnell College as the general population, Noble said. CSUMB graduates its disabled students at a rate similar to "other underrepresented groups in higher education," said Keith.

"That doesn't mean every student is going to do it in two years — though some will and with an extremely high grade-point average — but they matriculate as the same rate as the other students," Noble said. "It's incredible how hard they work and what they're able to accomplish in light of what their obstacles are."

Keith said the growth of K-12 programs for students with disabilities injected college programs with significant enrollment increases among that population: 20 percent in the past school year, 16 percent in the previous — much higher than the numbers in the mainstream campus population.

"My favorite day of the year is when I volunteer at commencement, where I see students and their families so happy and proud of their academic achievements," she said.