Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Students with disabilities reflect on access issues on their campus

From The Whitworthian, the student newspaper at Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash.:

When most students apply to college they think about what dorm they want to live in and the fact that they won’t be living at home. They usually don’t have to worry about whether they can get to their rooms, much less their classrooms. But for students who have physical disabilities, that is just one of the many things they have to think about when going to college.

Junior Lukas Bratcher was born with Amyoplasia Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita, a non-genetic birth condition. It causes stiffness in his joints, underdeveloped muscles, and some muscles never formed. Most students don’t even think about things like getting out of bed or taking a shower that could be considered difficult for other people. For Bratcher, it limited where he could live on campus.

“There’s a handicapped room in Boppell, but the shower was too small,” said Bratcher, who is confined to a power chair. He currently lives in Duvall, the only dorm with an elevator.

This year Bratcher has three men who work for him: a friend from high school, who is his roommate, and two people who live in the room next door. All three of them help him with personal care, including everyday tasks such as getting out of bed, going to the bathroom and getting dressed.

Bratcher didn’t have too many difficulties adjusting to living on campus since he has dealt with the disease all his life. However, there were some things that were a challenge in terms of academics.

“Getting to classrooms [can be a struggle],” Bratcher said. “I can’t get upstairs in McEachran [Hall], I can’t get downstairs in Westminster [Hall].”

Bratcher also has a hard time getting into Lindaman because there isn’t an automatic door.

The other place on campus that has been most difficult for him is the Robinson Teaching Theatre. Fire codes didn’t allow him to set up a table in the back to take notes, so he tried sitting in the back and listening, then getting notes from other people, as well as getting audio of the lectures, but his academics suffered. Then he tried sitting in the front with a table, which allowed him to take notes, even though he couldn’t see the PowerPoints as well. Bratcher took Core 250 over the summer, when it was held in a different room.

Andrew Pyrc, assistant director of Career Services, has helped make Bratcher’s experience at Whitworth easier. When Bratcher has a class in a room he can’t get to or can’t take notes in, Pyrc moves it to a place Bratcher has access to or gets facilities services to bring in a table.

Before freshman Amanda Hughes, who is blind, (pictured) came to Whitworth, she met with an orientation and mobility instructor from the Department of Services for the Blind who helped her learn her way to her classrooms. Hughes has a guide dog to help her around, but she usually walks with people who have class in the same building.

Pyrc has to make sure all disabled students are accommodated for, but that is becoming more difficult as the student body grows. Because there are more students it makes changing classrooms for accessibility more difficult.

“There’s not a lot of wiggle room due to enrollment growing,” he said.

When Bratcher was applying to schools he was required by his high school to apply to five universities.

“I had to apply to one that I was guaranteed to get into and one that would stretch me,” he said. “Accommodation wasn’t even an issue.”

Bratcher said that’s always how he looks at things: he doesn’t let his disability get in the way of doing something.

“I had to look forward and not sweat the small stuff,” he said. “It’s become second nature to look at the big stuff first.”

Hughes also didn’t worry about accommodations when she applied. She knew that she wanted to go to a smaller school.

“I need my professors to know I’m there, I need them to notice me,” Hughes said.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), schools aren’t allowed to ask whether students applying have a disability.

Whitworth asks that students contact the school regarding accommodations at least six to eight weeks before school starts, according to the catalog. Their disability must be documented by a licensed professional, something that may be required in all schools in the state of Washington, according to the Educational Support Services on the Whitworth Web site.

Once a student self-identifies as disabled, Pyrc figures out what accommodations he/she may need.

“We talk about what the student needs to be successful,” Pyrc said. Usually they will talk about what worked in high school so it’s easier to get an idea of how to meet their needs, Pyrc said.

Sometimes Pyrc will let specific faculty know about students and their disabilities if the student wants faculty to know ahead of time.

Often times students might need accommodations in one class but not another, so Pyrc helps them on a need-by-need basis. Some students who are hard of hearing may need to use an amplification device that allows them to hear the teacher’s voice better, Pyrc said.

Devices in the library for visually-impaired students allow them to magnify reading material, and a special computer with software allows students who are blind to use voice commands. Whitworth also has a membership with the lending library so Pyrc can borrow digital recordings of things students need as they need them.

Pyrc orders all of Hughes’ books as digital recordings so that she can listen to them. There is also an organization that scans the pages of textbooks and put them on a CD if blind students are unable to get a digital recording, Hughes said.Hughes said that even though she is blind she doesn’t think her college experience is better or worse than other college student’s experiences.

“The only thing different about me is that I can’t see, but I make up for it in other ways,” Hughes said.