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Demystifying Disabilities: University adapts to disabled students

Mariela Patron
Editor in Chief

It came as a shock to Ashley Dalrymple, sophomore psychology and education major, when a music professor initially doubted she had the potential to play piano in a music class.

“It was just frustrating that they thought I couldn’t do it, that I couldn’t be in the class,” Dalrymple said.

Dalrymple has been blind since the age of 1 when doctors diagnosed her with optic nerve atrophy after they detected water in her brain, which destroyed her optic nerve. She can see only light, shadows and sometimes color.

Throughout fall semester 2012, Dalrymple kept up with her classmates in music and surprised her professor with the progress she made. By the end of the class, she was able to perform Beethoven’s Fur Elise in a recital, and she earned an A in the class.

Grace Xia Zhao, director of keyboard studies, said Dalrymple was her first blind student and did not know what to expect. “I was excited but felt challenged,” Zhao said. “I wanted to make sure that she was able to get as much out of the class.”

Zhao said that to her surprise, she did not have to make any accommodations for Dalrymple. “She was diligent and took studying into her own hands,” Zhao said. “She barely needed any special assistance.”

Zhao said she was in awe to witness firsthand how the blind learn to play an instrument.

Dalrymple is one of the more than 20 physically disabled students at the University of La Verne.

All disabled students are entitled to reasonable accommodations, equal access to programs and activities, and any necessary auxiliary aids under the American with Disabilities Act of 1990. According to the text of the law, the ADA was created “to establish a clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability.” In addition to the physically disabled, ADA also protects people with learning and psychological disabilities.

After the ADA went into effect in 1992, the law required new and existing public service buildings to comply with ADA accessibility guidelines. Under the law, failure to remove any type of accessibility barriers became a form of discrimination. However, according to the law, entities that serve the public only have to make changes as long as it is “readily achievable.” For example businesses such as restaurants, that cannot afford to make structural changes can be exempt.

To meet the needs of ADA students this semester ULV expanded its Services for Students with Disabilities Department by hiring a coordinator, Leo Barrera, and transforming the building previously occupied by the Literacy Center into the Disabled Student Services Department. Cindy Denne, director of services for students with disabilities, said she and Dean of Student Affairs Loretta Rahmani had advocated for additional resources from ULV for more than 10 years and finally this year the University acceded.

The new facility is the most recent attempt the University has made to accommodate its ADA students. In the last four years, the University has spent $3 million in structural ADA upgrades all over campus, said Senior Director of Central Services and Capital Planning Chip West.

President Devorah Lieberman said accommodations to ADA students are important because it reflects the University’s values of diversity and inclusivity.

“Access to success while you’re here means everything from good classes, to being able to get around campus physically in a way that you have access to the professors and activities,” Lieberman said.

Student Resources Expand

Before the opening of the new facility, disabled students had to visit the Health Center for proctored test taking and visit the Campus Center or Founders Hall to access the school’s assistive technology such as speech recognition software. Now, this facility has all these services under one roof on the corner of E Street and Second Street. Students also have full-time access to Barrera.

Barrera said he sees the new disability center as more than just a test testing place for students. “I see it more of a thriving center where students can come and use assistive technology, have study groups, engage with others who are disabled and get that community going on like we have with other services on campus,” Barrera said.

Barrera, who previously worked in the disability center at Chaffey College, said state schools usually have more resources such as voice recognition software because of the large number of students they serve. Chaffey College, for example, serves about 2,500 disabled students, he said.

­­”That (technology) is always having to cycle and that’s why a lot of the equipment that they have is very new, because they use it so much,” Barrera said. They have more technology like assistive computers because they need it, he said.

Currently, ULV’s Student with Disabilities Center only has one personal computer with text to speech, speech recognition and screen magnification softwares. Each program ranges in price from $80 to $800.

Approximately 95 percent to 98 percent of funding for the ADA department at ULV comes from tuition dollars, Rahmani said. It is also similar in state schools, she said.

Under Title 504 of the ADA, institutions are required to provide reasonable accommodations, such as assistive technology, Rahmani said. Something that would not be considered a reasonable accommodation would be providing a disabled student with a personal assistant, she said.

As of now the University is not planning to buy any additional computers for the disabilities department because there is no need for them, Barrera said. Unlike some students who attend state schools, most students at ULV already have access to assistive technology at home or on their laptops, he said. If the University finds increased demand for assistive computers, new ones will be added, Barrera said.

Dalrymple uses ZoomText on her laptop, which has the capacity to magnify everything on a screen by up to 36 times its original size. In her case, Dalrymple said she only used the assistive computer at ULV when she had to take placement tests.

Sophomore journalism major Desmond Delgadillo, who is completely blind from congenital glaucoma, said he also has a similar situation. “I’m a Mac user, so all the assistant technology in Macs is built in, so I’ve never bothered (going to the disabilities department),” he said.

During college visits, Delgadillo said the state schools he considered, such as Cal State Fullerton, have a much larger staff for students with disabilities. Cal State Fullerton’s disability department had specialists for every disability and even an assistive technology specialist.

By comparison, ULV’s disability department is tiny. Denne had been both the director of the student health center and director of students with disabilities for 18 years.

Despite ULV’s small support structure for disabled students, Delgadillo said he has been happy with his experience at La Verne and the school has provided him with everything he needs.

“You just need to know what you need, and once they know what you need they’re going to bend over backwards to get it for you,” Delgadillo said. “You have to be proactive.”

“I believe (disabled) students have more one-on-one attention in private schools,” said Rahmani, who worked at Cal State Northridge, which has the second largest hearing impaired student population in the nation.

Delgadillo said he contacts the disabilities department months before the start of a new semester to have his books converted into digital form.

Senior broadcast TV major Hal Hargrave is paralyzed with only partial use of his hands, following a rollover truck accident in 2007. As a communications student, he said he was at first apprehensive about taking a radio production class.

“I didn’t know if I would be able to operate the controls, if I’d be able to sit high enough in my chair to reach the control board,” Hargrave said.

Although the University did not have the accommodations necessary for Hargrave in the studio, the department built a portable ramp for him.

“It’s definitely a great partnership that I’ve had with a lot of people here on campus. They’ve met my needs and made my experience the best that it could ever be,” he said.

The scope and size ULV’s Students With Disabilities Department is similar to that of Scripps College, part of the private Claremont Colleges, with a student body of 6,000. Scripps alone has approximately 960 students compared to ULV’s 2,500 undergraduates.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Scripps has just one person in charge of its disabilities department, Sonia De La Torre-Iniguez. Because Scripps College is one of the seven colleges that make the Claremont Colleges consortium, De La Torre-Iniguez said she works closely with a learning specialist who works for the conglomerate. Starting in fall 2014, De La Torre-Iniguez said the Claremont Colleges will have a new, permanent disability resource center that will serve all the colleges and it will have a director and assistive technology specialist.

Denne said each university takes its own journey to improve its disabilities department.

“It depends when it becomes a priority in the university and I think for us it finally became a priority after 18, 19 years of saying we need to do this,” she said.

Teachers Demand Training

The students with disabilities department also serves as the bridge between ADA students and their professors, Denne said.

De La Torre-Iniguez said most of her work at Scripps involves helping faculty understand disabled students’ needs. “I spend the majority of my time making sure that students have access to what they need in the classroom – talking to faculty, talking to students,” she said. “It’s about a lot of conversation.”

Disability departments provide letters to ADA students to give to their professors that states their particular needs, such as longer testing times. Denne said it is about leveling the playing field.

“We’re really providing equal access, not making it easier. We’re not giving anybody anything, they really have to stand on their own,” she said.

John Bartelt, associate professor of education-technology, said professors often lack the skill to deliver their information in alternative forms. ADA training is only mandatory for those teaching K-12, not higher education, he said.

Dalrymple said her freshman year writing professor did not adjust her teaching style to meet the needs of her first blind student.

“I feel like if she’s had training or something she would have been able to help a little bit more,” Dalrymple said.

Dalrymple said she sometimes has to remind professors to read what they are writing on the board.

“The majority of (faculty), especially non-teacher education, do not necessarily have either teaching background or pedagogy background,” Bartelt said. “The first time I had a deaf student here at La Verne was the first time that I really sat down and I said, ‘OK I really need to think about this.’”

Bartelt said it was difficult for his student to watch in-class videos in a dark room, while trying to pay attention to a sign language translator. As a result, Bartelt said he had to provide his deaf student with transcripts and create subtitles himself for the videos. Bartelt said that in the state system, it is expected that all materials given to students, such as videos, are ADA friendly.

Barrera said he is currently working on writing a policy and procedure handbook for staff and faculty to ensure professors understand what disabled students need in the classroom and the additional resources the department offers. In the future, Barrera said he hopes to hold orientation sessions for faculty and staff.

Delgadillo said that some professors are still behind in their understanding and use of technology, which makes things harder for some ADA students in the classroom when they cannot receive information in an electronic format.

Patricia Taylor, chairwoman of the special education teacher training program, said ULV would hold presentations to discuss how to best accommodate disabled students more than 15 years ago, possibly motivated by establishment of ADA.

Taylor said she would want similar orientation sessions for faculty, but it is still up to students to speak up for themselves if they want to succeed in the classroom.

“It’s the dynamic between the student self-advocating and us, with the student’s permission, advocating for them,” she said.

This becomes harder for students with other types of disabilities, such as those on the autism spectrum, because their disability does not permit them to self-advocate, Taylor said. Currently, ULV has five students diagnosed with autism and Asperger’s syndrome and 10 ADD/ADHD students identified, Denne said.

By law, a university cannot force anybody with a physical or learning disability to register as an ADA student, which means some students are destined to fall through the cracks of the system.

Taylor said students with physical disabilities have a higher success rate in college than those with learning disabilities and syndromes like ADHD. The high school dropout rate in California for students with disabilities such as ADHD, communication and behavioral disorders is around 76 percent, and it is not much different in college if they can make it that far, she said.

“If you’re in a wheelchair and something happens, people come around to help,” she said. “If you’re in an environment where people are helping you, and socializing with you, then you’re more likely to finish than the ones who have the behaviors that are repulsive to people.”

ADA Renovations

In 2010 ULV put together a timetable ordering structural changes to the University to make it ADA compliant. The timetable runs through 2018.

“The problem I have is that if the code changes again, we’re going to be out of compliance,” West said. “My commitment is that as we’re moving forward we’re going to fix these issues as best we can to try.”

West said that meeting ADA compliance is much more than building ramps. It includes walkways, structural accommodations in restrooms, elevators and even the position of light switches.

Hargrave said that during his time at the ULV, he has been able to get across campus with no difficulty. “They’ve done a great job as far as leveling out the terrain, making the ramps really accessible,” Hargrave said.

West said that the biggest architectural change ULV has made is in the paths of travel. For example to and from parking stalls to shuttle stops and in and out of buildings.

“That’s been our No.1 focus because that’s the way people are going to interact.” West said. For example, in 2010 the University changed the concrete around the Johnson Family Plaza, even though it was renovated in 2006, because it was no longer ADA compliant.

Not all structures can be ADA compliant, West said. It would be impossible, for example, to build an 80 foot ramp in front of Miller Hall and nobody would require the University to do that, he said.

In a recent renovation in Leo Hall, West said he could not make the restrooms compliant because the structure around them would not allow it. “Unless I knock down Leo Hall and build new restrooms, those restrooms are what they are there’s no way,” West said.

Other places on campus not accessible to ADA students are the bottom floor of Founders Hall and the University Chapel.

West said he has a new ADA project every week. Most recently, West made renovations to the new disability center and is working on making the area around Leo Park ADA compliant as well. “ADA has become my life,” he said.

Hargrave said he feels that every new structure on campus is more accessible. “It’s really kind of taken the term disability out of my vocabulary and made me feel like I have an ability,” he said. “That whole ‘dis’ part of the word disability has been dropped since I’ve been here.”

Mariela Patron can be reached at mariela.patron@laverne.edu.

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