Emory Report

February 16, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 21

Enrollment boom of students
with disabilities creates growing pains for students, faculty

"You have to succeed," San Francisco State University professor Paul Longmore recalled his sixth grade special-education teacher saying as she "mainstreamed" him into a seventh grade classroom. "If you don't, they won't provide the opportunity for other students like you." Longmore, now 51, talked about his challenges as a student with disabilities in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article.

Some four decades later-even after the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act-students with learning disabilities at Emory and nationwide are encountering some of the same challenges Longmore faced in his pioneering efforts. Namely, they are struggling to gain acceptance in some quarters for their right to attend college and receive a "regular" education. On a more basic level, they're grappling with the complex logistics of accommodating their needs inside and outside the classroom.

A survey by the American Council on Education found the number of college students with disabilities tripled from 1978 to 1994, and students with learning disabilities were the fastest growing category. In 1988, those who identified themselves as blind or visually impaired made up 32 percent of college students with disabilities and students with learning disabilities comprised 15 percent; by 1994 the numbers were 22 percent and 32 percent, respectively.

In almost four years, Emory has gone from 60 students citing disabilities to 400. "Of those 400 who have self-identified," said Equal Opportunity Programs Director Bob Ethridge, "about 70 percent have learning disabilities." The types of conditions that typically affect students' ability to process and retain information include attention deficit disorder (ADD), dyslexia, memory and comprehension disorders as well as visual and hearing impairments.

Services targeted by Ethridge's office to accommodate students with learning disabilities include, but are not limited to, priority registration, classroom notetakers, taped textbooks and lectures, enlarged print or Braille books, real-time captioning, sign language interpreting and alternative testing.

Students must self-identify as having a learning disability to receive these or other services. The process of self-identifying requires the student to provide appropriate documentation as outlined by The Office of Disability Services and Compliance (DSC). That includes an assessment by a qualified psychologist or other health care professional to determine whether the student has a disability, the scope of the disability and the services needed to facilitate learning. "Any faculty who think students can just claim to have a disability and we accept that are wrong," said Ethridge.

Tricia Jacob, coordinator of student services in the DSC, works with students at the beginning of every semester to create individualized service plans detailing their special needs.

Accommodating learning disabled students takes planning and a little extra effort, said Jacob. The late syllabus or back-ordered textbook that merely frustrates typical college students can spell disaster for their learning disabled peers. Jacob needs as much lead time as possible to obtain Braille and large-print editions of texts or hire readers to record books, weekly handouts and reserve reading.

Creating the best learning environment
Encephalitic meningitis in the eighth grade left SGA representative Ryan Rudominer '00 with difficulties comprehending text. "I'd read a book, and it really didn't mean anything," he said. While he's slowly conquering the lingering effects of his illness, the political science major says taped texts have been of great benefit. "It helps to read along and hear [the words] too," he said.

But providing these services to students in a timely manner can be difficult. This semester Jacob and an assistant-shared with Employment and Physical Access Services-are coordinating reading services for more than 100 classes. She started requesting syllabi in November but by the semester's beginning had fewer than 10 percent in hand. What's more, the process of putting books and lessons on tape can take weeks, especially if professors and students are slow in getting information to her.

"Even though professors can be flexible and accommodating, saying to students, 'Don't worry, I know you'll be behind,' it limits their ability to participate in classroom discussion," Jacob said. Sometimes students have to catch up on several weeks' reading, she said.

Rebecca Katz-Doft appreciates the tremendous effort made by Jacob but feels DSC is understaffed. A sophomore with multiple physical disabilities and a vision impairment, Katz-Doft said the fact that her parents live near campus has helped her succeed in school. They've spent lots of time enlarging text for her and bought a special machine that magnifies copy for her dorm room. Still, she said, "My being able to participate and do well in college should not depend on my parents."

Katz-Doft, who spoke of her frustrations at length at a recent University Senate meeting and who founded the Disability Services and Compliance student group, said students call her every day with complaints. "And lots of professors still won't comply with service plans," she said.

Many professors chafe at what they perceive as preferential treatment for students with disabilities, particularly concessions such as extended testing periods, private testing rooms and alternative test formats. Many are left "wondering if the integrity of the course is being compromised" by these concessions to students with learning disabilities, Ethridge said. "Faculty feel they have more at stake in the sense of trying to be fair to [all] students."

And some simply don't understand why students with high GPAs and test scores need extra help. Ethridge said faculty members have asked him, "How do [these students] get into this institution in the first place?"

"We need to move beyond that," Ethridge stressed. "These are excellent students who must be accommodated in order to demonstrate their excellence." The tools for learning disabled students are no different than wheelchair ramps or accessible bathrooms, advocates say. They just take barriers out of students' way.

Professors who don't understand this "aren't bad people, but unfamiliar with ways to provide for students with disabilities," said Rudominer. Like Katz-Doft, he has found himself an increasingly vocal advocate for Emory's students with disabilities. Preparing a run for SGA vice president, Rudominer said, "If I'm elected, this issue is going to be on the table immediately." His plans include information sessions for faculty, mentoring programs for students and perhaps a few rallies to get the campus community involved.

At last month's Faculty Council meeting, theology professor David Pacini, chair of an ad hoc subcommittee formed to address teaching students with disabilities, announced three key issues. The subcommittee is looking into ways faculty can identify students who might have undiagnosed learning disabilities, the creation of an academic resource person to coordinate the needs of students with disabilities, and a faculty information program. Pacini's subcommittee hopes to bring a resolution to the Faculty Council for consideration by Feb. 17.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of students, faculty and Disability Services and Compliance to make sure all students are given an equal opportunity to learn and succeed at Emory, said Jacob. "It takes all three to be effective and efficient."

-Stacey Jones

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