Emory Report

November 16, 1998

 Volume 51, No. 12


Tricia Jacob has recipe for success in disability services

Tricia Jacob likes to cook, and when she cooks she doesn't like to use recipes. For one of the frequent dinner parties she throws for her friends, or perhaps for a monthly meeting of her informal book club, she'll walk into the kitchen, throw open the cupboards and let inspiration take her where it may.

As coordinator of student disability services, Jacob's job at Emory is not completely unlike one of her culinary experiments because her field is a relatively new one. In the two years she's been here, the number of students with disabilities registered with her office has almost doubled, and the office itself has grown from a single staff member--herself--to five full-time positions, including an open director-level job. In keeping with this rapid increase in demand, Jacob has had to do a good bit of improvising. But then, when it comes to disability issues, she's been cooking without a recipe for a while now.

While an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, she began working for the school's disability center as a paratransit coordinator. The university was examining ways to implement a transit system that would work for all its students, and Jacob spent her junior and senior years researching how other schools dealt with the challenge. Then, when she entered a graduate program in rehabilitation psychology, the transit system proposal became her master's thesis.

She also spent time working in the career services office, helping place people with disabilities in jobs that suited their abilities and interests. Jacob's experience prepared her to coordinate student disability services at Emory until the University began to devote more resources, both monetarily and philosophically. Indeed, the Faculty Council has spent much time in the last year discussing how professors can best help students with learning disabilities.

"When I first got [to Emory], we did a disability workshop for people all around the Southeast, and about 10 people from the Emory community showed up," Jacob said. "But during Disability Awareness Week [Oct. 25-30], we had a full-day conference on Monday, and more than 170 people were there. So I think the attitude around campus is definitely changing as people become more and more aware."

Of course, more could still be done. First, even with its new personnel, Jacob's office suffers from the same deficit as many others at the University: space. "Look at my office," she said, gesturing around the roughly 8-foot-square room. "It's not that I want a big office, but I can't meet with someone in a wheelchair in here. Granted, I could reserve the conference room and go meet with a student in there, but what does that say about our commitment?"

She has a solution. With all the referrals disabilities services does with the tutoring center and the counseling center, a combined resource center would be invaluable. Students with disabilities would have a central location at which they could get counseling, find out about services and accommodations available to them, and perhaps even take a modified test for one of their classes.

Which brings to mind another lingering impediment: prejudice. Despite gains evidenced by the turnout for disabilities conferences, many people still are not convinced of the legitimacy of learning disabilities. It's a litany of skepticism Jacob has heard many times before: The student isn't disabled; he or she is simply unprepared, unmotivated, unintelligent or lazy.

"Students just don't go grocery shopping in this office and check off what they want," Jacob said. "We require documentation supporting their disability, and that documentation represents a full battery of neuropsychological tests. I think a lot of faculty are surprised how much documentation is required before someone is eligible for services.

"Sometimes a professor will call me and say, 'So and so has a notetaker, and that's not fair. Why don't all the students get notetakers?' And I explain to them that deaf students, for example, can't read your lips if they're looking down at their notebook taking notes. They're not going to get all the information from the class--they're going to get bits and pieces. If you don't allow those students to have notetakers, you're taking away their ability to go back after class and review their notes."

In the end, Jacob said, almost all the faculty she talks to realize how legitimate learning disabilities are, and how the office exists not to provide certain students with unfair advantages but rather to raise them up to a level playing field on which they can compete.

"The reality of it is that a lot of times it's just an inconvenience for the faculty member," she said. "And they need to know the University has realized this, and that's why our office is here--as a resource."

--Michael Terrazas

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