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Community discusses disabilities

Aaron Steiner | Wednesday, March 28, 2007

When junior Molly Rivard was six years old, she was diagnosed with dyspraxia, a motor skills disability that can make movements and gestures associated with coordination – such as writing – difficult.

“Yes, I do have a disability,” said Rivard, a history and Irish studies major who hopes to continue her education after graduating from Notre Dame. “But that does not make me different. I just have to do things differently.”

Rivard described the disability as a problem with the neural communication between her brain and motor muscles – something that her mother noticed when Rivard had trouble crawling as a baby – that leads to difficulty writing.

But Rivard is not left alone at the University to deal with her disability. She is one of the more than 200 students who receive services at the Office of Disability Services.

Approximately 140 of the 200-plus students are learning disabled or suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Coordinator of Disability Services Scott Howland said.

Saint Mary’s Disabilities Specialist Iris Giamo said the Disabilities Resource Office at the college serves approximately 75 students both for learning disabilities and for ADHD.

Students come to the College and University with an array of learning disabilities, including dyslexia and other disorders, Howland said.

“It’s a variety,” Howland said. “A lot of it deals with information processing. … There are some students with dyslexia – there are some [disabilities] that are more related to spatial issues.”

Howland said the disabilities primarily involve the time it takes to process information.

“It might take [students] longer than their peers to complete their homework, or get their reading assignments done,” he said. “That’s always a challenge, balancing that … with everything else that’s going on.”

But those are the issues associated with just studying, he said.

“In the classroom, probably the biggest challenge they have relates to exams,” Howland said. “We have a lot of students that do need accommodations.”

When she applied to Notre Dame, Rivard included a note about her disability.

“I did notify them in that section [of the undergraduate application], ‘If there’s anything else you’d like to tell us,’ that I [was diagnosed with a disability],” Rivard said.

And though Rivard is not alone in acknowledging a physical or learning disability, the number is low, hovering at about one percent of the applicant pool, Senior Associate Director of Admissions Alisa Fisher said.

That percent constituted 206 of more than 12,000 applicants during the 2005 to 2006 admission year, Fisher said.

Fisher, who also serves as the liaison between the Office of Disability Services and the admissions office, said there has been a slight increase year-to-year of students who apply and disclose they have a learning disability, as more people feel comfortable doing so.

“If they want to tell us, we encourage that,” Fisher said. “The more information we have about your academic performance, the better we can understand if you struggled with some grades.”

Fisher said that while the University does not discriminate on basis of disability, it will take such a disclosure into account when reading an application.

When looking at a student’s record “from the point from when [the disability] was discovered to getting some help,” a visible improvement in the student’s performance is often seen, she said.

Since being admitted, Rivard has utilized functions the Disabilities Services office offers including having a note taker and special accommodations for testing and extended time in an alternate location.

“For me, it’s about becoming more independent. I have to be an advocate for myself,” Rivard said. “I have to go to my teachers to ask for accommodations, and I have to let Scott [Howland] know if I need a note taker.”

Howland said most of the students with learning disabilities he serves utilize test-taking accommodations and note taking services/classroom assistance.

In addition to providing services similar to those of Howland’s office, Saint Mary’s offers services including instruction on study skills and technical skills tailored to needs of the learning disabled, Giamo said.

In the 11 years Howland has been at Notre Dame, only “a few” students have not graduated as a result of a learning disability and other related issues, he said.

Giamo said that in her two and a half years at Saint Mary’s, she hasn’t seen any students drop out – and has seen plenty succeed.

“I think with a lot of support from professors, administrators, this office and their parents, they are successful,” Giamo said. “They have to be extremely hard-working students.”

For Rivard, her academic experience at Notre Dame has been relatively normal and successful, given her disability. The environment – especially with professors, she said – is typically an understanding one.

But Rivard said there is one response she often receives from friends and peers when she tells them she has a disability.

“They say, ‘But you’re so smart,'” Rivard said.

Such a comment, she said, can be disappointing since her disability has nothing to do with intelligence.

“Lots of people who have disabilities have been very smart,” she said.

Giamo agreed that there is a stigma associated with learning disabilities – which leads some to feel “a little embarrassed” or “inferior” – even though intelligence is not related.

Still, Giamo said she feels there is a “growing awareness” of the issue and credits events like Tuesday’s keynote address for providing a more personal look at learning disabilities.