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Students reflect on academic accommodations

and | Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Editor’s note: This is the third day in a series on disability at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. Today’s story examines students’ experiences with academic accommodations at the University and the College.

Megan Crowley, a freshman at Notre Dame, has Pompe disease, which progressively weakens muscles.

Editor’s note: Crowley spoke to The Observer with the assistance of her nurse, Debbie Larsen, who is quoted below.

Crowley said when she was looking at colleges, she specifically looked at the accommodations available at Notre Dame.

“When she’s taking an exam, she gets double the time. Not because she has trouble processing the information — it just takes her a very long time to write it down,” Larsen said. “The other thing was to have it in a room where you’re not disturbing your classmates, basically, by taking the test and taking such a long time.”

In lecture-style classes, Crowley said she has note takers to supplement her own notes. In discussion-based classes, Crowley speaks and her statement is repeated by the caretaker accompanying her.

“If by any means that person is gone or leaves, she does have a friend in the class that can translate if necessary,” Larsen said. “But she thinks that if nobody was with her, she wouldn’t be called on. They just wouldn’t want to have difficulty understanding her, or embarrassing her, and she understands that.”

Junior Grace Agolia, who is deaf and uses a cochlear implant, said accommodations offered through the Sara Bea Center for Students with Disabilities played a role in her decision to attend Notre Dame.

“Some colleges don’t have good offices of disability services, but Notre Dame’s is quite excellent. Scott Howland is the man. He is awesome, and so are all the other staff members at Sara Bea,” she said.

Agolia said she submitted an individualized education plan (IEP), as well as documentation from her audiologist, and met with the office at the beginning of the year to explain the sort of accommodations she required, which include CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation).

“The Office of Disability Services here hires a company called Michiana Reporters — basically court stenographers — who come in and they type, in real time, everything that is said in the classroom,” she said. “It appears on an iPad on my desk, and the transcripts are sent to me after class. They’re confidential transmissions, so no one else gets to see them, just me, just in case I miss something in class.”

Agolia said she also uses an FM system, “which consists of a teacher-worn microphone, and a receiver, that I plug into my cochlear implant.”

“It amplifies the teacher’s voice and transmits that amplification directly to my cochlear implant, so no one hears the amplification but me,” she said. “It’s really nice if the teacher’s back is turned, or if there is some background noise going on. It helps me to hear what they’re saying better.”

Agolia said she also receives extended time on tests because of delayed auditory processing.

“This is something a lot of people don’t understand. They look at me, they [say], ‘Oh you do fine hearing one-on-one conversations, you seem to do really well in class, all these things. Plus, the exam is visual, it’s written — why do you need extended time for that if your disability is a hearing one?’” she said. “The thing is, with auditory processing, the way my cochlear implant works with my brain, the auditory processing is always delayed.

“You are going to hear something much sooner than I’m going to hear something. So I probably have a five second delay because my brain is always asking, ‘Is this what I heard?’ and then it’s asking, ‘What is this information about?’ So the processing comes a second later because the focus is on the actual hearing.”

Although her accommodation requests have been consistent over time, Agolia said she did not have CART until she came to Notre Dame.

“The college environment — the classes are a lot bigger at Notre Dame — so it was going to be harder for me to hear other people in the classroom, especially people behind me, because I like to sit in the front row, to hear,” she said. “Also, if I just had the FM system and taking notes, I’m basically trying to write down what I’m hearing.

“All the processing of the information comes a lot later, so it is helpful to have CART there to do some of the notetaking for me. And especially if it’s stuff that I can’t hear, so that later I can look at it and say, ‘That makes sense now.’”

Classes involving group discussions are difficult, Agolia said, because she is always looking at the transcript displayed in front of her.

“Sometimes the transcript is not always accurate, and that’s just something you have to deal with because it’s a phonetic keyboard. Sometimes I can figure it out, based on the phonetic spelling of the sounds, but still by the time I read it and then figure it out, the discussion has already moved to the next person, so it’s a constant game of playing catch-up,” she said. “It is more difficult, especially when I want to make a contribution to the discussion and think of something much later, and the discussion has already moved on — it’s awkward to share that.”

Agolia said the majority of her professors and classmates have been very understanding of her requests for accommodations.

“I have had one or two teachers who have not been as open to certain aspects of the accommodations, which was an issue for me, and it was difficult to deal with. We eventually were able to reach a compromise, but it was still hard on my end because I had to put extra time into the class and that took away time from other things,” she said.

Elizabeth Anthony, a senior with autoimmune conditions, said her professors have been very understanding of her request for accommodations.

“There have been a couple of times when I’ve had to have very frank conversations, like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m horribly sick and this is why, and I can’t do this,’” she said. “And they’ve always been really understanding. I’ve been really impressed at how many of my professors have taken a very personal interest in me, or have, once I told them, been so supportive, which has been awesome.”

Ross Kloeber, a first-year law student who is hard of hearing, said his experience with disability services has been very positive and “pretty straightforward,” though the availability of resources has not been prominently advertised.

“There’s not a lot of outreach — it’s not necessarily different than anywhere else,” he said. “There might have been an email or something like that, but they’re not going to come find you — you have to go to them.”

Kloeber said the accommodations he receives as a law student are of better quality than those he received at his undergraduate institution.

“I don’t know how much of that is because the accommodations are getting better or the actual services the school provides,” he said.

Fiona Van Antwerp, a sophomore with dyslexia, said the Disabilities Resource Office (DRO) at Saint Mary’s played a large role in her college choice.

“A lot of schools couldn’t guarantee accommodations, some big, some small,” Van Antwerp said.

When she met Iris Giamo, director of the DRO, Van Antwerp said she felt comfortable Saint Mary’s would be a good fit and that she would receive the educational accommodations she needed.

“Iris made that transition very smooth with note takers, time-and-a-half on tests and a separate room for testing,” she said.

Van Antwerp said she also records classes and uses audiobooks to learn material.

“I maybe have to work two times harder to get the ‘A,’ but the accommodations don’t give me a leg up,” she said.

She said most professors are very willing and able to work with her, but because teaching styles differ, Van Antwerp said she has had to advocate for herself and realize when she needs accommodations. One professor allowed her to record the classes and answer the essay tests orally instead of writing the essays.

Van Antwerp said she learned to compensate for her dyslexia in high school because she didn’t have a resource coordinator like Giamo.

“I had a lot of tutoring when I was little to teach me tools to combat my disability,” she said.

It wasn’t until the end of her high school career, Van Antwerp said, that her school created a learning center for students with disabilities.

“So I learned how to advocate for myself in the classroom in high school,” she said. “During tests, people would ask me why I wasn’t in the room, and I would tell them I receive accommodations. They would say ‘Really? You look smart.’ People didn’t understand. I’m not dumb.”

Van Antwerp said she has become very comfortable talking about her disability.

“There will always be kids who doubt you, but you just have to shake it off,” she said. “Sometimes other students are frustrated because they think educational accommodations make it easier.”

Bridget Dedelow, a senior who has cerebral palsy, said the academic environment at Saint Mary’s encouraged her to explore disability in a nonfiction writing class.

“Honestly, I wasn’t going to at first. It’s funny, because, with nonfiction, you think you’re telling other people’s stories,” she said. “I wanted to write other people’s stories and the project was setting itself up to be about geek culture.”

Professors encouraged her to include herself in her writing project, Dedelow said, and she realized the connection between her interest in gaming and her disability.

“I didn’t want to be defined by my disability, and I was nervous about exposing myself to these people that might not understand,” she said. “But writing about my disability was definitely a freeing experience, and an exercise in trusting myself and trusting my ability.”

Through the revision process, Dedelow said she tried to find a balance of telling stories about geek culture and feminism, while incorporating her own acceptance of her disability through gaming.

“My comp [class] was the first time I wrote peacefully and with humor,” Dedelow said. “I’ve had some angry writing in my life.”

News writers Megan Valley and Madison Jaros contributed to this story.

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About Catherine Owers

Senior News Writer Catherine Owers is a senior from New Orleans, Louisiana. She is studying English and Theology.

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About Haleigh Ehmsen

A senior at Saint Mary's, Haleigh is majoring in Communication Studies and English Literature & Writing. She serves as the Saint Mary's editor and enjoys coffee, guacamole and good books.

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