‘The same opportunity to be successful’
Catherine Owers | Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Editor’s note: This is the second day in a series on disability at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. Today’s stories examine the services available to students at the University and the College.
Any student can register with Disability Services to request accommodations, according to coordinator Scott Howland.
“It starts by providing documentation for the disability, so that can vary from pretty extensive evaluations that have been done for a learning disability or ADHD, or it could just be information from a medical doctor about a condition,” he said. “In some cases, if it were an obvious disability probably less information is needed, if anything at all.”
The largest group of students served by the office are students with ADHD, Howland said, but the fastest-growing group is students with mental health issues.
“Really, about 90 percent of the students we work with, they have non-visible disabilities,” he said. “We work with 650 students that are registered with the office, so if students are looking around campus and think they are identifying students with disabilities, they are really only seeing a small fraction.”
The requirements on institutions of higher education are different from elementary, middle and high schools, Howland said.
“The difference is that, with K-12, it’s really the responsibility of the school to identify the students that have disabilities. Their ultimate goal is academic success of the student,” he said. “In higher education, we want the student to be successful as well, but really, students must self-identify to the University as having a disability, and again, we’re just trying to remove barriers to give them the same opportunity. Our ultimate goal is that we’re giving students the same opportunity to be successful.
“In that sense, in K-12, they might provide more tutoring, more specialized instruction. We’re providing more access.”
Vice president for student affairs Erin Hoffmann Harding said the University sees its role as one of providing the chance for all students to succeed.
“It is our responsibility as administrators to ensure that every student has the opportunity to flourish during their time at Notre Dame,” Hoffmann Harding said.
“Like other Universities, we are seeing an increased need for the resources and services offered by our Office of Disability Services. We aim to continue educating the campus community — faculty, staff and students alike — about these resources so students can make an informed decision about what they may need at any given time, so they can experience Notre Dame to their fullest potential.”
Every academic accommodation is made with the idea of providing equal access, Howland, said but also maintaining the integrity of the class.
“Accommodations are not provided that would lower the standard or alter the class significantly for a student with disability. It’s achieving the same goal, but taking a different way or method to get there,” he said.
After a student has self-identified and requested accommodations from the University, Howland said he would meet with the student to discuss reasonable accommodations.
“We would talk about specific accommodations, where they’re needed, how we would go about implementing them and how we would go about determining what might be reasonable, what’s not reasonable in the scope of a class. They might ask for an accommodation for a class that we might not be able to provide because it has too much of an impact on the integrity of the class,” he said. “Because every student is different, and every class is different, there is a process by which my office would ultimately decide what’s the reasonable accommodations.
“Of course we’d also be consulting the department, faculty members, in making that decision. So there is a process, for instance, if I think a student should have an accommodation in a class and the professor disagrees. Then our policies outline the process by which then that might be elevated to the dean’s office or the provost’s office to determine how the University would respond to the request.”
Some accommodations can be provided quickly upon a student’s request, Howland said, such as acquiring a large print or electronic version of a textbook for a student who has a disability that impacts their ability to read standard print.
“Other accommodations, it might be asking for modification to a part of a class or to a major, those are going to take a little bit longer. We generally try to get some sort of response to the student within a week to two weeks,” he said.
Howland said the office evaluates the efficacy of accommodations throughout the semester.
“We do it more formally at the end of the year, but we would do that continually throughout the year as well — we would seek feedback from students to get their feeling as to whether the accommodations were appropriate and helpful,” he said.
Service dogs and emotional support animals
Accommodations available to students also include the opportunity to have service dogs and emotional support animals on campus, Howland said.
“There are two categories: service animals, which can now only be a dog, and the intention of a service dog is to provide a specific task to a student with a disability,” he said. “That could be providing guidance around campus for someone with a visual impairment, there could be a service dog for someone with diabetes, that would help them better detect when their blood sugar is higher or lower.”
Emotional support animals do not necessarily have to be dogs and typically aid those with a mental health condition and provide a calming effect with their presence, Howland said.
“When it’s an emotional support animal, it’s really restricted to the student’s dorm room. Obviously they can take it out for exercise or to go to the bathroom, but really it’s limited to their dorm room,” he said. “It can’t go to the dining hall or anything like that, whereas service animals can go anyplace on campus the student can go, with the exception of like a science lab that is a clean lab that’s using protective suits and things like that.”
Howland said he has encouraged students who have received accommodations from Disability Services to participate in study abroad programs, especially as more countries have adopted basic standards for accommodations.
“Depending on the setting, if a student has needed housing accommodations, then we we would try to work with that setting to provide similar accommodations while they are abroad,” he said. “The only time I might try to discourage a student or make a student aware of potential problems, [is] if they are a student in a wheelchair or they are looking at countries where they might run into accessibility problems. We’ve had students that have traveled in many programs.”
Academic accommodations are also available to students in abroad programs, Howland said.
“One of the challenges is if it is a student that has needed academic accommodations, but they’re taking classes that are part of another university and not necessarily under Notre Dame’s supervision, the laws might differ in those countries as far as what accommodations they can provide,” he said. “We had a student that studied in Jerusalem, and some of those courses were taken at different schools — the people that were Notre Dame contacts or representatives in those countries were still able to help with coordinating with accommodations. … It still worked, but sometimes it can be more a challenging if there’s less control over the classes a student is taking.”
The University “compares fairly well” to private schools that are members of the Association of American Universities (AAU), Howland said, in terms of the number of students served.
“Staffing, I think we might be a little bit lower,” he said. “We’re working with around 650 students, and there’s two full-time staff and a half-time administrative assistant.”
The Sara Bea Center for Disability Services primarily acts as a testing center for students who need accommodations for exams, Howland said.
“This fall, it will be 10 years since we’ve been here, and I think we’ve begun to outgrow the space,” he said. “A goal would be to add additional space, and additional staff that can continue to provide a lot of one-to-one assistance.”
Stanford University is a university that Notre Dame aspires to become a peer of, Howland said.
“They’re a school that has developed, from the point that they have a very large staff, and they have the Office of Accessible Education,” he said. “They have a much greater staff than we do. I think that is one, that I would look to, as a highly-selective institution that is leading.”