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Disabled students flourish at Notre Dame

Teresa Fralish | Thursday, November 13, 2003

Some students worry that they won’t be able to find a job after graduation. Some are concerned about alcohol regulations in the dorms. Others worry that they won’t be able to reach the buttons on the elevator.

For students with disabilities at Notre Dame, the college experience has brought fulfillment as well as frustration. They stress that they are not different from other students and view their disability as only part of their identity.

“Coming to Notre Dame, there were people that didn’t think I could make it here. If I’d listened to those people I wouldn’t be at Notre Dame,” said Laura Hoffman, a senior with a partial vision impairment.

For the most part, Hoffman, a political science major who is also pursuing a theology minor, says her time at the University has been highly rewarding. After graduation, she intends to attend law school and become an advocate for others by specializing in disability law. Her first choice for law school is Notre Dame.

“Services are one of the biggest reasons to go to Notre Dame,” she said.

In her junior year, Hoffman participated in the Washington Semester Program and completed an internship at the U.S. Department of Justice.

“That was a big learning experience for me as a person with a disability preparing myself for life outside the Notre Dame bubble,” she said. “I had to learn how to use the Metro [subway] system. To be able to get around a place like that is just awesome.”

Hoffman normally uses special materials, such as large-print books and a modified closed circuit TV. While in Washington, D.C., the Office for Students with Disabilities mailed large-print books to her.

In general, disabled students said they have found students and professors at Notre Dame understanding, but see room for improvement.

For instance, Hoffman said that during her freshman year, a math professor refused to provide her with a copy of the notes from the overhead projector, and she had to switch to another class.

Generally, Hoffman has access to large-print materials and is given extra time to complete exams, but ran into different problems when taking the LSAT this year.

“They require very extensive documentation. I’d heard they weren’t very disability-friendly,” she said.

Initially, Hoffman’s request for extended time was denied, and then ultimately granted, just days before she was scheduled to take the test.

“It’s something that a student with a disability shouldn’t have to go through,” she said.

Disabled students said they would like to see themselves included in the University’s definition of diversity, which often focuses on racial and ethnic diversity.

“It bothered me that it wasn’t included in the diversity program,” said Hoffman, who is a diversity educator at Notre Dame.

“Diversity is about more than just [race and ethnicity],” said junior Becca Van Schoick, who uses a motorized mobility device to travel around campus.

Despite using a wheelchair and having a speech impairment, sophomore FTT major Katrina Gossett has enjoyed being a part of the Pasquerilla East Musical Company at Notre Dame. In PEMCO and at residence hall masses, Gossett has distinguished herself with a talented singing voice and stage presence.

“Last year I performed in the Musical Revue,” she said. “I’m assistant stage manager [for PEMCO].”

Along with her theatre interest, Gossett also serves as a math teaching assistant and runs help sessions for her students.

Since the University opened its Office for Students with Disabilities in 1995, the number of students officially registered as disabled has jumped from 35 to 170, said Scott Howland, the Office’s director.

When a student identifies him or herself as having a disability, Howland’s office works with the student to provide adaptations for class schedules and in the residence halls.

“Everything is very individualized. It depends not only on the disability but on how the student compensates for it,” he said.

Currently, Howland runs the Office for Students with Disabilities by himself, despite the fact the number of registered students has increased about five-fold over the past eight years.

Students said they are highly impressed with Howland’s dedication to their needs, but expressed concerns about the priority the University places on helping students with disabilities.

“I see him about two to three times per week,” said Van Schoick. “He works so hard.”

But since the University moved Howland’s office from the front to the back of Badin Hall, Van Schoick said she can’t even fit her wheelchair into the office.

“The hallway to get to his office is two to three feet [wide]. We can’t fit into [that with our wheelchairs],” she said. “He has one testing room [designated for students who use special modifications during exams] for 165 students.”

Because of the increasing strain placed on the resources for disabled students, Van Schoick said she intends to write a letter to the Office of the Provost, which oversees Howland’s office.

“I don’t know that I would apply to this school now,” she said.

According to Howland, he cannot provide students with a wide range of services, such as social counseling and career development, but focuses mainly on procuring special materials and services for them.

“It’s difficult to do some of these additional things,” he said. “We probably fit somewhere in the middle [compared to Notre Dame’s peer institutions.]”

Although some top 20 universities maintain single-person staffs, Howland said many schools rely on three to four people to provide disability resources.