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New center aids special needs students

Eileen Duffy | Thursday, September 21, 2006

It’s happened to many students at Notre Dame: a professor distributes an exam, the words start swimming on the page and suddenly, there’s someone writing “five minutes left” on the chalkboard.

But for some students, this happens all the time.

Certain afflictions permanently disable over 200 students at Notre Dame from living – whether it’s test-taking, walking or seeing – in the same way their peers do, and sometimes those peers just don’t understand.

Notre Dame has worked to level the academic playing field this year by providing a brand-new space for the Office of Students with Disabilities. In that new space is a social area, where an equally brand-new group has decided to gather for the purpose of supporting disabled students and increasing awareness in the Notre Dame community.

It’s separation, on the one hand – but it makes integration a whole lot easier.

“A space to call their own”

Enter the new Sara Bea Learning Center for Students with Disabilities, located behind the Main Building next to St. Michael’s laundry. The Javon and Vita Bea family underwrote the center and named it in memory of their daughter Sara, who died in 2003 after battling multiple disabilities throughout her life.

The new space features eight testing rooms (two with computers and one with a video magnifier), a reception area, a social area and an office for the director, Scott Howland. Considering Howland was previously wedged into the Alliance for Catholic Education’s office in Badin Hall, where disabled students often sat seven or eight to a room to take tests, the new center is a “huge improvement,” he said.

“I’m thrilled with the new office here. It adds so much,” Howland said. “It’s created a space students with disabilities can call their own.”

Or at least a room to call their own while they take a test. Test-taking accommodations account for the majority of services offered by the center. Others include large print books, student readers/writers/note-takers/lab assistants (about 35-40 students work at the Center, Howland said), sign-language interpreters, stenographers and books on tape or CD.

The variety of services reflects the different disabilities at Notre Dame. While about two-thirds of the 200 students using the Center have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or another learning disability, other disabilities range from visual or hearing impairments to physical disabilities like cerebral palsy to psychological issues that impact students academically.

The majority of professors are understanding about students’ different learning styles, Howland said, and First Year of Studies Advisor Mel Tardy agreed.

“I have not found a faculty member who is not willing to be accommodating to the extent that they are able to do so and be fair,” Tardy said, who is the FYS liaison to the Office for Students with Disabilities.

“Before the office, having a disability here was a part-time job,” he said. “Our mission is to meet students’ needs so they can as much as possible be a college student.”

“Before the office” refers to before 1995, the year Howland was hired. Prior to that, the University had relied on its associate provost to provide services for disabled students. Associate Provost Father Timothy Scully decided to change that policy, Howland said.

“[Scully] thought the University should have a person dedicated to students full time,” Howland said.

Along came Howland, who holds a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from Bowling Green State University. While he is currently looking for a part-time administrative assistant, Howland has essentially run a one-man show since he was hired. Junior Jim Lockwood, who is visually-impaired, said he wouldn’t take Howland’s job “for anything in the world.”

“At times, it can be challenging because so many things are going on at once,” Howland said. “But … I still get the opportunity to work directly with students. It’s very enjoyable to work with a student, and see them succeed and do well.”

Class of 1998 valedictorian Tim Cordes, who is blind, felt the effects of Howland’s work when Howland arrived during his sophomore year.

“I’ve got to give Scott tons of credit. Since showing up in ’95, he’s done a great job with the resources he has,” Cordes said. “I’m pleased to see he has more space and more opportunity to continue the good work he’s been doing.”

Cordes called the center a “great asset” to the Notre Dame community of students with disabilities.

“I think it’ll give them a place to sort of help build a community within themselves,” he said. “And, it can serve as a model for the rest of the Notre Dame students to see what’s going on there, to learn from students and see how they’re just like everybody else – they just have different challenges.”

Challenges that might be difficult for not only the students with disabilities themselves, but for those around them, as well – and that’s what students gathered to discuss Tuesday night.

“I wish that I had known about you earlier”

Just as a new location for disabled students is opening its doors, a group of students is opening the dialogue on disabilities at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s.

The newly-official student group Perspectives, which provides a forum for students with disabilities and anyone interested in discussing the topic, held its first meeting Tuesday in the social space of the Sara Bea Learning Center for Students with Disabilities.

The group’s purpose, according to its president Leslie Penko, has multiple levels: first, to provide a resource for students with disabilities or those interested in learning about disabilities; second, to increase awareness about disabled students and their needs in the community; and third, to educate disabled students about how to deal with their disabilities on a daily basis.

The first level is the reason Tardy founded the club, he said. After listening to a discussion during Disability Awareness Month last spring, he found communication was lacking among students with disabilities.

“It was obvious that people were talking to each other saying, ‘I didn’t know there was somebody else here who had the same situation as me. I wish that I had known about you earlier,'” he said. “… The reason why [the club] is exciting is because there are over 200 people who use the [Office for Students with Disabilities] office, but most don’t know each other.”

As it turned out, Tardy said, students weren’t the only ones feeling isolated.

“I had a lot of positive feedback from faculty and administrators who said they have a disability,” Tardy said. “They said, ‘I wish there was a group like this for us, as well.'”

Once they’ve found each other, the idea is for students with disabilities to share what’s worked for them – ideally balancing the scale between disabled students and their classmates.

“By learning different shortcuts,” Penko said, “it really helps you get to the same level as your peers.”

“They want to help, but they don’t know how”

Perspectives’ second mission is to increase awareness and educate the community about students with disabilities.

When Cordes arrived on campus, there was no center, and there was no Scott Howland.

“It seemed like in many ways, faculty and folks wanted to help, but they didn’t necessarily know what to do,” he said. “It was a learning process for all of us.”

Even faculty members who have taught students with disabilities might encounter a disability they’ve never seen, Tardy said. They might not understand, for example, how long a student takes just to complete a homework assignment, he said.

Understanding is just what Perspectives hopes to accomplish – while they have different challenges, disabled students are just like their peers, Penko said.

“We all eat at the dining hall together and go to parties and do everything socially that other students would do,” she said.

But the social life at college can present problems for students with disabilities, Tardy noted – like a student who requires four hours to read an article that would take the average student just one, and has to refuse his friends’ invitation to go out.

“A lot of people don’t appreciate that – people say you are being antisocial, but they either don’t know they have a disability or they don’t understand the full scope of what that means,” he said. “This group will create more awareness about how much work is involved in staying on top of classes, being involved and having a disability.”

Penko said understanding will unite those with disabilities, and those without.

“Educating students and other faculty as to how accommodations can be made and how to treat students with disabilities like that … that can really bridge that gap,” she said.

“Educating so they aren’t afraid anymore”

The final goal of Perspectives is to increase awareness among disabled students themselves.

People can be shy about having a disability for a number of reasons, Penko said. Some had difficult experiences in grade school or high school; others, perhaps, have been diagnosed recently and “are still processing the fact.”

“So they don’t come forward and try to talk to other people, because they’re still processing that themselves,” he said. “That’s why this club is going to be really helpful, to make people more comfortable opening up … and finding out people are going through a lot of the same things they are.”

As much as Perspective aims to educate the community, educating students with disabilities – some of whom “are actually ashamed of their disabilities,” Penko said – about interacting with the community is another primary goal.

“We want to educate students with disabilities about how to be open and honest … so they aren’t afraid anymore,” she said. “If we educate everyone, disability won’t be as taboo, and people won’t be ashamed.

It’ll help students with disabilities realize they’re unique, but it’s okay to be different, and people will be understanding.”