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Welcoming all abilities at Notre Dame

| Wednesday, September 5, 2018

As an alumna, every so often I browse The Observer to stay informed of the current happenings of my beloved alma mater. Near the end of the last academic year, I decided to do this and I was extremely surprised to discover a viewpoint by Associate Professor Sara McKibben, who wrote on recent challenges for students with disabilities at Notre Dame regarding accommodations with faculty members. I felt compelled to reach out to Professor McKibben after this, both as an academic myself and as a former Notre Dame student with a disability. I share my own story as an invitation to welcome all students — and all abilities — at Our Lady’s institution. The Catholic identity of Notre Dame demands that the dignity of every human person be respected, cherished and embraced, including a student with a disability.

I came to Notre Dame for many reasons, but a major one of those reasons was my understanding of the Office for Students with Disabilities at that time in 2000. I also came to Notre Dame like any other student, with the same freshman fears and a desire to make the best of every opportunity at Notre Dame, especially in terms of my personal academic success. I also came to Notre Dame with a disability that required certain accommodations to give me the best chance at an equal opportunity to succeed in the classroom. Having a visual impairment that cannot be corrected, no amount of accommodation can give me regular vision or a normal pair of eyes. But my accommodations could at least put me on the same playing field. For the Notre Dame football team, that is a chance to win a national championship. For a Notre Dame student, that is a chance to graduate with a degree from the University of Notre Dame. In fact, one of Notre Dame’s most well-known graduates and a walk-on to the Notre Dame football team, Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, has a learning disability and continues to give courage to generations of students to apply to Notre Dame.

My freshman year at Notre Dame, my first math professor for Calculus refused to honor an accommodation, despite the fact that my disability had been properly medically diagnosed and documented with the Office for Students with Disabilities. The particular accommodation request had also been granted to me by the University as an accommodation. I decided not to fight with this professor, but quickly took the matter to the Office for Students with Disabilities.  I was not going to let a professor dictate my disability needs. I knew I could not survive a math class without the accommodation let alone succeed in it.  The head of the Office for Students with Disabilities, Scott Howland, promptly acted on my behalf to get me into another math class with a professor that did not give me any grief about either my disability — my physical weakness beyond my control — or my accommodation need. I consider this one of the critical points during my education at Notre Dame. Instead of leaving Notre Dame, I ended up graduating with honors in 2004.

Despite what I considered the initial ignorance I experienced with a Notre Dame professor, a lack of awareness about how to interact with a student with a disability, virtually every other encounter I had at Notre Dame was not only one of acceptance, but also of embracing me for my abilities, gifts and talents that I could and did give tirelessly to the Notre Dame community. I worked hard outside the classroom to improve awareness about disability issues in the Notre Dame community in a variety of ways, by challenging the administration, faculty, staff and student body to think about what it means to be a diverse community — that to proclaim that Notre Dame was committed to diversity, the value and dignity of every student with a disability needed to be recognized.  This came to full force for me during my sophomore year, when I became a student diversity educator, and disability was not a part of the diversity education for the student body. I became vocal to this very blatant missing piece of diversity, which resulted ultimately in Notre Dame changing its curriculum and including disability in its diversity education.

As this new academic year starts, I challenge everyone in the Notre Dame community to welcome the abilities of all students, including students with disabilities. I went on to become a lawyer and now a professor myself. Much of this is because Notre Dame gave me the opportunity to nurture and develop my abilities despite my disability. When Notre Dame asks, “what are you fighting for?”, as an alumna, I am always fighting for opportunity for every member of my Notre Dame family — and that begins at home.

Laura Hoffman

class of 2004

Sept. 4

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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