Disability Services in College
Before the advent of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the American Disabilities Act Title II in 1990, a young adult with either a mental or physical disability had a hard road ahead of them if they chose to continue their education after high school. Colleges typically were not set up for disabled students and could not accommodate special needs. When the special needs student lagged behind because of a specific disability, it was generally considered a shoulder-shrugging “oh well” sort of thing.
Considering that nearly one out of every five people in the United States suffer from some type of disability that impairs his ability to accomplish the daily activities of life, it is somewhat of a sad statement on our society that these Acts were not implemented much earlier in our history. (Treloar 1999 p. 1). In any case, these Acts helped those students who perhaps had tried to hide their disabilities from fear of prejudice or rejection.
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Few college professors prior to 1973 had any exposure or experience with disabled students, and many of the disabled students were left feeling misunderstood and unable to complete their education.
The first step in trying to make the college experience as positive for a disabled student as for a “normal” student was to attempt to change the public’s perception of the disabled. Typically media images of the disabled evoked sympathy, pity, or even horror from the public. This perception had to be changed in order to show that the disabled students were, at their core, just students trying to get an education. The focus had to be shifted from their disability to how to make their learning experience a positive one. (Treloar 1999 p. 1).
Federally funded colleges “cannot discriminate against or exclude a qualified person from programs or activities solely on the basis of his or her disability. A qualified student meets the technical and academic qualifications for participation in an educational program or activity. ” (Treloar 1999 p. 2). Colleges are expected to make reasonable accommodations so that these otherwise qualified students have the same opportunity to participate as other students.
Accommodations may include accessible locations, extended time for test-taking, substitution of nonessential courses for degree requirements, adaptive equipment or technology such as tape-recording classes, or other services such as the use of note takers or readers. (Treloar 1999 p. 3). Though the changes have likely seemed slow in coming to those they affect, the reality is that each year more strides are made to help those with disabilities receive the same college degree as their disability-free counterparts.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a national law that protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability. The critical word in that sentence is “qualified. ” Individuals with disabilities are defined as persons with mental or physical impairments which substantially limits one or more major life activities. Major life activities include caring for oneself, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, working, performing manual tasks and learning.(United 2006 p. 2).
This law applies to any employers or organizations that receive financial assistance from any Federal department or agency, including the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly all public and most private colleges are recipients of funds from the Federal Government, therefore fall under the ADA. Section 504 prohibits organizations from “excluding or denying individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive program benefits and services. ” (United 2006 p. 2).
Therefore, if an individual is hindered in one or more of the above major life activities by a disability, they cannot be excluded from any federally funded organization or employer. The American Disabilities Act prohibits the denial of services or benefits on “specified discriminatory grounds. Just as a government office cannot refuse to issue food stamps or other benefits to an individual on the basis of his or her race, it cannot refuse to provide benefits solely because an individual has a disability. ” (ADA 2005 p. 2).
An example of this would be that a city could not refuse to admit an individual to a city council meeting that is open to the public merely because the individual is deaf. As related to college students, they cannot be denied participation in any class or activity which they are otherwise qualified for, and must be granted the considerations necessary to complete their education. For instance, a visually impaired student would need to be placed at the front of the class, and all possible accommodations made so that he was able to see what was necessary to complete the class.(ADA 2005 p. 3).
Both of these Acts made substantial strides in many areas for those with disabilities, education being only one of them. Despite these strides, however, there are still areas in colleges that need significant improvement in order to fully meet the needs of the disabled students. In 1996 approximately six percent of students enrolled in postsecondary education had disabilities, with the majority of these reporting sensory loss (visual or hearing) or orthopedic conditions. (Palmer 2000 p. 1).
Despite the obvious nature of these disabilities, the actual number one reported problem from the students with disabilities is that there are “significant deficits in the knowledge of disability rights in a majority of universities and university personnel…and that the college students with disabilities need assistance in dealing with complex social interactions such as the request and negotiate demands in the accommodation situation” (Palmer 2000 p. 2).
In other words, the problem is not lack of accommodations necessarily, but more that the students with disabilities lack the skills required to state their needs and negotiate the help they require. Another area in which students with disabilities need particular help lies in career guidance services. “The collegians with disabilities are in greater need of career guidance services than their nondisabled peers. Students with disabilities face attitudinal barriers including lowered expectations, delayed vocational development and unsatisfactory career development support services.” (Benshoff 1990 p. 2).
It becomes clear that the Acts passed in the last three decades have been crucial in providing physical, concrete help for students with disabilities, yet the attitudes toward the disabled still exist, even though they may be cloaked in outward helpfulness. The disabled students feel they are severely lacking in career counseling as well as that they face barriers erected from others’ attitudes toward their disabilities. Learning disabilities are much less mentioned than physical disabilities, yet recent years have shown a significant growth in students with learning issues.
In 1998 over 35% of all freshman college students stated they had a learning disability, up from 24% in 1991. This creates a challenge to professors and colleges alike, because many professors prefer that “all students meet the same set of requirements within the same time period and are ill-prepared either to adapt their instruction to address the individual needs of students or to identify appropriate, fair and reasonable accommodations. ” (Thomas 2000 p. 1).
This remains an ongoing problem, and one with no easily identifiable answers. Many students, both “regular” and disabled, take web-based college classes which fit in with their busy lives and schedules better, in many cases, than the traditional classroom. While physical barriers are “obvious accessibility concerns confronting students with disabilities,” web page developers must be aware that online barriers can also cause accessibility problems for disabled users. (Flowers 2000 p. 2).
Web page developers need to be very aware of those users with disabilities and follow the standards set that allow more accessibility to students with disabilities. There are many new technologies which allow students to access information such as Braille output systems for the visually impaired, modified keyboards, screen enlargements and voice output utilities. Web developers can provide alternative ways to access information presented with “images, sounds, applets and scripts. ” (Flowers 2000 p.3).
Though we are a nation of internet users, the disabled student has special issues regarding the web that must be addressed. When all is said and done, it must be remembered that “positive classroom experiences in college are critical to successful inclusion of students with disabilities in the campus community. Faculty relationships are known to have a pivotal effect on whether at risk students, like students with disabilities, are embraced in the college environment. ” (Smith 2004 p. 1).
Instructors need to be able to develop a safe atmosphere where all students can express their own life experiences and look at the differences between one another. In this type of an atmosphere all students can talk about the issues they find most relevant in their personal lives, leading to an atmosphere much more conducive to learning. Students with disabilities sometimes have difficulty absorbing the lectures by their professors, but if they feel like they are in an environment where they can safely express their concerns, the satisfaction level tends to go up significantly.
In a study done at Baylor University, three of the issues disabled students felt to be most important to their success were: counseling which included an in-depth assessment of the student’s requirements and needs, caring people who offered a solid support system, and extra time on their tests. Study skills, time management and a solid sense of security in their environment were other issues these students felt were of great importance to their success. (Smith 2004 p.4).
There are many groups who seek to help students with disabilities, such as the National Association of Blind Students, College and Career Programs for Deaf Students, and CHADD, a leading non-profit organization for both children and adult students with ADHD. One group, known as AHEAD or Association on Higher Education And Disability, is a group committed to “full participation of persons with disabilities in post secondary education. ” (Smith 2004 p. 5).
AHEAD values such things as diversity, personal growth and creativity in those with disabilities, while promoting leadership in this same group. AHEAD seeks to stay abreast of current issues regarding disabilities, education and accessibility for those with disabilities. Since 1977 AHEAD has excelled in delivering quality training to those with disabilities and actively addresses disability issues on campuses. There are many challenges and issues facing disabled college students.
Thanks to the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, the actual physical challenges have lessened immensely for students and great strides have been made in accommodating physical disabilities in most all areas of classrooms, dorms, library, parking and cafeteria. More work needs to be done, however on the mental disability issue, as there tends to be more negativity and stigma attached to mental disabilities than physical, and colleges still have a ways to go to accommodate these students.