GW strives to support disabled students

Every day Erin Dean wakes up around 8 a.m., turns on her computer and logs on to AOL Instant Messenger. No one special is online yet. She takes a shower, gets dressed, and remembers to throw her film studies book into her bag. After grabbing some cereal and brushing her hair, Dean’s just about ready for class. This time it only took her about an hour to get all these things done from the convenience of her electronic wheel chair.

Dean is a typical GW student. She enjoys the shops at Georgetown, sightseeing on the mall and meeting friends in the Marvin Center to pretend to study. Life on campus can be quite normal, even for someone with a disability.

Dean, a junior, was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a genetic disease that causes bones to be brittle and highly prone to injury. Disability Support Services has helped students like Dean become full participants in college life. Before transferring to GW in fall 2002, Dean was living at home and attending college in Vermont. But by giving her preferential housing and even adjusting all the fixtures in the room to accommodate her smaller stature, DSS has made it possible for Dean to be able to live away from home for the first time.

“I love GW. I am from a small school in Vermont. It’s like a thousand times better (here),” she said.

Students like Dean are required to register with Disability Support Services, after providing a physician’s note documenting their disability. Accommodations are made at this point, such as giving Dean a roll-in shower, private bath and classes scheduled close together.

Although DSS has attempted to make the campus fully accessible to students with disabilities, it still has a ways to go. Due to the 16 percent increase in the number of students requiring disability services in the past year, the GW Student Association Senate recently passed a resolution concerning the inaccessibility of certain buildings on campus. Buildings like the Hall of Government have only one elevator, and it is often in need of repair..

“It has a bad elevator that broke down. I got stuck on one floor for an hour while they fixed it. It should totally be replaced,” Dean noted.

Making some of these buildings accessible would simply include putting up a ramp or installing a new lift. Improvements can be rather costly; however, the Senate resolution states that “DSS was granted a permanent budget supplement to meet our compliance mandate.” Still, residence halls such as Mitchell, JBKO and Francis Scott Key halls and The Aston need to be retrofit. In their current state, these halls prevent students with physical handicaps from being completely socially active.

“Basically all the inaccessible dorms are where my friends live,” Dean said.

The Senate resolution also includes recommendations for improvements in services for students with non-physical disabilities. The initiative calls for the enhancement of note-taking services, employment opportunities, support for students with psychiatric disorders and more services for professional and graduate students with disabilities.

To combat concerns, DSS has introduced a student satisfaction survey to assess what areas still need improvements. Christy Willis, director of Disability Services, has spearheaded initiatives to address concerns by increasing staff numbers, interpreting services and personal aides.

Staffing is key to creating a learning environment that allows students with disabilities to thrive. Willis recognizes the importance of making staff easily approachable.

“We encourage faculty to include a disability statement on the syllabus to invite students with disabilities to self-disclose,” said Willis. “Modifications such as extra exam time are easily implemented once the instructor is aware that there is a problem.”

Angela Lowe, a student diagnosed with a reading fluency learning disability, reflects on how badly she needed more time to read through test questions.

“Not having that extended time killed me in certain classes,” she said.

At first, it was difficult for Lowe to disclose her learning disability. Fear of being treated differently kept her from vocalizing her needs to professors. After she registered with DSS, she realized that she was better equipped for academic success.

“Since you’re not treated like you’re a sore thumb, you’re able to act like a regular student,” Lowe said.

The University is making strides in improving disability services. A wide range of services, from signing and oral interpretation to real-time captioning and note-taking assistance, are available to students.

Technological innovations such as 24-hour assistance technical labs and computers with speech have brought the world of computers to students with impaired vision or hearing. Even small modifications like offering a greater variety of test formats or posting lecture notes online can be used to help students improve performance.

“Accommodations are meant to level the playing field. They are not meant to give anyone an unfair advantage. (They) help to improve education for all students,” Willis said.

Working with DSS has helped students like Dean and Lowe rise to their full potential. In the past year, Dean has been a “Crossfire” volunteer, a peer mentor in a Freshman Advising Workshop and an intern at Women in Film and Video.

When asked about Dean’s extensive involvement on campus, Willis smiled.

“We have some tremendously active student leaders,” she said. “It has more to do with their personality than their disability.”

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