Disability Support Services sees rise in employees, students assisted

Signs litter the walls of Disability Support Services office asking for quiet to accommodate “exams in progress.” But the office is not quiet, it’s busy and it’s getting even busier.

The number of students assisted by DSS is up 9 percent from last year and 21 percent from 2004. It’s an addition of 135 students, bringing the total to 740 for the department’s 10 staff members and it seems to indicate a larger trend across the country.

Christy Willis, director of DSS, said the increase in student registration with DSS “reflects the quality of intervention in K-12 education.” Primary and secondary schools are becoming better at identifying disorders that affect education down the road, Willis said.

DSS was established in 1978 in response to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which ensured equal access to federally financed institutions regardless of disability status.

When she began working at GW in the early 1980s, Willis was one of DSS’ two staff members. The vast majority of the disorders they dealt with were physical and easier to diagnose, she said.

However in the mid-90s “(Attention Deficit Disorder) hit its stride,” Willis said, and the office began to expand. When more students with psychological disorders emerged, the office moved into its suite in the Marvin Center.

Today only 11 percent of DSS-registered students are diagnosed with a physical disorder. Instead, most of the students who register with DSS do so for support with learning or psychological disorders.

This trend is not unique to GW, studies show. The percentage of postsecondary students across the country who registered as “disabled” has more than doubled over the past decade, according to a study by National Center for Educational Statistics, a subsidiary of the U.S. Department of Education.

Application to GW is blind to any disorder that requires special accommodation and all files kept by DSS are confidential and separate from academic records, Willis said.

GW’s “beyond compliance” approach to disability assistance is considered traditional though it has “gained a particular national reputation” for its wide array of free services, Willis said.

These services include scribes, typists and note-takers to assist with lectures. Other services range from extended time on exams and reading services to time-management and organizational assistance. Though a “very strong office,” Willis admits that GW’s DSS can not compete with colleges such as Landmark in Vermont that cater exclusively to students with learning and other disorders.

Officials warn, however, that DSS is not a “continuation of earlier special education.”

It does not guarantee an out come, rather it tries to level the playing field for registered disabled students. It emphasizes student “self-determination.” All students must apply for assistance and, according to Willis, the amount of “service they receive is dependent on the student’s commitment.”

Jeffrey Thomas, a freshman who receives note-taking assistance and double time for exams, explains: “In high school you’re entitled to (help), but here you have to seek it out.”

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