Students with disabilities look to connect

An aide helps Jaggar DeMarco get to class and put laundry away. But on Friday nights, the freshman – who has muscular dystrophy and is confined to a wheelchair – is on his own.

He said his disability has limited him from meeting other students, and he often opts to stay in his Thurston single at night.

“I would like to go out, but most of the [fraternities] aren’t accessible, and I’ve heard horror stories with clubs denying people in wheelchair entrances,” DeMarco said. He said he has been to one fraternity party at a house that has an accessible back patio.

Disability Support Services has helped him adjust to academics with classroom and tutoring services, but it does not focus on the social transition to college, which DeMarco said could have helped him meet other students and learn from their experiences.

Media Credit: Francis Rivera | Photo Editor

“As great as DSS is, having peers who are around your age in similar circumstances, is much easier,” DeMarco said. “DSS can only help with academics, but there’s a lot more stuff that encompasses having a disability.”

DeMarco hopes to launch a support network for students with disabilities next semester, after the adjustment to college becomes smoother.

The University focuses its disability services on academics and does not have programs or organizations geared toward easing the social transition to college, DSS Director Christy Willis said.

The academically focused office has stepped up its one-on-one support this year, adding time management and writing tutoring, Willis said. It also created partnerships with the University Writing Program and GW Law School this fall and will launch a workforce recruitment program for students with disabilities next month.

But as the office builds up, Willis said its focus will remain in the classroom. There are no guide programs for disabled students, like the support systems that exist for veterans, transfers, international students and freshmen.

“Certainly we play a role in access to University-sponsored events, but in terms of social integration, it’s not really our role,” Willis said. “We serve as a referral resource to needing additional support outside of the classroom.”

A community feel

Over the years, DSS has fielded requests from parents who want their children to get more involved on campus and asked the office to step up programming with student interactions, most commonly when their student is on the autism spectrum, Willis said.

Some of DSS programs help students communicate better and become more independent, she said, in addition to referring students to private-practice life coaches across Foggy Bottom.

Director of the Center for Student Engagement Tim Miller has also met with four or five students on the autism spectrum in the last few years, helping them develop leadership skills and campus connections.

The CSE has not created specific programming for disabled students, Miller said, because many don’t want to be defined by their disabilities. He added that even without a formal mentorship program, DSS maintains a “community and family feel.”

One of Miller’s former mentees, Elliot Bell-Krasner, said Miller built up his confidence through their regular meetings. He said Miller also pushed him to advocate for student issues even after his bid for Student Association executive vice president failed.

“I would have benefited from [a student guide program], but I think what’s important is that students seek out mentors who understand them. Tim understood what I needed and understood me,” said Bell-Krasner, who is diagnosed with a developmental disability called Non-Verbal Learning Disorder. He graduated in 2008 and works for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.

A support group would help many students meet and share their experiences if it worked similarly to the other programs that focus on individualized mentorship, he said.

Nationally, the number of students with learning disabilities seeking college degrees has doubled in the last decade, according to a 2010 report by the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. The number of GW students with disabilities – both mental and physical – has remained steady in recent years.

About 750 students have opted to receive services from DSS, a figure that has remained at relatively the same level, Willis said.

There are about 40 mobility-impaired students, with three, including DeMarco, requiring a wheelchair. There are about 250 students who report mental and psychological disabilities to GW, Willis said.

In 2011, the most recent data available, there were about 430 students with learning disabilities, such as ADD and ADHD.

Eight of GW’s 14 market basket institutions, or similar schools, include social components in their disability support offices, like New York, Boston, Tulane and Vanderbilt universities.

Thousands of students at Washington University in St. Louis participate in the Cornerstone Center for Advanced Learning, which bridges academic tutoring and social networking through peer mentors, according to the program’s website. The program offers leadership training, personal relationships and cultural programs for students with disabilities as well as for students who come from low-income or first-generation college families.

A time for growth

Pediatrics professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Bill Gaventa, specializes in community inclusion for the disabled, and said both mentally and physically disabled students need to grow and feel accepted during college.

“The key thing for many students with disabilities is building relationships, but it is harder for disabled students to get invited,” Gaventa said. “People see them in terms of their disability and not the shared interest they have.”

He said some students with disabilities would benefit from a campus or student-run social group, while others would not want to single themselves out.

Sophomore Alexa Dectis, diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, said she has found support in the GW Entertainment Society.

“When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a wheelchair, so I don’t know if [a student organization] would be something I would be active in if it existed,” she said.

She added that adapting to life on campus was largely smooth, and that she is able to go out with friends by requesting wheelchair-accessible cabs and calls clubs and bars beforehand to determine if they are accessible.

Mobility-impaired students cannot get into some of the bars around Foggy Bottom, like those at 19 and M streets, because they are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, first passed in 1990.

Townhouses along F and G streets, which house Greek chapters and departments like anthropology and American studies, are not required to comply with the act because they are historic buildings.

DSS receives about $50,000 a year to update facilities in compliance with the ADA, and Willis said the fund is used to update residential rooms with handicap accessories, but the amount is not typically spent in full.

DeMarco said his nursing aide, Renée Bow, helps him get around campus and takes him out to lunch around Foggy Bottom. She also has helped him plan a trip to the Lady Gaga concert in February.

“He never wants to get out of the room, but I try to get him out,” Bow, a nursing student at Prince George’s Community College, said.

DeMarco said the student organization he plans to launch would help him branch out. “Students going through the same thing as you can be a much bigger support,” DeMarco said.

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