For students, college is the first time they must advocate for themselves. It is no longer their parents’ responsibility to make sure they are receiving fair treatment. This rings especially true for disabled students.
“It is very much up to the student to self-advocate for themselves about what they need and to schedule it and all of that,” said Janice Law, Academic Excellence Programs Director. “For some students, yes, that is more responsibility than they had to take on in secondary school. There’s much more self-advocacy at this level.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires universities to make programs accessible to qualifying students. The university’s website claims “UT is fully committed to act in compliance with all ADA mandated requirements.”
Nicholas Pollio, a freshman psychology major, has dealt with Spina Bifida since birth. Spina Bifida is a neurological disorder. An area of Pollio’s back never completely formed, so he is paralyzed below the knee. Since he still maintains a degree of motor control and can stand for a good amount of time, Pollio uses a segway to travel around campus.
Pollio filled out a special needs application before coming to UT, specifying which housing accommodations he would need due to his disability.
“I have enough room to store my segway, easy to access, there’s a nice shower. Everything is accommodated to what I asked for so it was nice,” Pollio said. “What I like about the campus is it’s easy to get everywhere with it, I have yet to have any trouble getting somewhere with the segway. I can literally drive up to my classes, go in elevators, it’s no big deal.”
The school offers services for disabled students ranging from handicapped door access to supplying E-books for the hearing impaired. They even offer services for students who are temporarily disabled; for example, students with broken arms can have scribes write for them.
“We offer what’s considered at the university-level to be reasonable accommodations,” Law said. “This can be confusing especially for incoming freshmen because it doesn’t always necessarily translate into exactly what you had in high school or middle school, it’s a different level, it’s a different set of rules and regulations and laws.”
The Academic Center for Excellence (ACE) offers accommodations to fit a student’s specific disability. While tutors are available to all students, the center also offers academic skills classes and allows certain students to complete their exams in distraction-reduced testing rooms.
“[ACE is] extremely accommodating and understanding,” said Elisabeth Pendergrass, a senior and marine biology major with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “They really make an effort to give you the best options possible; for example, I get time and a half on tests and I am allowed to take them in the ACE center.”
The center also offers many services outside of disability assistance. A student’s privacy is kept when they visit the center. If a student uses resources that are available to them such as recording lectures or taking exams in the center, his or her professors will not be notified of the student’s specific disability.
While UT has accommodations for students with disabilities, the program can’t satisfy every student.
Daniela Quintyne is a freshman education major with auditory processing disorder, attention deficit disorder and dysgraphia, a disorder that makes it difficult to write. Quintyne takes advantage of ACE’s distraction-reduced testing center and uses a computer for assignments because of her dysgraphia.
“I think the services are helpful, they did match most of my accommodations but I have gotten frustrated with them before,” Quintyne said. “When I first visited UT, there was a different head of the department. She told me that if I needed a note taker in my classes that she would do that for me although it was not in my accommodations. I definitely needed one in one of my classes last semester, but when I asked if I could get one they denied me because it wasn’t in my file. I didn’t do bad in the class but I think if I had a note taker my grades would have been better.”
Despite the many services the ADA requires schools to offer, this does not include any accommodations that could “fundamentally alter” any academic programs or requirements. For example, UT is not required to and therefore does not offer extensions on assignments homework or projects because such things are considered to be the student’s responsibility.
“The extra time to take an exam, etcetera, is reasonable, but let’s just say a student said ‘Well, I’m not a good test-taker and, so, I never had to take tests in high schools. Will I be getting that accommodation?’ Absolutely, not,” Law said. “If the course requires two exams, you have to take two exams. They still have to do what is outlined in the course, as any other student has to do.”
ACE is working towards starting workshops and a disability advisory council made up of students. Many students and even faculty members do not realize that accommodations like extra time are not advantages over other students. Law explained that students pass exams by knowing the information, and that extended time will not make a student pass if they do not understand the subject matter.
The university’s objective is not to give handouts, but rather, supply disabled students with the resources they need to be self-sufficient adults.
“My life isn’t perfect, no one’s is. I’ll have days where something might come up or I might have pain or something like that, so I might have to take like a day off and teachers are willing to work around that with me,” Pollio said. “I think [UT is] doing a great job. From what I’ve seen, [there are] so many different people with so many different things in their life, whether it’s learning disabilities or physical disabilities, mental disabilities, whatever you want to say. I see that in every way possible, they try to make everyone feel normal.”
Bianca Lopez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org