December 11, 2014
When most people go to the library, they think of it as a place to study with books, different forms of study materials and tables all over the place. What most people don’t know is, there is a part of the library that most students do not think of when entering. For students with disabilities, this part of the library plays a major role in their ability to succeed and receive a quality education.
The University of Wisconsin Whitewater has been ahead of the curve when it comes to providing services for students with disabilities since before access to a college campus was required by law. Although access to a college campus was not required by law until 1973, The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater began its Center for Students with Disabilities (CSD) program 8 years prior, in 1965. Although every school in the state is required to provide services to students with disabilities, there is only one school that actually has working with students with disabilities as part of their mission statement; that school is the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. CSD was started by Paul Lauritzen, who was a Special Education faculty member who began CSD out of his office. When CSD initially opened, only 5-10 students were a part of the program. Today, 8 percent of students on campus use services provided by CSD.
In 1968, John Truesdale became the head of CSD. In the early 1970’s, one of the landmark moments in CSD’s early history happened when UW-Whitewater was named the flagship school for students with disabilities in the UW-System by the Board of Regents. One of the biggest steps in making CSD what it is today occurred in 1990 with the installation of the American Disabilities Act. This act pushed forward the importance of physical accessibility for everyone, which in turn made college more accessible for students. It was later amended in 2009, allowing more students with disabilities to attend college if they so choose.
CSD provides many services for students in order to give them the tools to be successful. These include: textbooks in alternative formats, testing accommodations, note-takers, physical accessibility to classrooms and dorm rooms and activities. One of the many services provided is called Kurzweil. Kurzweil is a software that allows students to scan necessary reading materials in order to have them read aloud to students. Not only does the software cut down on the time it takes to read a chapter by almost half, but it also increases a student’s ability to comprehend what they have read by almost 75 percent.
Another program that students can use in order to help them succeed is called Firefly. It is a cloud-based version that allows students to not only hear their books, but also see them. One of the biggest challenges for students in the classroom can be the ability to take notes. With the advancement of technology, students now have the ability to use software to assist them in taking notes. This software is called Audio Note Taker, which gives students the ability to record their lectures through their current device and upload them to their computers so they can play them back when convenient for them. These services are just some of the tools students can use in order to give themselves the best chance at success.
Students with disabilities can often times have more challenges academically than the average student. Therefore, most people would think that their graduation rate is not that high. Well, at UW-Whitewater, the graduation rate for students with disabilities is 54 percent on a six year program. When comparing this nationally, 18 percent of students with disabilities graduate over the course of six years. That puts Whitewater at almost triple the graduation rate based on a six year program, as well as puts CSD students almost on par with the university’s average student population.
CSD’s Associate Director, Scott Ritter, believes there are many reasons students at CSD are so successful. “Students do all the heavy-lifting, we are just there for the support,” Ritter said. “Successful students have proactivity, are good self-advocates, use resources and use accommodations.” One of the examples of the resources that are very important for most students is the ability to take tests and exams in a private setting outside of the classroom. Often times, students have a better chance to do well on their exams because of this setting. Testing, along with services provided during testing, which can include a reader, scribe, or both and extended time are necessary to complete an exam. These accommodations allow students to not be as stressed about time or the ability to complete the exam during their exam period.
Although CSD provides services for students, students have to provide a key to help CSD understand what they need to help them be successful; that key is documentation. Documentation allows students to not only receive services for testing, such as scribes, extended time and Kurzweil, but can also allow students to receive notes from note takers in class, use recorders to record lectures and also use tutors for academic support in classes when students may feel they need a little extra help. Patty Baren, the testing coordinator for CSD, believes there is a key for students to be successful. “Their parents can drop them off and help pay for school, but the key for students to be successful is the desire within,” Baren said.
CSD has made extreme progress since it first began. When Baren was asked where she saw CSD in the next five to 10 years, her response was very interesting. “I don’t know,” Baren said. “When I started here 10 years ago I couldn’t have imagined it would become what it is today. I don’t know where it will be in the next five to 10 years, but I would like to be around to find out.”
One of the key services that CSD provides many students with is transportation to and from class. This gives students who may struggle getting to class on their own the ability to schedule rides from place to place based on their class schedules as well as other non-academic needs. Adaptive transportation coordinator and one of the key contacts that assists students, Jacob Cohen, is in charge of scheduling rides and works with students to make sure they have everything they may need to give them the best chance to succeed.
“One of the biggest challenges is the size of campus and how it is sometimes difficult for students to get around, even with well-constructed sidewalks,” Cohen said. Cohen also mentioned another challenge. “A downside with the transportation is that it is expensive to run the program,” Cohen said. He said he wishes that they would not have to charge anyone, however some students can get third-party funding, such as the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR), for the services.
Cohen has also had the opportunity to work with many students on the academic side of things as a key contact. The job of a key contact is to help students get the services they may need in order to be successful. Part of his job is to work with students who are part of the conditionally admitted program. This means students may not have a high enough GPA or class rank to be regularly admitted to the university. The conditional admittance program places students on automatic academic probation, but it gives the admitted students a chance to prove they can do well academically. Students in this program must obtain at least a 2.0 GPA or higher in order to continue in school. Cohen said most freshmen come in with a lot of fear about college in general, but most of them do not have anything to worry about. This program gives students a chance to build their confidence in school.
Some students are given the opportunity to adjust to college life even before their freshman year begins. This program is the “Summer Transition Program.” During this month in July, students take two classes, which are a new student seminar class and a writing skills course. This program provides students with the opportunity to adjust to college for a month before the fall semester begins. This includes getting adjusted to services as well as allowing students to experience independence and living on their own for the first time.
Four and a half years ago, I was one of the students who had an opportunity to participate in the Summer Transition Program. Like many freshmen, I was unsure how college would go. Leaving a small town where I knew everybody and was able to succeed academically with the help of services provided by my high school, I came to college unsure of myself. CSD and the Summer Transition Program helped me land on my feet and hit the ground running. Being an active participant in the Summer Transition Program allowed me to adjust to college and find my way before the campus became too active. This also allowed me to experience living on my own and taught me how to handle adversity and make decisions by myself while weighing the positives and negatives that come with every decision. One of the greatest challenges for me was learning time management and self-advocacy. With productive use of tutors and aids through CSD, they slowly helped me accomplish this. As I went further into my college career, I became more and more comfortable with time management and the act of balancing both classes and social life.
When my freshman year started, I had a great first semester academically, but I realized something was missing. Most of my friends stayed home for school, so when it came to being social, I was homesick initially. I wanted to find a way to get actively involved on campus. I started my career by joining the Disability Advocacy and Awareness Coalition (DAAC), which is an organization that helps look at potential obstacles for students with disabilities and help them overcome them. This not only gave me the opportunity to join a student organization and make friends, but it also gave me a chance to talk about my experiences and help me learn to adjust and overcome obstacles. This organization helped me use my disability as a strength, while also helping other people that may have the same or more challenges than I do. I have been able to help these students do well in college.
For example, the mom, of one of my good friends who I used to attend physical therapy with me back home when I was younger, tells me all the time that the reason her daughter wants to go to UW-Whitewater as a senior in high school is because she has seen me be able to attain a college degree. I have given her a blueprint of what it takes to be successful at the college level.
After building confidence through having academic success throughout my freshman year, I decided that I wanted to get back into a competitive environment. I joined the UW-Whitewater men’s basketball program at the beginning of my sophomore year. You may ask what does this have to do with CSD. CSD helped me find a balance between what I love to do, which is coach and play sports, while also taking care of my academics. I believe that during my sophomore year, I really began to understand the importance of time management. I knew that it was a privilege to be a part of an athletic team here at UW-Whitewater. I also knew that the only way I could be a part of it, was if I stayed on top of my academics as well. Through the use of CSD services, I was able to set up a plan and work around my extracurricular schedule in order to continue my academic success, while also being able to participate fully in something that I love.
When I joined the team, I was a little unsure of myself and what my role was. I was just a sophomore coming into a completely new environment athletically where expectations were high. From day one, I felt like one of the guys. The important thing to me was not only having success on the court, but also being accepted off of it as well. As I settled into my role of being student manager, I sometimes forget that I have a disability because nobody mentions it. The team does not treat me any different than they would to any other member of the team. In fact, my expectations are probably higher for myself than they are from the team. I expect to do well academically and athletically and realize that it takes hard work to do both. Being a student manager for almost four years, I view myself as a leader. I feel like I have to have the same kind of mentality that the rest of the guys do with the want to be successful and the passion for the game. Four years is a long time. My sophomore year, I was not as vocal as I am now, but I believe that it comes with maturity and realizing that I have been able to find the balance between academics and athletics.
Throughout my experience with the men’s basketball team, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of two national championship winning teams in my three full years of managing, this season is my fourth. As enjoyable and rewarding as this experience has been, it has been difficult at times. My sophomore year I was unable to travel with the team due to not having people available on the team to take care of me and my everyday needs on the road.
This all changed my junior year. During that summer, my teammate, who is now one of my best friends, Cody Odegaard, messaged me on Facebook asking if I needed help with daily shifts. At the time I did not because someone had already taken a majority of my shifts. As fate would have it, the person who was taking most of my shifts quit the company that helps me with everyday needs a week before my junior year began. Initially when I heard the news, I was unsure of what I was going to do. I wondered if my dream of graduating college was over. Cody later messaged me and said, “Hey, I’m still here if you need help.” As the year began, he started working with me to fill in the shifts that were dropped. This gave me the ability to not only succeed in school but to be able to ask head coach Pat Miller if I would be able to travel with the team for road games. After explaining that Cody could assist with everyday needs, Coach Miller agreed. This outcome changed my perspective and made me even more grateful for the opportunities that I have been presented with throughout my career here at UW-Whitewater.
With the average graduation rate being 54 percent over six years, the fact that I have the opportunity to graduate in four and a half years is something that I am extremely proud of. I hope that it represents CSD in a positive light because it shows that hard work pays off. If students put their mind to something, they can achieve it. When I began my college career, I would have never dreamt about having the opportunity to continue my education in graduate school at a place where I have been able to grow, mature, and accomplish what I set out to do. My first goal was not to be a part of the basketball team, it was to get a degree and have something that at the end of the day, people would be proud of. I was the only student with a disability in my high school, so I wanted to set an example and make people realize that I could be successful. I did it, so why can’t somebody else do it? My family pushed me growing up and throughout my life have not let me use my disability as an excuse not to succeed. This shaped my views when I came to college and made me realize that CSD would play an important role in my ability to accomplish what I want to do in school. I had plenty of opportunities to not be successful in school, but CSD helped me stay on the path and helped me realize what was possible. Without CSD, I would not have the opportunity to graduate in December or move on to graduate school. I most likely would have been at home missing out at an opportunity to have fun in college and obtain a great education.
When comparing services to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s CSD program to those offered at the University of Wisconsin’s McBurney Disability Resource Center, there are many similarities, including assistive listening devices and advocacy liaisons. Both universities have access to assistive listening devices for students who may need to use them. A difference from UW-Whitewater’s Kurzweil system, the University of Wisconsin offers personal FM systems, a conference microphone, and an induction system that are rented for either a short or long time. Advocacy liaisons are the same at both schools and are offered to students who may be experiencing difficulty receiving accommodations necessary for them to succeed.
The CSD program at the UW-Whitewater does not offer a course substitution program like the University of Wisconsin does. In order to be considered for the course substitution program, students must require extraordinary accommodations. They also have to complete the following steps from the McBurney Disability Resource Center’s page and present their case to the appeals subcommittee of the Committee on Access and Accommodation:
“1. A written request from the student for extraordinary accommodations to a specific requirement, along with any relevant supporting documentation (i.e., placement test scores; high school record; ACT, SAT, or other standardized test scores; all college or university transcripts), must be included.
2. Evidence must be presented on behalf of the student that he or she has actively pursued suitable accommodation. Such evidence should include information from the McBurney Disability Resource Center and the student’s academic advisor. Information from relevant instructors may also be included.
3. Documentation from the McBurney Disability Resource Center will include (a) the nature of the disability and its relevance to the requirement, (b) a description of the accommodations previously recommended and/or implemented within the full range of approved classes, and (c) a statement regarding the likelihood of the student satisfying the requirement with the provision of the proposed accommodations.
4. Since the proceedings are not intended to be adversarial, but are a review of the grounds for extraordinary accommodation, a student may request to make a brief presentation before the committee.”
After having completed the steps, the subcommittee chair will review the documents presented and make a final decision on whether a student a student qualifies for this accommodation. If the student does not turn in all of the documents, they are returned to the student and told to resubmit their application with all of the documents.
After having compared both the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s CSD program and the University of Wisconsin’s McBurney Disability Resource Center, both programs offer many services to benefit students with special needs and help them succeed. UW-Whitewater’s CSD program does not offer the course substitution program, instead they are able to make necessary accommodations for the students. The University of Wisconsin is able to offer this because they have more teachers that are able to focus on special needs education.
CSD has a unique ability to teach students to turn what some might view as a weakness into a student’s strength. If students advocate for themselves, students are given every tool they need to succeed. One of the biggest themes that came out of conducting the three interviews that I did was: it is all up to the student. If students want to be successful, they can be, but the drive has to come from within. The students who use the services which are provided, typically find themselves more confident that they can succeed in the academic setting. Those students who may not use their services quite as effectively could potentially find themselves struggling to find their way in the academic world.