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How universities accommodate students with disabilities

People with disabilities are a sizeable portion of any population, and in many countries the law requires public and private institutions to make efforts to be inclusive. Here's how Penn State upholds its values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
BY Anita Colyer Graham |   22-08-2017

More than a billion people in the world experience a disability of some kind, according to the 2011 World Report on Disability. It notes that “People with disabilities have generally poorer health, lower education achievements, fewer economic opportunities and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities. This is largely due to the lack of services available to them and the many obstacles they face in their everyday lives.”

Accessibility is a critical aspect of the educational landscape in the United States. US law requires universities to provide equitable access to educational opportunities for students with disabilities.

In addition, at the Pennsylvania State University, diversity, equity, and inclusion are core values. Diversity includes diversity of ability. Inclusion creates a robust learning environment that is more beneficial for all.

Types of disabilities may include: attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, deafness and difficulty hearing, learning disorders, mobility and upper extremity impairments, neurological disorders, physical health disorders, psychological disorders, and vision impairments.

Students can also request accommodations related to a temporary health issue, such as a student who has broken a leg in a car accident, or who is suffering complications related to pregnancy.

The US National Center for Education Statistics indicates that about 11% of undergraduate students reported having a disability.

What US laws say

Our most important piece of civil rights legislation is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which became law in July 1990. The Act defined a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Its purpose is to make employment, public services, public accommodations, and telecommunications more accessible to people with disabilities, for the public good.

Prior legislation, Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, had already banned discrimination based on disability in any organization receiving federal funds. Before this, people with disabilities had been largely excluded or segregated from society; it wasn’t unusual for them to be institutionalized. Section 504 viewed people with disabilities as a minority group, and gave them legal protections, just as civil rights legislation had done based on race, ethnic origin, and gender.

The ADA was broadened and refined in 2008. Changes included making it less burdensome for a person with a disability to claim coverage under the Act. It also expanded coverage to include medical conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and epilepsy.

Making public spaces accessible

The accessibility of physical spaces on campus is a top priority, and central funding is available for improvements that increase accessibility. If you visit a Penn State campus, you’ll notice quite a few things. There are reserved parking spaces near all major points of entry to buildings. Curb cuts – equally useful for a person in a wheelchair or a person pushing a baby’s stroller – are everywhere.

Restrooms generally offer at least one stall designed for a person using a wheelchair. All local buses are equipped with ramps that unfold out to the curb for wheelchair access. Information such as the room number is posted in Braille outside all office doors. Service dogs are permitted to accompany their owners onto buses and into stores, classrooms, and restaurants.

At Penn State, accessibility is treated as a very important priority. A central office, Student Disability Resources, provides academic support services for students with disabilities. This office coordinates reasonable accommodations and services for students with disabilities at University Park (Penn State’s largest campus). In addition, each of Penn State’s 24 campuses has one or more designated disability specialists, and manages its own students and services, while coordinating work with the central office.

What should students do?

How does a student request accommodations related to a disability? And what kinds of accommodations might a student receive under the ADA?

First of all, if you are a student with a disability, you would need to disclose to an agent of the university that you have a disability. You can request accommodations, provide documentation of the disability, and participate in an intake process with the disability liaison for your campus.

If you are approved for coverage under the ADA, you will be provided a letter of accommodation by your disability specialist. The accommodation letter does not disclose the disability, but identifies the necessary academic accommodations.

You need to go through the intake process just once. After that, you will get a new accommodation letter each semester. The information that you share with the disability liaison is considered confidential, and it is up to you to share the letter of accommodation with your professors and negotiate any details.

You can come forward at any time during the semester to disclose a disability and request accommodations. Accommodations generally apply from the point where the student is determined to be covered under the ADA, but not before that.

For example: a student discloses a disability in mid-semester and is approved for extended time on quizzes and exams. The accommodation would be applied for any subsequent exams, but the professor is not expected to implement accommodations retroactively or give the student the opportunity to retake previous exams.

Which are the most common types of disabilities?

At Penn State in 2016-2017, 3.15% of students received disability support services across campus locations, and 1,442 students were registered with disability services (these numbers do not include the University Park campus). The largest disability category is now psychological disorders, accounting for 25% of all disability types reported. ADHD (22%) and learning disorders (20%) are next on the list. Hearing impairments account for 3% of the total, and vision impairments 2%.

What other accommodations are made?

According to a 2014 Penn State Faculty Senate report, the most common accommodations used by the university's students across all campus locations include extra time for tests and quizzes, note-taking assistance, course materials in accessible formats, assistive technologies such as Kurzweil and Livescribe pens, captioning of videos and media, interpreting and CART (real-time) captioning, and priority registration.

Training for faculty and staff

Central units of Penn State regularly provide training on accessibility, including live events, webinars, online training, and training on demand. The World Campus offers a free training module to Penn State faculty and staff on supporting accessibility for online learners. Such training covers topics such as inclusive course design, web standards and compliance, tactile graphics, using 3D printing to increase accessibility, and optimizing Word and PowerPoint files.

October is disability awareness month at Penn State, and features the largest number of accessibility events and trainings. Such events include paralympics, wheelchair basketball, the ‘Run, Walk and Roll’ one-mile race, technical training, panel discussions, and presentations by individuals such as Temple Grandin, an autism spokesperson.

The author is the Manager of Access at the World Campus, the online campus of the Pennsylvania State University. She coordinates the accessibility function across multiple work units and ensures support services for students with disabilities enrolled in online courses.

Read more on inclusiveness and diversity on campus:
Meet Jose Agueros, a deaf-blind student at DePaul University
The salsa-dancing blind student who won a scholarship to the US
Harvard cancels admission offers to 10 students who shared obscene and racist memes
Word Nerd: How to talk about race
#SmartStudent: How to be funny when you're studying abroad
Special early ceremony for Indian student with cancer who may not make it to graduation day
How 2 Indian students in Canada are helping disabled children walk like 'Iron Man'
Occupational Therapy: a master’s degree that will get you a job



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