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WELCOMING ALL OF OUR STUDENTS

By Thomas Mays, Coordinator of Disability Support Services

The entire college, not just one office or person, should be involved in the accommodation of students with disabilities.

STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES AT PGCC
Many are recent graduates of special education programs, alternative schools, and high schools in the region. Others may be adult learners returning to school after a long absence, or maybe just beginning their college education. These students, beneficiaries of an open admissions policy, often come to Prince George’s Community College full of hope for their future, a future complicated by their history of involvement in special education classrooms or alternative settings. Unfortunately these programs are often devoid of support for the development of self-esteem, self-determination, or self-advocacy skills. Students are often diagnosed or labeled with terms like "learning disabled," "emotionally disturbed" or "slow learner." Nonetheless, these students take the placement test and to their surprise, they test into developmental course work. What happens next?

THE ROLE OF DISABILITY SUPPORT SERVICES (DSS)
DSS is only useful to those students who self-identify and who request academic accommodations. They must provide documentation of their disability and clearly define how their disability affects them in the classroom setting. They have the law on their side when they provide sufficient documentation and make appropriate and timely requests for academic accommodations and auxiliary services, such as interpreting and note taking. However, not all students will do this successfully. Some students provide inadequate documentation of their disability and are referred to their doctors or to an outside agency for additional testing. Some students do not have a disability at all and are referred to another campus office for tutoring or study skills support, time management advice, counseling, mentoring, or academic advising.

USING THE ENTIRE COLLEGE AS A RESOURCE
As many of you know, these students are registered in your classes and require assistance. How do we help them? What do they need? What should our expectations be for them? The answers to these questions are all around you: Admissions and Records; College Life Services; Advising and Counseling; Financial Aid; Student Support Services, etc. There are many offices on our campus that provide support services to these students who may need additional referrals as well as clear expectations for class performance.

LEGAL MANDATES GOVERNING COMMUNITY COLLEGES
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities in both public and private institutions receiving federal funds for their programs or activities. It is understood that these programs and activities must be accessible to students with disabilities and must avoid the appearance of discrimination. This does not mean the college should compromise the academic integrity of programs or courses. However, the law does support making reasonable accommodations, if the student has provided documentation that has been reviewed and discussed with qualified college personnel. The accommodations are not designed to alter the nature in which the classes are taught, but to make the classroom accessible and equitable to students with disabilities.

MAKING ACCOMMODATIONS
The instructor and student should form a collaborative partnership in discussing how to provide such accommodations in light of the course structure, design, and syllabi requirements. The Disability Support Services Office is a useful resource in addressing student disability issues as well as addressing what are typically standard accommodations for students with disabilities. However, not all disabilities affect students in the same way. Therefore, an accommodation provided to one student may or may not be appropriate for another student with the same disability. Each case should be reviewed on an individual basis. Unfortunately, there are some legal challenges that surface between the interpretation of the law and the interpretation of the disability from a medical and educational perspective. Past institutional accommodations also play a part. However, I believe it is fair to say that a flexible and knowledgeable instructor can accommodate most requests very easily.

Many students with disabilities are hesitant to meet their instructors individually to discuss their academic concerns or needs for fear of embarrassment or stigma. Many have not yet developed their skills for self-advocacy or independent initiative. Some come directly from self-contained classrooms or mainstreamed environments where little preparation is given for the demands and expectations of college-level instruction. Even adult learners may have difficulty approaching their instructors about course requirements. Therefore, everyone at the college, from senior-level administration down to classified staff, can be instrumental in addressing and creating an open environment for the student with disabilities. Please do not be afraid to meet with students with disabilities, discuss their concerns, or make appropriate recommendations.

MOST REQUESTED ACCOMMODATIONS AT COLLEGE

1. Extended time on tests.
2. Alternate testing location (quiet area/room)
3. Note taking services in the classroom
4. Permission to tape record lecture(s)
5. Sign language interpreters

Any of these accommodations can be requested by a student with a documented disability who has self-identified to the DSS office and has been enrolled.

FACTORS THAT PREVENT STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES FROM SUCCEEDING
Many students with disabilities are attempting to challenge themselves in an environment that is foreign to them. They are often moving from a high school setting of entitlements to a community college setting of eligibility. Post-secondary institutions are not under the same legal mandates, statutes, and laws that govern secondary schools. Colleges and universities do not have to provide academic accommodations to students just because they have a disability. Students with disabilities at post-secondary institutions may be eligible for services and yet not receive services and/or academic accommodations if they do not self-identify. Although they are not guaranteed blanket services at the community college level, they are eligible to seek services. These students and their parents must reevaluate the demands of college on family resources and their individual needs. The need for self-esteem, self-advocacy, and self-determination are paramount as students with disabilities navigate their educational paths in uncharted territory.

THE CHALLENGE AHEAD
The role of the community college continues to change as it seeks to adapt to demographic trends in student populations and work force demands. As we endeavor to foster career advancement opportunities, student development foci, and technological competence for our students, we are also responsible for providing instruction in basic skills that will support transfer, degree, or skill-building efforts. After obtaining a community college education, one should be equipped to maneuver the waters of higher education with confidence born of the ability to think critically and reason abstractly. The community college should be preparing leaders, and leaders who follow (not leaders and followers). Can students with disabilities be integrated into this ideology of high expectation and performance? I believe so, but not without a proper welcome.

 

The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 17, No. 1

Fall 2001