Small staff, big task

With only four members on staff, the Office of Disability Services handles increasing demand

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With only four members on staff, the Office of Disability Services (ODS) handles increasing demand. Gregory Kantor/The Muhlenberg Weekly

At the time of their establishment 13 years ago, the Office of Disability Services (ODS) facilitated 625 total appointments for students to receive accommodated testing. Last year, that number nearly tripled to just shy of 2,000. But with only one support and three professional staff members, can they keep up with current, and future, demand?

“We are the central office that does all the determination of disabilities and makes decisions about accommodations with the student,” said Pamela Moschini, Director of Disability Services. “Every student, regardless of what their disability is, comes through this office first.”

The structure of ODS differs from most other colleges, according to Moschini, in that they cover any learning disability, mental health or chronic medical condition. This broad coverage, in addition to a recent increase in the availability of higher education, have led to a dramatic rise in the amount of accommodations needed by students.

Students’ accommodations are determined by an Individual Accommodation Plan which is based on an interview and profile evaluation and review process. ODS staff meet individually with each student, for each class that they need an accommodation for, in order to ensure accommodations are legitimate and justified.

With so many different avenues of classroom support available, such as assisted notetaking, computer aids and audio recording, the issue of students taking advantage of said accommodations comes into play. However, both Moschini and professors have found little to no instances of abuse or infraction.

“The people who can demonstrate to ODS that they need to use a computer if they’re going to retain the material are usually really good students, so it’s not a problem,” said Professor of Philosophy Dr. Ted Schick, a practitioner of the classroom-computer ban for non-accommodated students.

Communication between ODS and professors relies mainly on the students who need accommodations. Informing professors of individual needs is primarily the student’s responsibility, which can raise some issues according to Emily Hofstetter ‘18.

“While I might get a letter of accommodation for one of my classes, that alone is rarely enough to satisfy teachers,” said Hofstetter in an email interview. “Not because of any fault of ODS, simply because most professors don’t understand chronic illness/disability.”

Hofstetter is immunocompromised, causing her to sometimes miss up to two weeks of class due to illness. She attributes part of that to professor’s emphasis on perfect attendance, saying that it forces “normal students to go to class when they really shouldn’t, putting students like [her] at risk.”

“Some classes only allow for three (or less) missed days. Total,” Hofstetter added. “Even for a healthy person, a simple flu or nasty cold could take up all those days.”

Hofstetter also explained that there is a “flexibility in attendance” option on most accommodation plans, but “it’s ultimately up to professors, who are not the most knowledgeable, to make the call.”

Hofstetter encourages students who might need accommodations to start a dialogue with their professors to provide the most “understanding and academic leeway.” However, the dialogue about ODS and invisible/chronic illnesses on campus is not quite at the level Hofstetter and others would like it to be at.

“It actually is harder in some sense for students with learning disabilities because it’s not visible,” said Professor of Psychology Dr. Laura Edelman. “If you say to someone ‘I have an auditory processing disability,’ probably to most people that doesn’t even mean anything.”

Dr. Edelman served for 25 years on the Advisory Board for Academic Support Services, a committee of professors who communicate directly with ODS. They communicate issues to ODS and work to adjust guidelines and/or policies to ensure the best experience for professors, faculty and ODS employees.

A large part of that experience is access to the appropriate facilities for students with accommodated testing needs. While this falls out of the Advisory Board’s scope of responsibilities, the issue of space on campus seems to leave ODS as no exception.

“There isn’t enough space for all the students who need the accommodations, so then you end up with students in the classroom, which is really hard to make distraction free, and they might have double time but they’re supposed to be supervised for that double time,” said Dr. Edelman. “It can be a problem for faculty to juggle all of that.”

Because it is the responsibility of the students to communicate their needs with professors, booking any sort of appointment well in advance can prove to be difficult with such a full schedule in the office. ODS’ policy of students taking initiative to communicate with professors rests on their emphasis of self-advocacy and responsibility according to Nick Blue ‘20.

“I think because all the students there have some sort of diagnosed disability or challenge, they’re really looking for you to kind of advocate for yourself and know that when you leave the Muhlenbubble, it’s not what the real world is like,” said Blue. “After Muhlenberg, no one is going to be doing that for you.”

In addition to preparation and accommodation, Moschini’s goal is to increase the availability of regular walk-in hours with a workshop type structure, something the addition of another professional on the staff may aid in.

“We would like to teach students more effectively how to take their own notes rather than how to get a copy of a classmate’s notes,” said Moschini. “We would like to get more into the actual training of things on a more regular basis because we do it but we have to schedule it in.”

“I kind of think part of what students need to be doing here is learning better strategies for dealing with whatever their disability or issue is so that they don’t just give up or not do something,” added Dr. Edelman, “that they find ways to move forward otherwise we’re not doing them any favors sending them out there.”

Whether it’s sleeping in their offices during finals week to ensure each student can get their testing accommodations handled, providing study tips and advice, helping balance out student’s schedules, or approving the use of a service animal, covering ODS’ umbrella of responsibilities is certainly no easy feat to match.

“I think that here, it’s great because you can be a part of a competitive curriculum and not feel any stigma or shame that you have learning disabilities or receive services through a disability office,” said Blue. “If you have any concerns as a student in their office and just want to get the help you need or something’s just not right, they’re there for you.”

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