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Disability Services Coordinators Make School Accessible

There's no shame in asking for help. That's something Michelle Laughlin tries to impress upon the students she works with at Drake University in Iowa.

Laughlin works as the university's coordinator of student disability services. She makes sure that the students who have a disability are treated fairly and are able to get the most out of their college experiences.

"My philosophy here has been empowerment," Laughlin says. "I want the students to feel that they can go directly to the professor to get help. I want them to use their disability, not as a crutch or an excuse, but to use the skills that they do have to the best of their ability."

Many colleges and universities employ someone like Laughlin. These people go by a variety of names: disability services coordinator, director of accessibility, or disability services manager, to name just a few. But despite the different labels, their job is always to make higher education accessible to all students, regardless of any limitations or obstacles they might face.

Laughlin says nearly every college or university now has a disability service coordinator on their staff.

Tara-Jean Wenc is the manager of disability services at a college. She says there are not enough disability coordinators to meet the needs of all the students.

"There is a need to hire more, due to the increased number of students with disabilities, as well as an increase in the complexity of the needs of students," she says.

Research shows that a significant number of students with disabilities are pursuing higher education. Students attending college and university have many different kinds of disabilities, from hearing or visual impairment to mobility issues or learning disabilities. Due to this diversity, some universities have a person on staff who focuses on a particular type of limitation.

For example, Stacey Moore is the director of the Office of Accessibility at the University of Akron in Ohio. She works with all the university's students who have disabilities, but specializes in assisting students with psychological concerns.

It's a particularly important subset of the field, she says, as an increasing number of students are coming to campus with serious psychological problems and diagnoses.

Like Wenc, Moore thinks there is a growing need for on-campus support for students with disabilities, for several reasons. "First, you need staff members who have expertise in working with students or other people who have disabilities, to ensure effective service provision," Moore says.

"Second, you need staff members with a strong background in disability law, as well as those who understand that to promote a truly accessible campus, you have to do much more than any law requires.

"Third, you need staff members who can help a college campus truly understand disability as a natural part of human diversity, to promote a universal design approach to education and generally to campus, and who can effectively provide training and educational outreach on disability-related issues."

So what does it mean to be a disability services coordinator? Just like the title, the job's description changes depending on the institution of higher learning. Laughlin says many people in this field are also responsible for something other than disability services, such as academic issues. (She, however, is solely in charge of working with students with a disability.)

There are other institutions that have someone like Moore who is focused on a particular subset of students.

Both Laughlin and Moore say that their jobs mainly involve getting their students used to the campus and making sure they have everything they need.

Laughlin says a large part of her job is making sure that her students speak up if they need extra accommodations. She also works with faculty at her university to make sure they are aware of her students' needs and keep them in mind.

Moore says that a person in her position makes sure students have access to different support services. For instance, students with a psychological illness or condition might need access to counseling or therapy groups. She tries to connect them with what they need.

For those interested in this career, Wenc recommends pursuing a degree in education or psychology. Laughlin stresses honing your technical and communication skills, as both are an essential part of the job. Technology can be a huge help for students living with a disability, so it's a good idea to keep on top of what's available and how it can be used, Laughlin explains.

There also are a number of specialized programs available for people wanting to get into this line of work, Moore says. For instance, she points to the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), located in North Carolina. AHEAD provides a number of training programs and workshops.

Ultimately, Moore says, the field of disability services management is evolving. And she'd like to see that continue with more campus-wide educational outreach and training.

"To me, it is clear that disability service offices need to do much more than ensure compliance with relevant laws," she said. "We need to be activists. To truly promote campus-wide change, we need to promote a social-constructivist understanding of disability. That is, the 'problem' does not lie with the individual, but with the environment.

"Environments are the things that are disabling and should be the focus of change. If environments were inherently accessible, there would not be a need for specific accommodations for a specific individual. They would exist naturally, in the environment. Change the environment, and the disability disappears."


Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD)
This organization lobbies for the full participation of students with disabilities in post-secondary education

Drake University Disability Services
See the kinds of services provided

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