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
"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
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
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
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