Equal access is the ultimate goal no matter the challenges
If Dr. Loren O’Connor had his way, the word “disabilities” would disappear from Brandman University. Not because there wouldn’t be people with any number of challenges to overcome, but because his goal is to put the emphasis on accessibility.
“I want students to be very comfortable with any needs they have and not to have any embarrassment or fear of disclosure. I would like to see them feel comfortable advocating for themselves,” said O’Connor, the director of Brandman’s Office of Disability Services and Accessible Education. “I never use the word disabled. We focus on getting people the services they need.”
When Brandman University went from being Chapman University College to its own identity as part of the Chapman University System, O’Connor had the opportunity to build services from scratch rather than piggyback on existing programs.
He started by looking at how other universities serve students with everything from hearing impairment to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to brain injuries and decided to take the best ideas.That approach has brought Brandman foundation grants, international attention and a strong reputation for being able to get students what they need, he said.
About 11 percent of college students deal with something that makes them eligible for accessibility services and Brandman studeents are no different. Because of legal confidentiality requirements, it’s up to the students to ask for help, which can come in the form of iPads, text-to-speech translation, smart pens, screen readers, audio books, a classroom note-taker and additional test time or modified test-taking arrangements.
O’Connor, disabilities services coordinator Alex Price and members of Brandman’s technology team work together to match students with what’s available. Students who sometimes mention mobility issues, chronic health problems, etc., to their academic advisors or to a faculty member are urged to apply for accommodations through my.brandman.edu.
The options used most often are:
- Extended time on exams • Alternate test day due to disability flare-up
- Permission to record lectures
- Books and course material in alternate formats
- Note-taking services
- Excused absences
- Time extension for project or assignment completion
- Reader services
- Scribe services Real-time captioning
The office acts as a liaison between students, administrators, faculty and other staff members to make sure the accommodation plans are reasonable and appropriate.
“I’m the middle man, talking to students when there are hiccups in the technology or in understanding what needs to be done,” said Price.
The focus is on universal design so that all students in the class have the same access. If a designated note-taker is needed in a class, those notes are available to all students. If one student needs the textbook or other material in electronic form so it can be translated from text to speech via computer program, the electronic form is available to others in the class.
iPads and smart pens have added a new level of access, particularly for students working through PTSD or brain injuries that affect short-term memory.As one recent veteran told O’Connor, “One of my passions is to really support our veterans,” said O’Connor. “I put a lot of effort into talking to them and have other vets work with new veterans so they know it’s OK to ask for help. I want them to get past the idea that they’re broken.”
“A Marine may not disclose what they need because they might see it as a weakness. We’re not supposed to show a needy side. We’re the ones who provide help, we don’t seek help.”
That same veteran said her mind was changed about accepting assistive technology when she realized, “if you’re offered help, you should accept help. It’s the intelligent thing to do.”
While students who may have been identified earlier in their education as having a disability often know to ask for help, others whose lives changed from military injuries or car accidents or illness don’t always know how to best support themselves, said Price. And all of them can suffer from fear of rejection or depression in addition to other physical or mental challenges.
As Brandman’s reputation for access has grown, so has the international community’s interest, particularly in the Middle East where they’re just now starting to understand the need.
O’Connor and Price have traveled to Singapore, India, Saudi Arabia and, this week, to Oman to spread the word that access to education is a civil right and to help other universities see how to meet the needs of all their students.
While some countries are lagging in their efforts, other like Singapore are looking at technology options that aren’t yet readily available.
When they are available, chance are good that O’Connor and his small team will find a way to bring them to Brandman.
In the meantime, they continue to hear from students who are grateful for the resources, the assistance of the team and the growing number of options available.
“Even if a specific software program or hardware does not work for me, they do not give up,” wrote a student recently. “They also ask me for my feedback on certain software or hardware as I am the one that has to really work with it. This benefits not only myself but other students as well.”
For more information or to register for services, go to https://www.brandman.edu/disability-services.
Types of disabilities and percent of identified students
• Chronic health condition – 23.2%
• Psychological disorder – 32.2%
• Traumatic brain injury – 14%
• Learning disability – 23.9%
• Autism spectrum disorder – 2.5%
• Deaf/hard of hearing – 1.5%
• Visual impairment – 1.5%
• Speech disorder – .6%
• Language disorder – .6%
About 70 percent of students with disabilities have multiple disabilities.
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