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Stanford Report, March 8, 2000

Grant will boost awareness of non-visible disabilities

Joan Bisagno, director of Stanford's Disability Resource Center, thumbs through a mostly illegible assignment turned in by a "brilliant" student and notes, "He can't organize himself on paper."

The cursive writing in the text is crammed, uneven and shows a "spatial-orientation problem," Bisagno says.

Faculty can help create an environment supportive of students' non-visible learning disabilities -- the primary aim of a three-year project Stanford is undertaking in collaboration with four Ivy League schools.

With an $800,000 grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, the consortium will promote awareness among faculty and administrators about non-visible disabilities among undergraduates and devise methods to accommodate them.

In printed material the consortium leaders note: "Aside from physical barriers that may exist on campuses, attitudes and behaviors toward students with disabilities form the most prominent barrier to educational access."

And where non-visible disabilities are concerned, "there tends to be more skepticism," says Bisagno, the campus coordinator for Stanford. At this university, thoughts of "disability" and "Stanford" seem like "a contradiction," she points out.

At Stanford, nearly 400 undergraduate students with non-visible learning disabilities are registered at the Disability Resource Center. These can include psychiatric disorders, learning disabilities and chronic illness. There may be more students afflicted with these problems, but fear of prejudice, discrimination and stigma may prevent them from disclosing their conditions.

The first step taken in this preliminary stage of the project was the distribution of a survey to faculty members last month. So far, fewer than 50 responses have been returned. Bisagno is depending on data collected from the surveys to help her set up workshops for faculty later this year.

While there may be concern among faculty that they "don't have time" to fill out the three-and-a-half page survey that is mostly in check-off format, Bisagno says the results can assist project staff in helping to break down possible stereotypes and assert the legitimacy of disabilities.

"We don't want to burden faculty -- we want to ease their burden," Bisagno says.

In the second and third years of the endeavor, a demonstration project or multimedia tool will be developed that can be presented at all the institutions.

The other universities participating in the project are Columbia, Brown, Harvard and Dartmouth. SR