Campus office helps students with disabilities realize their full potential

Over the past year, the Office of Accessible Education has updated its website and produced a new brochure featuring a statement by President John Hennessy that conveys the university's commitment to serving students with disabilities.

Cassandra Lyn Deasy Students, including one using a wheelchair

During the 2009-10 academic year, 14 percent of Stanford undergraduates – one in seven undergrads – registered with the Office of Accessible Education.

Instead of heading to their residence halls for dinner on Wednesday night during the first week of classes, one dozen freshmen made their way to the Faculty Club to help inaugurate a new tradition of the Office of Accessible Education.

The Sept. 22 event, which was the first "welcome dinner" hosted by the office for incoming frosh with disabilities, attracted about 42 people, including undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff.

During the reception, Jeffrey Wachtel, speaking on behalf of President John Hennessy, said Stanford would be involved in creating new initiatives on behalf of students with disabilities as a result of a generous gift. (Wachtel is senior assistant to the president and secretary to the university's Board of Trustees.)

Once everyone was seated, Joan Bisagno, assistant vice provost and director of the Office of Accessible Education (OAE), welcomed them to the dinner, which the office plans will be an annual event.

She introduced several top administrative officials, including Sally Dickson, chair of the university's Disability Advisory Committee, which was established in the summer of 2009 to help improve the services and academic accommodations – for classes or tests – provided to students with disabilities.

She also introduced Angelina Cardona, who is the president of the Associated Students of Stanford University, and Vivian Wong, a member of the advisory committee and ASSU executive chair of disabilities and accessible education.

"The purpose of this dinner was to send the message from the university that the community of students with disabilities contributes to and enhances the diversity of Stanford," Dickson said during a recent interview. "We also wanted to tell students that there are many resources available to them on campus."

Chart showing percentage of students registered with the OAE

(Click to enlarge)

During the 2009-10 academic year, 14 percent of Stanford undergraduates – one in seven undergrads – registered with the Office of Accessible Education. So did 4 percent of graduate students – one in 25 grad students, according to statistics compiled by the Office of Accessible Education last June.

Last year, 30 percent of those students were diagnosed with psychological disorders and 18 percent had learning disabilities or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Eleven percent of the students who registered with the OAE had disability issues related to mobility (7 percent), vision (2 percent) or hearing (2 percent) in 2009-10.

All told, 1,413 students registered with the office in 2009-10, compared with 950 students five years earlier.

The dinner for incoming freshmen was part of an ongoing effort by the OAE to raise its profile on campus.

The office, which is located in a three-story building on Salvatierra Walk, a tree-lined pedestrian walkway on the east side of campus, wants to make sure everyone knows it is the go-to place for services, academic accommodations and programs designed to remove barriers to full participation in the life of the university.

"We're the central hub for disabilities for all seven schools," Bisagno said.

It's a tall order for the small office, whose 11-person staff includes disability advisers, learning specialists, alternate format specialists (who translate text into Braille, for example), an academic accommodations coordinator and an assistive technology expert.

The Schwab Learning Center, which is housed in the same building, offers students with learning disabilities and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder a wide array of state-of-the-art services and resources. The center was established in 2001, funded with a generous endowment from Charles and Helen Schwab.

"Being the central hub on disability issues leads to interactions with many offices, including facilities, housing, student activities and, of course, all academic departments," said Bisagno, who has been the director of the center since 1997, when it was known as the Disability Resource Center.

"It's hard to connect with so many entities easily, and at the same time educate Stanford's busy faculty – whose first missions are research and teaching – about disability issues. The committee helps us accomplish our goals by disseminating information to people in important positions around the university."

The committee also advises Stanford on policy matters and on the division of responsibilities and functions of other campus offices working on disability issues.

The 21-member committee also includes Julie Lythcott-Haims, dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising; Ronald Albucher, director of counseling and psychological services at Vaden Health Center; Catherine Glaze, associate dean for student affairs at Stanford Law School; Michele Marincovich, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning; and Rosa Gonzalez, director of the Diversity and Access Office.

Its roster includes five professors: Brad Osgood, electrical engineering; Eamonn Callan, education; Patricia Jones, biology; Sheri Sheppard, mechanical engineering; and Susan Stephens, classics.

Three students are serving on the committee: undergraduates Julia Feinberg and Vivian Wong, and graduate student Lindsey Alex Dolich.

"The committee is helping identify some of the issues, concerns and suggestions for improving our services to students with disabilities," said Dickson, associate vice provost for student affairs. "It's an incredible group of colleagues who are interested and committed to these issues. By including students on the committee, the university has sent an important message to all students – that Stanford considers accessible education a priority."

Establishing a higher profile on campus

Over the past year, the Office of Accessible Education has updated and expanded its website, produced a new brochure and revised the wording on "academic accommodation letters" to remind faculty that their input is sought and valued.

Students who go to the new website, which went "live" last July, will find an entire page devoted to eight accommodation request forms, including Request Exam Accommodations and Request for Lab and/or Library Assistant.

Chart showing OAE students, by disability

(Click to enlarge)

In a nod to the millennial students who grew up in the digital age, many of the forms can now be filled out and submitted online.

"Of course, students still do come into the office and talk to us," Bisagno said, adding that students must visit the office for an intake appointment.

Due to the generous gift of an anonymous donor, the office will soon hire an instructional designer to create interactive programs – videos, perhaps – that would teach faculty in an entertaining way how to interact with disabled students.

Bisagno said a video could dramatize an interaction between a professor and a student to show how easy it is to refer a failing student to her office. The skits could be very short and still make a point:

Student: "I've been studying every night, taking lots of notes in class and still bombing the tests."

Professor: "Well, you know, there's an office on campus that could help you sort out what is behind the academic difficulty you're having in this class."

New color brochure

Last August, the office published a brochure featuring a statement from President John Hennessy that conveyed at the highest level the university's commitment to serving students with disabilities. It says:

"Stanford University nourishes and values the diversity of our community. It is our diversity – of cultures, backgrounds, talents and abilities – that broadens our understanding of each other, informs the academic mission and creates an environment that encourages innovation and discovery.

"Stanford's community includes students with disabilities, and within this group there is also tremendous diversity. The Office of Accessible Education plays an important role in this, providing a broad range of services to ensure that a Stanford education is accessible and every student has the opportunity to realize his or her full potential."

New academic accommodation letter

The office also revised the wording on its "academic accommodation letter" to remind faculty that their input is sought and valued. The letter, signed by a member of its staff, confirms that the student has a documented disability. It recommends specific steps a professor can take to help the student.

A student can deliver the accommodation letter to a professor in person or by email.

An academic accommodation could include changing a task, modifying policies or providing auxiliary aids, such as specialized computer programs for listening to books, and speech recognition software for writing papers.

If a student is dyslexic, for instance, Bisagno might recommend that a professor give a student more time to complete exams in class.

"It takes students with dyslexia longer to decode the words on an exam," she said. "They don't have a problem with thinking or answering questions. But if they don't have enough time to decode the questions, they can't show what they know, which is the whole point of the accommodation – equal access to the curriculum."

While accommodations are required under federal law, a professor may challenge the recommended steps if they compromise "essential elements" of the course.

In one case, an engineering student with a social anxiety disorder wanted permission to do an independent project rather than a collaborative one. Since the whole point of the class was to work collaboratively – just as engineers do in the real world – Bisagno didn't think the professor would agree. Since it was an academic decision, it was the professor's call.

"Sure enough, that was not allowed," Bisagno said. "My job was to help her get through the class with the least amount of anxiety. So I asked her, 'Can you work with some people that you feel most friendly with? Can you pick a piece of the job to work on?' We worked it out and she got through the class."

In the revised accommodation letter, Bisagno urges faculty to contact her directly if they have any concerns about the suggested accommodations. It says:

"If you believe that the accommodations stated above need to be modified because they may fundamentally alter your course, or if you have any questions about the implementation of these accommodations or the accommodation process, I am happy to discuss those issues with you."