IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Disability Services advocates awareness, gains allies
The current Disability Services office at CU-Boulder sits tucked among dozens of other rooms on the third floor of the Willard Administrative Center. It’s easy to discern the impracticality of this location, first occupied by the program in 1990, but change is in store.
Upon completion of the Center for Community, Disability Services will move to the new facility’s first floor, which means ground level access, nearby parking and other critical advantages. This seemingly simple detail denotes a major shift in people’s consciousness about students with disabilities, said Director Cindy Donahue. “It’s becoming a bigger part of everyone’s language and thought process, and that’s great,” she said.
Disability Services aims to provide students with disabilities the tools, reasonable accommodations and support services to participate fully in the academic environment. About 1,400 students with disabilities attend CU-Boulder, and the Disability Services staff strives to ensure that these students – no matter their disabilities – are more than an afterthought.
An additional indicator of progress is the emergence of universal design as a model for architecture, learning and technology. While the concept began as an access philosophy for people with disabilities, universal design ensures that everyone can benefit from an idea or product. Examples include curb cuts, GPS systems and electronic notebooks that record audio and transcribe the words.
“The concept of universal design is that from the beginning you create the environment in a way that allows access to the highest number of users,” said Karen Rosenschein, assistant director of Disability Services. “Then a person with special needs doesn’t need to jump through so many hoops to participate.”
Disability Services is increasing its involvement in facilities management and construction planning processes on campus as well. “We’re insisting that students with disabilities need to be as welcomed into the buildings as everyone else is,” Donahue said. “This enhances disability as diversity, as far as having different types of people in your environment.”
Some CU departments and faculty are even infusing these concerns into their curriculum, which means gaining more allies, Donahue said. While an architecture and planning course recently required students to identify and redesign problem areas on campus for wheelchair users, a business course had students considering Internet accessibility and usability.
Shanda Thomas utilized Disability Services after losing three fingers in a rollover accident three weeks before her first semester at CU-Boulder. Now a sophomore studying psychology, Thomas said the program helped her adapt to the university environment. “I didn’t want to give up on my dream of going to college,” she said. “Disability Services definitely helped me be strong and move forward.”
The program provided Thomas with emotional support, helped her complete paperwork for classes and introduced her to other amputees facing similar experiences. “They were there to listen to me, and that was the most important factor,” she said.
CU-Boulder’s disabled population continues to grow, evidenced by this year's 14 percent increase. This means the program must work to meet present challenges such as possible budget cuts and staffing shortages that can make it difficult for the program to ensure that students with disabilities have full access to all academic programs and extracurricular activities. “It’s important to remember that a student's primary point of identification may not be as a person with a disability,” Rosenschein said. “They see themselves as students first.”
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