Challenges don’t hinder college experiences of students with disabilities

Breanne George

Bill Adams, junior criminal justice and computer science major, assists Colleen Kelly, sophomore magazine journalism major, off a PARTA Bus. Adams has been working for PARTA since January 2004.

Credit: Jason Hall

For some, the hardest part of college is not pulling an all nighter cramming for an exam or writing that eight page research paper due the following day.

Danielle Flickinger’s weekly routine starts at 6 a.m. She charges her tape recorder she will need for class and trades in her wheelchair for crutches to shower.

The junior psychology and justice studies major leaves her Eagle’s Landing apartment by 7:50 to catch the 8:10 bus for her 8:50 class.

“I have to schedule my rides a week in advance, so if I miss my ride it is very difficult to get to class,” Flickinger said. “The bus driver has to accommodate other students’ schedules as well, so I end up at the bottom of the list.”

Flickinger faces more challenges than a typical college student. She has cerebral palsy, which affects her mobility and her vision. She is one of about 1,000 students on campus registered with Student Disability Services. All face unique challenges because of their disabilities.

Depending on the class, Flickinger must tape record the lecture or meet with a lab assistant who attends class and acts as an extra set of eyes or hands. Since she must wait 20 minutes after class for her ride, her classes are scheduled far apart.

During her breaks, Flickinger organizes her notes to determine if she needs to go for additional academic-support services. Such services include computer programs that enlarge or read aloud her notes and textbooks.

Jamie Rhoads is a student who relies on SDS for their services due to her visual impairment.

Rhoads, 21, a junior intervention specialist major, admits that the first two weeks of class are the most difficult. She has to get her textbooks in audio form from SDS, which can take a couple weeks. She has to get used to new technology this semester, including a laptop and computer program called Kurzweil, that scans and reads aloud her notes.

Rhoads makes sure she introduces herself to professors so they know who she is and what she needs from them. She tells them that she must schedule her exams at SDS so she can take them in Braille, on computers, or have them read aloud to her.

“The first couple weeks are the hardest, but after that it starts to smooth out,” Rhoads said. “It just takes some time for me to get used to my routine.”

Transportation to and from class is one of the most frustrating aspects of the college routine for students with disabilities.

“I use the bus service all the time, especially in the winter because the snow makes it difficult for me to walk with my cane,” Rhoads said.

Student Disability Transportation Services takes students anywhere they need to go on and off campus via Portage Area Regional Transit Authority.

Bill Adams, a visually impaired criminal justice major who relies on SDS, works for SDTS.

“I help walk visually impaired students to class, as well as help disabled students get on the bus,” Adams said.

These services are a way for students with disabilities to focus on learning without having to worry about finding such services on their own.

“SDS has a dedicated staff,” said Mollie Miller, Adaptive Technology Support Specialist for SDS. “I’ve been here for 13 years so I know from personal experience that our staff really cares about these students.”

Providing services to students with physical disabilities is only half of SDS’s focus. 50 percent of students registered with SDS have a learning disability.

For many, the most valuable aspect of SDS is not the services they offer, but rather the self-sufficiency they advocate.

“They encourage independence, and that is something I will never lose,” Flickinger said. “They never take control and always want you to take the first step.”

Flickinger said SDS helped her out a lot when she lived in the dorms to make sure the dorms were accessible. Many students with disabilities live on campus and rely on SDS to obtain special housing.

“They told me where to go and what to do to get a double occupancy room to myself for all of my equipment,” Flickinger said. “They were able to be an excellent resource.”

All three students emphasized the fact that the services they receive are not advantages, only ways to equal the playing field.

“Students with disabilities are at college to do the same exact thing as everyone else, which is to try and do the best they can,” Adams said. “The one thing I want to get across is that we don’t take the easy way out. The help we have is not used to do the work for us.”

The typical college routine of wandering to class in one’s pajamas and taking notes half awake is not an option for students with disabilities, but they are not complaining.

“All that hinders us is that we can’t see or walk as well,” Rhoads said. “We have relationship problems, we have any problem that a typical college student deals with. That’s what the misconception is. We have normal lives and that’s what we want people to understand.”

Contact enterprise reporter Breanne George at [email protected].