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Equal opportunity, equal education

Melissa Brown

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The Office of Disability Services, tucked away in Martha Parham East, isn’t something many students give much thought to.

With 1,300 registered students, though, ODS is a major UA office assisting students around campus daily.

According to the ODS website, ods.ua.edu, the office works with students to determine academic accommodations for disabilities so that students are evaluated based on their knowledge of course material, not based on the limiting effects of their disability.

ODS Director Judy Thorpe works with students every day to “level the playing field,” as she calls it.

“We want the two students – one with disability, one without – to have an equal chance to show what they know,” Thorpe said. “And some people will inevitably think they aren’t doing all their work or they’re getting help. But that’s not true. They’re doing just as much work by themselves as everybody else.”

The ODS caters to students with a range of disabilities – from lifelong physical impairments, learning disabilities, ADHD and even broken limbs – to provide equal access to classroom and academic opportunities.

“If you break an arm, it’s temporary disability, but you still need help taking notes,” Thorpe said. “We’ll see an influx of people after winter and spring breaks; they’ll have had skiing or boating accidents and have broken arms. They’ll come to us so they won’t get behind in class.”

Though the ODS works with a wide variety of students, the process to receive documentation begins uniformly, no matter the disability.

“Every person that comes through the doors has to have documentation,” said Thorpe, referring to documentation from a doctor or psychiatrist. “Accommodations are always based on documentation.”

A student wishing to begin the accommodations process is encouraged to bring his or her documentation to the office, where a case manager reviews it. Including Thorpe, there are four managers in the office.

After review, a case manager will sit down with the student and discuss medical and academic history, what doesn’t work, what does work and what needs to be done to provide a successful work environment.

“For an ADHD student, for example, we might be able to provide extended test time or reduced distraction testing. For the visually impaired, we can get audio textbooks. Note takers can also be arranged, “ Thorpe said.

If a student requires a note taker, he or she notifies the professor, who then finds a person in the class willing to participate. Note takers receive a $50 credit on their ACT Card but otherwise act anonymously. The system tends to work well, Thorpe said.

“We find that bad note takers don’t typically volunteer their services, so we rarely run into problems with that,” she said. “There aren’t universal note taking techniques though, so if you find that the notes you are receiving aren’t helping you, you should go to your professor and discuss it.”

Although she said some universities have certain stigmas relating to disability services, Thorpe credits UA’s administration for making ODS a continuing success.

“Our administration is really supportive of trying to make UA accessible. We’re very lucky,” she said. “Dr. Bonner and Dr. Witt know education is important for everyone. For example, they’re working right now on making online material more accessible for everyone.”

Thorpe encourages any students with disabilities to come in and register with the ODS – even just students who feel they might be having trouble because of an undiagnosed disability.

“Come talk to us before you get into trouble,” Thorpe said. “Don’t assume there’s nothing to be done. I would rather sit here and brainstorm with a student and point them in the right direction. We can’t guarantee success, but we do guarantee access.”

 

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Equal opportunity, equal education