By: CATHALIJNE ADAMS
To meet the needs of an increasing population of UMW students with disabilities, the Office of Disability Resources created a new position this semester.
Last month, Courtney Shewak was hired as the Office of Disability Resources’s first Assistant Director.
This semester, the number of students who have registered a disability with the Office of Disabilities Resources represents a 37 percent increase from the last semester.
Over the past years, the number of students with disabilities at UMW has steadily risen.
According to Agata Thompson, the program’s support technician, by the end of the 2010 spring semester, 407 students had registered their disabilities with the Office of Disability Resources.
Currently, 577 students have a disability registered with the office. Shewak cited Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder as the most common disability at Mary Washington.
However, not all of the students registered with the office have requested an accommodation for this semester.
Thomspon cites greater outreach to the student population as one of the causes for the continuing increase.
Nationally, in the 2007 to 2008 academic year, students with disabilities represented 10.8 percent of the undergraduate population, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics’s “The Digest of Education.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s, “American Community Survey of 2009,” 19.5 million people, or 9.9 percent of the people surveyed ages 16 to 64, reported a disability.
Shewak said that the inclusive culture of UMW particularly struck her when she came here.
“Our students are Mary Washington students,” Shewak. “They’re not just students with disabilities. That I think is a great testament to this university’s culture. These are all our students. What can we do to make this a better place for everybody?”
In the local community, Shewak plans to coordinate fairs and presentations addressing the transition from high school to college for students with disabilities.
Both Shewak and Associate Professor Nicole Myers, who teaches special education courses, said that this transition is the most difficult part of college life for students with disabilities.
“For the first time many of them are required to decide if they want to share that they have a disability, provide their own documentation about their disability and reach out to the support services that are available at the college,” Myers said. “They have to be able to self-advocate for their accommodations.”
Shewak finds that students who do not take advantage of services for students with disabilities do themselves a disservice.
“There’s the mindframe: I needed it in high school, but I don’t need it now,” Shewak said. “Moving through that and just getting the students to come in here [the Office of Disabilities Resources] is big.”
In addition to providing equal access to UMW’s academic, social and recreational programs for students with disabilities, the Office of Disability Resources aims to increase awareness of students with disabilities and to encourage an inclusive environment.
However, few students with disabilities actually take advantage of the available resources.
The office offers a variety of assistive technologies.
Among these, the office has software that automatically transcribes voice into text, audio tape recorders, electronic books and smartpens that link text with audio.
Some students with disabilities are reluctant to tap the assets that have been set aside for them.
Sophomore Megan Mahoney said that she has a disability but does not want to register with the Office of Disability Resources.
“I just feel that if I can handle it on my own, then I will,” Mahoney said.
Freshman Patrick Gasparini registered in order to receive accommodations in class but said that using accommodations makes him feel that his classmates view him differently.
Gasparini said that greater acceptance of others in the UMW community might help resolve this.
Nonetheless, Gasparini found that the office was doing everything it could.
“I don’t think the Office of Disability Resources can do anything about [fostering greater acceptance],” Gasparini said.
“I think that’s just wishful thinking,” she said.
Last year, the Office of Disability Services became the Office of Disability Resources.
The office’s new name reflects students with disabilities’ active role, according to the information provided on the office’s website. The site also says that the rationale behind the name change reflects a more active use of the resources the office makes accessible.
The rationale also explains that the name change suggests the whole UMW community’s role in accommodating all students.
Senior Joe Proffet said that the Office of Disability Resources might encourage students to use the available technology by increasing student awareness of the office on campus.
“They could do a little more in the way of advertising,” Proffet said.
Senior Meganne Lemon, who is hard of hearing, worked as an orientation leader for Step Ahead. Through this program, the office offers students with disabilities the opportunity to go to orientation before the rest of the freshman class arrives on campus.
Lemon credits the diversity of the college environment with cultivating a more accepting attitude in its students than she experienced in high school.