Beginning this fall semester the Office of Disability Resources (ODR) will be welcoming a new associate director to their ranks. After getting approval from the state to search for a new candidate during a hiring freeze, Alex Ecklund will be replacing Allison Grimes starting August 25.
Ecklund hails from Ohio State University and has eight years of experience in working in higher education, where he was directly serving students with disabilities in disabilities services offices, similar to UMW’s ODR.
“In his early career he started working at a college that was very small. It was a hub for students with physical disabilities and so even though it was really tiny he was able to get a lot of exposure working with students with significant physical needs in terms of access,” said Jessica Machado, the Director of ODR.
Machado went into detail about the hiring process conducted to make sure Ecklund was a perfect fit for UMW. She said that through two rounds of interviews with eight interviewees in total, Ecklund remained the top candidate for the position.
“We were able to interview virtually five candidates for our first round, then bring back three for the second round, and he was the top of those three,” said Machado.
Machado also stated that the ODR went through multiple candidates with diverse backgrounds before picking Ecklund.
“The folks we were able to choose from, we had high level administrators, those working for the department of [education], special education specialists, teachers, principals, admins… just lots of really great folks from K through 12, as well as rehab counselors, people that worked in community resources, social workers. [There were] a lot of really highly qualified candidates,” said Machado.
However, even with the addition of Ecklund to the ODR, the office is still dealing with a high number of cases and not enough resources.
“ODR is not really well resourced,” said Machado. “We’re a tiny office.”
With only three total employees, the ODR is taking care of 12 percent of the total population of students at UMW.
“Even though the enrollment is declining overall at the university because of the pandemic, we are still seeing an increase in students registering with the ODR,” Machado said.
According to Machado, roughly 500 students are currently registered with ODR, with 100-150 students being registered over the summer.
“Even though the university is slow, our office is never slow,” she said.
Lu Sheikhnureldin, Social Media Coordinator for DiversAbility, a club dedicated to making disabled voices more prominent and part of the conversation, spoke on the lack of funding for ODR.
“[UMW] asks a lot of ODR but doesn’t give them enough of a budget, they have to make do with a lot,” said Sheikhnureldin.
Claudia Woods, President of DiversAbility, spoke on the appointment of the new Associate Director.
“I do feel somewhat positively about upcoming improvements to accommodations for disabled students on campus,” said Woods. “I feel positively in that the office will not be quite as understaffed as it was before, so they’ll be able to offer more hands-on help and solutions to students in ways that they could not previously, with only two staff members.”
However, Woods noted that accessibility on UMW’s campus is a battle that is far from over.
“I think that to really improve as an office ODR needs to start listening to the feelings, needs and complaints of the disabled students themselves. I think they should put their own feelings and pride aside because ultimately their job is to service the students,” said Woods. “Their job is to uplift the voices of the students and give the students equal access in the classroom and beyond, and sometimes the students may disagree about what that means, or how to do that.”
Sheikhnureldin believes in the personal responsibilities of non-disabled people when it comes to educating themselves before going to a resource such as ODR for advice.
“The reason clubs like DiversAbility are on campus is that you want people to take more accountability. ODR is a great resource because they will make things accessible such as captioning or audio descriptions, but non-disabled people should also educate themselves on how to do these things. Change does start with you,” said Sheikhnureldin.
According to Machado, this fall semester the ODR’s main focus is going to be building culture and community, working on creating more of a presence at UMW with their overall goal: supporting students with disabilities.
“We’ve been talking all summer about what programming we want to do. We’re thinking of doing an audio-described movie or bringing a speaker virtually for Disabilities Awareness Month. I’d really love for [Ecklund] to be involved, his position is really built to be a student connector piece,” said Machado.