Last summer Laura Rosen was appointed director of WPI’s Office of Accessibility Services. Having started at ODS as assistant director overseeing the Exam Proctoring Center (EPC), it was here she familiarized herself with the challenges of students with disabilities on campus. With a 60 percent increase in the number of students who have disclosed and accessed accommodations through ODS over the last four years, Rosen is rising to the challenge of improving the student life of those who come to her office for guidance.
From a young age, disability was a large a part of my extended family—the most incredible people you will meet—but I witnessed the stigmas and challenges they faced in their day-to-day interactions with others. As an undergrad at the University of Connecticut, I worked at the Center for Students with Disabilities; I found that I enjoyed helping students achieve their maximum potential.
Over these few years, the ODS has seen tremendous growth, especially in the area of exam-based accommodations. We’ve almost doubled the number of exams we proctor. To meet the growing need during final exams, we were borrowing spaces in the Academic Resources Center and using our personal offices to run the EPC. With generous support from our campus partners, we’re now able to use the Odeum in the Rubin Campus Center; now everyone can remain in one location.
We also unveiled a new database that allows students and professors to seamlessly share accommodation and exam info online.
Our previous paper-based system requiredstudents to pick up hard copies of accommodation letters from our office, bring them to a professor, and return a signed copy to our office. Starting this year, students may request letters anytime (not just during business hours) and professors are notified by email once those letters are requested. The process allows students to practice self-advocacy more naturally with a professor without focusing on the signature needed for the letter. We’re still working out some of the kinks in the system to improve functionality, but we know this a change in the right direction.
My biggest goal for this year is to raise more awareness regarding the support our office provides, the purpose of accommodations, and ways we can be inclusive of students with diverse abilities. We believe there are many more students who could benefit from our services. There’s a common misconception that accommodations provide an unfair advantage; in actuality, they level the playing field and provide an equal opportunity for students with disabilities to access the curriculum.
In order to maximize our resources, our EDGE (Empowering Directed Goals for Education) mentoring program matches upperclass peer mentors with first-year students to be proactive in helping them transition to WPI and get connected with campus supports early.
The biggest challenges students face are stigmas associated with disability and utilization of accommodations. They often feel pressured to explain to peers why their exam is taken in the Exam Proctoring
Center rather than in the classroom, or to their professors why copies of notes provide them greater access to the course material. They sometimes internalize assumptions that they’re “just being lazy” or “asking for special treatment” when that’s not the case.One way we try to support students and change the stigmas associated with disability is through “Beyond Disabilities Week.” This annual multi-day event in D-Term is held in conjunction with the student group ACCESS (Awareness, Community, Collaboration, Empowerment, Support, and Success) to raise awareness across campus, to embrace and celebrate differences in learning, and to think more creatively about providing accessible opportunities for our WPI community, both inside and outside the classroom.