Office of Accessibility Services Educates and Empowers Students
This article is one in an occasional series about the people, offices, and services dedicated to supporting WPI students and our community.
Even as the number of WPI students with disabilities has increased in recent years, the staff in the Office of Accessibility Services (OAS) has remained steadfast in its commitment to ensuring that students have access to the support they need on campus.
The OAS currently works with 784 undergraduate and graduate students—in a student body of more than 7,200—with documented disabilities who need some type of accommodation in classes, in residence halls, or around campus. A small portion of those students at any given time (right now about 1 percent) are receiving only a temporary accommodation because of an injury or illness. The ongoing rise in long-term accommodations at WPI mirrors national trends showing greater numbers of students receiving diagnoses in elementary and secondary schools.
“More students are reaching out for a diagnosis earlier in life, and once they have an accommodation in place in high school, they want it to migrate with them to college,” says Amy Curran, director of accessibility services. “I think it’s a good thing and suggests that more people are in tune with their needs.”
In order to receive an accommodation of any sort, including temporary assistance following an injury or illness, students must have their disability officially documented by a medical professional. Disabilities might be neurological, emotional, physical, or any combination thereof. Curran says that the most common disabilities among WPI students are attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism.
But there’s never a one-size-fits-all accommodation. Even students with the same diagnosis may need vastly different academic supports. The exact accommodation depends on the specifics of the student’s diagnosis and what their doctor determines will best help them succeed.
For example, many students with ADHD receive extended time on exams and quizzes to help with focus and processing speed, but the amount of time can vary depending on the student. Some students with ADHD are also able to take their exams in WPI’s Exam Proctoring Center, which provides an environment with fewer distractions than a traditional classroom.
Educating faculty members about what each student needs is a big part of what Curran and her colleagues in the OAS do.
“We have a very open relationship with faculty members and work closely with students to navigate specific situations,” notes Taylor Rohena, assistant director of accessibility services. “If a professor calls us and asks about accommodations for a student, we can suggest ways that we know, from our experience, that a particular student could learn better. Or we could share something about that student’s communication style. But we never share any diagnosis or documentation.”
OAS staff also work directly with students on self-advocacy. In fact, based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), in college it is the student—not the parent/guardian or instructor—who is responsible for making sure they get the support services they need.
“Students in college have to navigate the accommodations disclosure process on their own. This is a change from high school, where students may have had a parent or guardian helping them along the way,” says Curran. “OAS is always happy to help students navigate the process to make sure that access to accommodations supports their academic success.”
The actual types of accommodations allowed in college also differ from those allowed in elementary and high school. In college, for example, students can’t receive alternative assignments; everyone in a given course must do the same work and be graded using the same criteria.
“When a professor designs a course, they identify certain learning outcomes, and they determine how they want to assess students based on those learning outcomes,” says Curran. “Whether it’s homework, exams, quizzes, or projects, that’s how they’ve designed their curriculum. And we’re unable to ask a professor to fundamentally alter their curriculum.”
College-appropriate accommodations are limited to things like extended time to complete an assignment or using a word processor to type exam answers rather than writing them by hand. It’s still up to each student, however, to tell their professors what they need. And because sometimes students find it challenging to have that kind of conversation with their professors, Curran and Rohena spend a significant amount of time preparing students.
“I help students figure out how they want to write an email to a professor or how to ask a question,” Curran says. “We also get them to think about what their reactions might be to various outcomes so that when the student goes into the meeting, they might know what to expect.”
OAS staff help students focus these conversations with professors around what they need, not why they need it.
“Students fear being stigmatized or looked at differently if people know their diagnosis,” Rohena says.
Ultimately, Curran notes, “a student’s diagnosis really has nothing to do with them as a student. So we help them own their experience and then articulate to others that they need this support.”
And while the OAS staff of five works tirelessly to empower students and make campus spaces and events accessible to everyone, Curran and Rohena point out that they can only help students who ask for help.
“We see an uptick of students reaching out to us around midterms and finals, but they shouldn’t wait until there’s a crisis,” Curran says. “I think sometimes students are nervous to connect. I want people to know how much we care. They can come and chat with us!”
Contact the Office of Accessibility Services • firstname.lastname@example.org • Unity Hall, 5th floor • 508-831-4908
If you have a documented disability and need support in class, in your residence hall, or around campus, OAS can help you get the assistance you need. This page explains the intake process. If you’re struggling and think you may have a disability, a medical doctor or therapist may need to provide an official diagnosis. OAS can help you identify someone to call.