Accessibility Resources: A vital office, revitalized

Caroline Fassett, Investigative News Editor

The Office of Accessibility Resources (OAR) is designed to provide support and access to students, faculty, staff, and visitors with disabilities at the University. Attending to students’ accessibility needs, a process which Director of OAR Heather Fowler labels as “very confidential,” is equivalent to providing them with either academic, housing, or dining accommodations. The Class of 2020 “has been the largest incoming class with students with accessibility needs.”

397 students—equivalent to roughly 10 percent of the student population—have registered their disabilities at OAR and receive accommodations for their needs accordingly. Approximately 300 of these individuals are students with learning disabilities like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or others that similarly influence their ability in an academic setting.

In reviewing the documentation of these students, Fowler follows the guidelines of Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD).

“I ask them what their struggles are, what are their challenges, what’s happened, so I get a really good, solid self-report … because I don’t fully [rely] on documentation. That’s a very medical model; I try not to only use the medical model,” Fowler said.

The Teaching & Learning Center (TLC) Assistant Director of Student Learning Support Laura Lanwermeyer stated that the TLC is available to work with any student, including those with learning disabilities, “to help them consider, adapt [to], and practice effective strategies to improve and deepen their learning.”

“We believe all students who want to learn deeply in college can benefit from engagement with some or all of the many options Bucknell offers to support this intellectual growth,” Lanwermeyer said.

Training for TLC tutors and facilitators is based on research for best practices in learning, and its philosophy urges inclusiveness in their work so that all students, including those with learning disabilities, can benefit from its programs, Lanwermeyer said.

“Students—whether with or without a diagnosed disability—have a wide range of styles and preferences in how they approach learning and how they process information, and we try to address that wonderful diversity in our programs, so that students can learn from each other as much as from our staff. If a member of our staff asks for additional support, ideas, or approaches for a particular situation, then we try and help them on a case by case basis,” Lanwermeyer said.

In discussing the implications of accommodating students with particular dining-related needs, Fowler acknowledged that there are some students who, because of their disability, are unable to consume the meals provided by Dining Services.

“There are, very very very rarely, some meal plan exceptions, [or necessary occasions] to give these individuals a kitchen,” Fowler said.

In recognizing that the University is built on “a very hilly and older campus,” Fowler said that the campus is making a conscious effort to make the campus a more accessible environment for students with physical disabilities.

“If a student for example has a temporary disability, and they just really can’t access their classes, we [Fowler and Assistant Registrar for Academic Scheduling Vincent Pellegrini] will try to work on having the whole class move to another building that’s accessible. I just need to know about it; if I don’t know, it might not happen,” Fowler said.

Fowler also works with the Facilities department to clear impediment-laden pathways and Director of Housing Services Stephen Apanel to place students with physical disabilities in lower-level housing or housing with elevators.

“[Some University buildings] have automatic door openers … a ramp has been built at Rooke Chapel … Roberts [Hall] is fully accessible now. There are suites, there are elevators, there are accessible bathrooms all on this campus,” Fowler said.

Fowler acknowledged that not all sidewalk curbs are accessible to persons with disabilities, but emphasized that there are always other convenient and efficient methods available to these individuals.

“There might not be cut curbs in every single area, but there are accessible pathways. If it’s really becoming a barrier, for whatever reason it’s causing however many minutes delay … that’s something that somebody can bring to my attention,” Fowler said.

On certain occasions, Fowler and others may conduct research to establish how frequently particular pathways are used and how accessible these areas are to students with disabilities.  

“The thing of it is, is that you don’t have to make everything accessible, but you have to have accessible ways. Not everything on this campus is going to be accessible, but if there’s a barrier … then they would create a cut-curb. Other ways of traversing area, not a need to fix it,” Fowler said.

Since its establishment as an individual post at the University in January 2012, OAR has since “grown tremendously” Fowler said. In the last year, the number of students with disabilities registered at the Office has increased by 74 percent.

“I think it’s kind of ‘if you build it they will come.’ Now that there’s a designated office, people know that [the University] is invested in this, so that to me has been huge,” Fowler said.

Lanwermeyer stated that, while the TLC does not ask students to disclose their disabilities, aggregate and anonymous data from previous years suggests that students who register with OAR participate in TLC programs “at roughly the same [percentile] as they are represented in the campus population as a whole.”

“So, for example, if there are about 10% of students at Bucknell registered with OAR, then we would expect to see that about 10% of students in our programs are OAR-registered, Lanwermeyer said.

Fowler expressed the importance of understanding the difference between accommodations provided at the kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) level and those provided when reaching a level of higher education. In delineating this disparity, Fowler explained that K-12 falls under the mandate of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), while the accessibility rules at the University are structured by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“K-12 is ‘success-based’; it’s no child left behind. Everybody gets through, and are given whatever they want. [The University] is access-based. So if you get something from K-12, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s appropriate for higher education,” Fowler said. 

Fowler noted that most students, when adapting to a higher form of education, are not aware of the change in accommodations with which they are provided. Still, she believes it’s their responsibility to educate themselves on the matter, and abide by the differing regulations.

“Most college students, once they get here are 18, [and] are considered adults. That means they can follow policies and procedures and be a self-advocate,” Fowler said.

Many students pre-register their accessibility needs at OAR, meaning that either the student or a parent or guardian contact the University before the semester begins to inform the Office of any disabilities. There are instances in which parents will speak with Fowler about accommodating their children, but Fowler will never speak with these students themselves. If students fail to approach Fowler personally, their accessibility needs cannot be obliged.

“[The act of students not speaking with me] … It’s kind of a common phenomenon across the nation, because there are students who want to try [living at the University] without accommodations, because they’ve been labeled all their lives by their disabilities … so they finally get to college, and they get to be an adult and make these decisions. And then by midterms I usually hear from them,” Fowler said.

Though Fowler is responsible for reviewing the documentation that explicates and validates students’ accessibility needs, she explained that she does not actively question the credibility of the records that she receives.

“We’re at an elite University, so people’s parents know people that happen to be elite psychologists and doctors … I’m not the documentation police. That’s up to the professional providing the documentation, and that’s their license on the line. So, if they want to provide inappropriate or unreasonable documentation for an individual that does not have a disability, that’s on them. There’s really nothing I can do about it,”  Fowler said.

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