New Program at Rutgers University–Camden Raises Disability Awareness

Rutgers-Camden campusLike many other students with disabilities, Amanda O’Keefe says one of her biggest challenges is that her disability is “hidden” from public view.

“I have experienced many situations in which people have challenged my disability,” says O’Keefe, a second-year student at the Rutgers School of Law–Camden. “It’s important to understand that disabilities come in many forms.”

O’Keefe has a hearing impairment and requires captioning accommodations to assist her with classwork. As the number of students with disabilities increases at colleges and universities across the country, there is a growing need to educate faculty and staff members on how to better meet the needs of disabled students.

At Rutgers University–Camden, a new standard is being set for disability awareness.

“We’ve seen a great increase in the number of students with disabilities going to college, but they are still far underrepresented,” says Timothy Pure, a coordinator of disability services at Rutgers–Camden. “The greatest need is in scaling up services to accommodate these students, and I’d like to see our program become a model for universities across the country.”

“One of the biggest issues we’ve noticed is the gap between responsibility and information. Faculty members want to help students, but might not have all of the right information or resources to do it,” Pure says.

To help disseminate that information among Rutgers–Camden’s faculty and staff, a subcommittee was formed from Rutgers–Camden’s Chancellor’s Disability Advisory Council to develop a training and awareness program that would reach every faculty and staff member on campus.

“We go over the roles and responsibilities of the university and touch on each accommodation and why it’s implemented.” Pure says. “What would a student with a disability encounter? What accommodations would be made?”

From there, faculty and staff members are broken down into smaller groups led by committee members and examine case studies based on real-life experiences, some of which occurred on the Rutgers–Camden campus. The training exercises also review how Rutgers policies fit into the bigger picture.

“It helps the accommodation process become less amorphous and more concrete to our faculty and staff,” Pure says.

O’Keefe, who serves as a student representative on the committee, uses her hearing impairment as an example during one of the case studies.

“I enjoy listening to the group examine the situation and discuss various solutions,” the Rutgers–Camden law student says. “At the end after all of the groups have discussed their case studies I share that I have a disability and one of the case studies was based on something I actually experienced.”

“I share how I felt in the moment, how faculty or staff could have helped the situation, the end result, and what I wish I would have done differently,” she says.

O’Keefe, who recently launched a pro bono project that serves to educate area families caring for someone with developmental disabilities, says having Rutgers–Camden faculty and staff examine real-world situations like hers is one of the most important parts of the training program.

To date, 225 Rutgers–Camden faculty and staff members have gone through the program. Robert Emmons, associate director of Rutgers–Camden’s Digital Studies Center, says attending the training program was a highly beneficial experience.

“There’s nothing static about the session and that helps in navigating and understanding the rights of students, faculty, and staff with regards to disability awareness, services, and accommodations, Emmons says. “Faculty are on the front lines regarding this issue and the disability awareness training program provided us with a thorough understanding of the process.”

“I think the most important thing I learned at the session was the necessity to stick to protocol,” he says. “Loose and ad hoc arrangements between faculty and students do neither any good. There is a process and it is in place for a reason and faculty and students should follow that for the rights and benefits of both parties.”

Mary Beth Daisey, associate chancellor for student affairs at Rutgers–Camden, says the training sessions have opened more lines of communication between students, faculty, and staff.

“In the past, students hesitated in using accommodations because they didn’t want to get labeled, and I think there was hesitation among faculty members because of a lack of understanding of what our accommodations are and how to use them,” Daisey says.

Recent improvements in accommodations at Rutgers–Camden include better access to facilities for students with physical impairments and introducing assistive technology for students with learning disabilities.

“The training program has opened up a dialogue about these issues,” Daisey says. “We want to help students and faculty understand that there are resources for people with disabilities that have helped students in innumerable ways.”

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Enacted by Congress in July 1990, the law prohibits discrimination based on disability, requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, and mandates that public facilities be accessible to the disabled.

Pure says the law started a national conversation on disability awareness, one that is continuing at Rutgers–Camden through the training program.

“The legacy of the ADA is in creating more accessible environments and more baseline standards,” he says. “The ADA continues to change and evolve in response to needs and challenges, and it is important for universities to keep abreast of changes to the law, as well as the impact of those changes on higher education.”

The committee’s plan is to ensure that every faculty and staff member at Rutgers–Camden goes through the training program.

Meanwhile, O’Keefe is also focused on dispelling a common myth: that disability accommodations give students an unfair advantage in the classroom.

“Accommodations do not give people with disabilities a leg up,” she says. “Accommodations put people with disabilities on an equal playing field and ensure equal opportunities.”

For more information about the Office of Disability Services at Rutgers­–Camden visit learn.camden.rutgers.edu/disability-services.

 

By Ed Moorhouse, Rutgers-Camden NewsNow

Photo by Nick Romanenko ©2015, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. All rights reserved.