By Syedah Asghar / News Reporter || Edited by Ilenia Reale
ROME – Associate Dean of Academics, Professor Pamela Harris, steps down as the Coordinator of Learning Disability Accommodations and proposes a new full-time coordinator position after approximately 140 students requested accommodations this fall.
With a record number of 1,625 students enrolled this semester and about 8.6 percent of them requesting accommodations, Harris said the position requires someone who can solely focus on providing support for students with disabilities.
“Being the disabilities coordinator used to be a very constrained percentage of my work,” said Harris. “Now there’s about 140 students with accommodations this semester, and I can’t reconcile with my other work.”
Instead, she plans to prioritize her research, build a legal studies major, and serve as a “dedicated” faculty advisor to JCU’s Model United Nations team.
The American with Disabilities Act defines an individual with disabilities as someone who is “substantially” limited from one or more major life activities due to physical or mental impairment. According to Harris, it is a ‘disservice’ to students and faculty not having a staff member who is trained in disability management. Harris had no prior experience.
Jacob Connely, a senior studying Economics and Finance, who requested the use of a pseudonym, says a position intended solely for assisting students with disabilities is a positive and necessary change, which can lead to “better” response time to student needs.
Connely was diagnosed with dyslexia at 6 years old. Due to his early diagnosis, he said he did not have a hard transition to college with his disability. Connely said applying for accommodations was “not difficult,” and that he needed to translate his supporting documentation. According to Connely, by the time he received the email asking about his midterm exam schedule, he said he had finished four out of five of the tests.
Harris says that if a student would like extra time on their exam, they are expected to inform Faculty Support first. The office will also send out an email if students do not reach out, as well as request the exam from professors. After Faculty Support receives the exams, the office will schedule an exam time with the student to honor their accommodations. The exam will be proctored and given back to the professor after the student takes their test.
The process of requesting academic accommodations requires students to submit documentation that is no older than four years and specify the type of accommodations needed for their diagnosis, according to Harris. After review from the Coordinator of Learning Disability Accommodations, students are told which accommodations they can have. Students can then negotiate to receive more accommodations as long as it’s “reasonable,” says Harris. After accommodations are finalized, Harris notifies professors of the accommodations via email.
“Accommodations don’t exist to enable you to be an ‘A’ student,” said Harris. “They exist to give you an education. They are aimed to enable students to compete on a more-or-less equal ground.”
Universities receiving U.S. federal funding, like JCU, must accommodate students with disabilities to experience the same quality of education as those who are nondisabled under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the American with Disabilities Act. Since students at JCU have U.S. federal loans, this requires JCU to follow these laws, according to Harris.
Justin Harford is a program coordinator with the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, where he provides resources to individuals with disabilities in international exchanges and higher education. He says American law is not clear on the responsibility of universities for study abroad students with disabilities, but there have been court cases.
“In the decision of Bird Versus Lewis And Clark College,” said Harford, “a judge conceded that American campuses attempting to provide a level of accessibility on an overseas program would necessarily be limited by the host country.”
Amanda Harrison, a former Disability Accommodations Coordinator at American University in Washington, D.C., said universities must pay and provide resources for the accommodations themselves since it is an unfunded mandate.
An average of 6,000 students apply for disability accommodations every year at American University, according to student-run magazine, AWOL. There are more than 14,000 students per the academic profile.
At American University, students follow a similar process of providing documentation confirming the diagnosis, but it must describe the impact of the student’s disability.
“You have to draw a clear line with the impact of your disability and a reasonable accommodation to mitigate it,” said Harrison. “In all honesty, doctors will write whatever you say. But just because your doctor says you need something does not mean the university has to provide it.”
Once the student and the coordinator agree on the various accommodations the student needs, professors can sign the document to acknowledge the requests.
At JCU and AU, professors do not receive training on accommodations. With a disabilities coordinator position, Harris said she hopes this could change.
Other American universities, such as Rutgers University in New Jersey, provide online training and resources for faculty. The training covers different types of disabilities and teaches faculty about creating accessible courses to meet student academic accommodations. At Texas A&M University, faculty can access a guide where they can learn examples of how to accommodate students depending on their disability.
Nicholas Startin, a professor at JCU who began teaching this semester, said the academic affairs department is “good” at informing him of his students’ academic accommodations.
Startin referenced the staff faculty handbook which states that professors will be notified of approved exemptions and accommodations. According to the handbook, professors should contact the Academic Dean’s Office if a student claims to have accommodations that the professor is not notified of.
Rosa Filardi, a Lecturer in Italian and Theatre at JCU, says faculty is not supported in helping students with disabilities since there are more accommodations every year. Filardi says faculty needs training on how to accommodate students with different disabilities, given that she teaches about 80 students this semester.
“I need instruments and tools that I don’t have,” said Filardi. “I’m absolutely for inclusion, but in order to be very inclusive we have to be more prepared.”
The Coordinator of Learning Disability Accommodations position at JCU would be strengthening resources by “working with faculty to develop strategies and programs for making JCU classes more generally accessible,” according to a job description drafted by Harris.
At a Student Government’s town hall meeting on Sept. 19, Maiya Decena-Chinn, a junior studying psychology, asked if professors received any training on accommodating students. Decena-Chinn was told by JCU’s Student Government President Courtney Smith that there is no training or workshops. These town hall meetings are a revived initiative now known as “student forums,” where students can share any concerns about the university to Student Government.
Decena-Chinn’s sister, who attends JCU, presented her accommodations to a professor and claims the professor said to have never seen accommodations before and did not know what these were. One of Decena-Chinn’s sister’s accommodations is that she can take exams alone in a different room, with a proctor monitoring. Decena-Chinn and her sister said they thought that professors were required to proctor exams with extra time.
However, Harris says the administration cannot ask professors to proctor an additional test because it is “unfair” to their time. Instead, students requiring extra time on their exams are proctored by Faculty Support.
Simone Tiradritti, a Faculty Support Associate also says that because of professors’ time and scheduling conflicts, the support office proctors exams instead. Tiradritti has proctored around 45 to 50 exams this semester.
Although Decena-Chinn said she is not directly impacted by academic accommodations, she believes the new coordinator position will benefit the students and the university.
“In the beginning, it’ll be slow and a bit difficult for the position to be developed,” said Decena-Chinn. “By having a position that solely revolves around accommodations, it will likely make improvements for students’ experience in education.”
Angelo Mioni, an Italian senior studying Art History who attended high school in Italy, says he is “grateful” for his accommodations at JCU, as they’re a “drastic” improvement from the support he received in high school.
Under Italian law 104 from 1992, students with disabilities gained the right to attend the highest education level within their personal capacity. Dyslexia was acknowledged as a learning disability in 2010 from Italian law 170. However, Decree 66 from 2017 states to identify barriers in Italian schools for individual education plans.
Mioni was diagnosed with dyslexia in his second year of high school, and said he switched high schools because he was not allowed to use notes or have extra time on tests.
Instead, Mioni said he had to cheat because he did not know how to study with his diagnosis.
At JCU, Mioni can have 50 percent extended time on exams taken in a quiet space; he can use a computer for exams to check spelling, and can use formulas for exams, quizzes and in-class exercises; he can also use a computer to take notes in class, according to his accommodations letter.
In high school, Mioni recalled his “most horrible experience” after he gave an oral presentation, and his teacher told him he was more suited to work a job such as a station clerk than studying.
“It was the only moment in high school I cried,” said Mioni. “Now, I’m better as a student, as a person, as Angelo, and in my passions.”
Since Mioni is graduating next semester, he does not think he will be impacted from a new coordinator position intended for students with accommodations and disabilities. According to Mioni, college is “easier” than Italian high school because JCU cares if he is able to learn from what he’s studying.
“My parents did not believe that I could have a university career because of what I faced in high school,” said Mioni. “But since joining JCU, I’ve started to study with a lot of love and passion since professors don’t destroy my soul.”