When on campus, walking to class, listening to a lecture or reading a PowerPoint presentation in class seems simple enough. But for some Cal Poly students, these tasks and others can be difficult parts of their daily routine.
The number of students with disabilities on campus is not large which can make their difficulties harder for the rest of the campus to see and understand. However, people involved in serving these students believe the school is generally understanding and willing to help.
At any one time on the Cal Poly campus there are between 450 and 600 students with temporary or permanent disabilities, said Disability Resource Center Access Specialist Chris Parker-Kennedy. Up to 90 percent of those students have disabilities that are not obvious to the public, or “invisible” disabilities.
“These students want to fit in,” said Access Specialist Vanessa Dominguez. “They don’t want to be labeled as ‘disabled’ — they are students who have disabilities,”
One concern for the DRC is upholding students’ confidentiality, Dominguez said.
“Students are often worried about their disability being revealed in their classes, so we work with professors to emphasize the importance of confidentiality,” Dominguez said. “Most do a great job.”
Dominguez said some students with disabilities don’t hear about the services the DRC offers until a few years into their education at Cal Poly. They tell her they wish they had found out sooner. But Parker-Kennedy said some don’t come out of fear of being discovered.
“Many students are concerned that if they come into the DRC it may go on their permanent record, so they may not come in at all,” Parker-Kennedy said.
Cal Poly’s Universal Design initiative began three years ago and pushes for professors to use and offer materials in class that are accessible to everyone, such as captioned PowerPoint presentations. The response from professors who receive training on the initiative is great so far, Parker-Kennedy said, and sets the tone for the way students with disabilities are treated in classes.
To find out how students with disabilities feel about how responsive the campus is to their needs and how accommodating their professors are, the DRC conducts a yearly questionnaire as part of the CSU Quality Improvement Program. Dominguez said the results show four out of five students surveyed said they were satisfied with their treatment at Cal Poly.
The DRC also stresses the importance of making the school’s website accessible to students with visual disabilities. In December 2010, a study by the Chronicle of Higher Education reviewed the websites of 183 universities across the country for accessibility. Cal Poly was ranked as having the third most accessible website.
Despite the high ranking, Dominguez said there are still some areas of the campus that could be improved for students with disabilities.
“Transportation is still an issue,” Dominguez said. “The van service ends at 4:30 or 4:45 every day, and students still have class after that. The construction makes the campus hard to navigate as well.”
According to the Cal Poly Facilities website, there are 31 DRC tram stops on campus. A document released in March 2010 by the University Police Department reports that there are 183 handicapped parking spots on campus. As of January 2011, there are 152 state-maintained accessible restrooms on campus, according to a report by Facilities.
Dominguez, a member of the Inclusive Excellence Council along with Vice President of Inclusive Excellence (IE) David Conn, said the scope of IE includes students with disabilities, and its goals fit with those of the DRC as well.
The Center for Teaching and Learning supports academic development by offering resources and holding events to help faculty learn more about effective teaching methods. Center director and architecture professor Bruno Giberti said the campus tries to do the right thing when it comes to students with disabilities, but he’s not sure the same is true with individual knowledge.
“The campus has made investments like the DRC, but there will always be people who are more or less sensitive to the issue,” Giberti said.
For instance, faculty are hired based on their expertise in a certain discipline, not for their expertise in how to deal with students with disabilities, Giberti said.
“It’s asking them to stretch a bit, and the reaction will vary,” Giberti said. “There’s always room for improvement.”
The Center for Teaching and Learning will host a workshop this month to educate faculty on how to address diversity in classes that don’t regularly encounter those issues, including the issue of students with disabilities.
Vice President for Student Affairs Cornel Morton said he sees the Cal Poly faculty as very responsive to accommodating students with disabilities, and he hasn’t received reports of any outright resistance to supporting these students. He said he is pleased with how faculty and staff come together from different parts of the school on behalf of students with disabilities.
“It’s not smooth sailing all the time, but students served by the DRC are served by a willingness to help,” Morton said. “A lot of it has to do with transportation, the cost of new resources and asking whether we have the best ways to serve the students.”
Connecting people to the resources they need is one of the most important things that can be done to support students with disabilities on campus, Parker-Kennedy said.
Dominguez said she hopes the DRC can do more to get its name out.
“We really want to encourage people to think globally,” Parker-Kennedy said. “We encourage incorporating teaching techniques that appeal to all people.”