Exit the elevators on the eighth floor of Young Hall, and on the carpet to your left are train tracks made of tape. Students with Purdue’s Disability Resource Center (DRC) laid them down in March of 2017 for Disability Awareness Month. The tracks now serve as a metaphorical path toward equal access, as a well as a physical route to offices where students with disabilities can find support.
Follow that path down the hall to where one of the newest DRC staff members resides. Access Consultant Rhonda Adams joined Purdue in January of 2018, along with her service dog Sahali (an Urdu word meaning “female friend”). It would take a lot more tape to map out the path that led Adams to Purdue.
Adams left her home state of Texas to work in Nairobi, Kenya, after more than 300 people sustained eye injuries from the 1998 United States embassy bombings. Her efforts in Africa in many ways mirrored the orientation and mobility work she’d done as a student and post-graduate in Texas. She helped babies who were blind learn to crawl. She helped kids, teens and adults with visual impairments learn how to navigate with a cane. The work was more challenging in Africa, however, due to limited resources, a lack of sidewalks, and various environmental obstacles. But the outcomes were grand.
Adams recalls one experience working with a little girl who was blind and speaking with the girl’s mother after school. Through a translator, Adams conveyed the girl’s progress and her promising future. Then the translator went silent, because the look on the mother’s face needed no translation.
“It’s the first time I had ever seen what hope looked like,” Adams said. “I watched her face as she began to realize that there were lots of things her daughter could do, and that it was so much more than she thought. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Adams later spent nine years in Pakistan directing a primary school for children and teens with visual impairments. Her job there was two-fold; it was one part working to deconstruct the community’s false perceptions about what her students could or could not accomplish, and another part working to develop students’ confidence so they could self-advocate. In fact, it was a lot like what she does today as a DRC access consultant.
“We serve both sides of the coin,” Adams says. “We’re here for Purdue students who have disabilities—and some of those who come to the DRC don’t know yet whether they have a disability, but they might be facing barriers in some way—and we also collaborate with faculty to ensure students with disabilities have access to the same learning opportunities as their peers.”
As someone with a disability, Adams aims to help others understand that disability is merely one form of diversity.
“There’s nothing wrong with me; it’s a difference,” she says. “We all have an opportunity to accept differences in each other and find ways to make our shared environments better for everyone, whether it’s learning how to interact with a peer, throwing a traditional lesson plan away and doing something different, or sharing an encouraging word. It starts with kindness.”
Breaking down barriers
When students with disabilities struggle academically due to environmental barriers, Amanda Bell knows the feeling. Bell, who uses a wheelchair, says she was on academic probation as a college student because she didn’t actively engage in her alma mater’s accommodation process.
“I was, like many students with disabilities, disillusioned,” says Bell, who later went on to earn her doctorate in education studies and now works in Purdue’s DRC. “To have to self-identify and self-advocate to initiate accommodations can be overwhelming and cumbersome. I benefitted from people who recognized I was an intelligent person; I just needed help navigating an environment that wasn’t built for me.”
Like Adams, Bell is one of six DRC access consultants whose job is to help foster a more inclusive campus for students with disabilities. A self-proclaimed disability activist, Bell says deconstructing environmental barriers in higher education is her greatest passion. As part of this work, Bell recently co-led a campus discussion on Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s New York Times editorial “Becoming Disabled.”
Garland-Thomson’s column references a statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that one in five adults in the United States is living with a disability. Moreover, according to the National Organization on Disability, people with disabilities collectively represent the largest minority group in the U.S., with numbers that continue to grow as new disability categories are defined.
Although many people associate disability with visible conditions or associated equipment, such as a walker or a wheelchair, Bell says 90 percent of people with disabilities have conditions they acquire over their lifespan, and they’re conditions that are not discernible to the naked eye.
“There’s this perception that if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist,” Bell says. “Some of the students I work with have chronic pain, and they hesitate to disclose their disability because their peers or instructors may react as though they’re fabricating or overstating their experience. Part of our goal is to help open the dialogue and take away some of the stigma associated with disability, as well as to give students information on resources available to them if they have these conditions.”
Oftentimes, minor accommodations can have a life-changing impact on students.
Take, for example, a student who visited Bell recently. She was on the cusp of failing out of Purdue, having experienced severe anxiety attacks that prevented her from finishing exams. The student was beginning to think she didn’t belong here, Bell says. But then a faculty member encouraged the student to connect with the DRC, which provided her with accommodated testing, including additional test-taking time and a distraction-free testing environment.
“She wasn’t getting tested on her knowledge, she was getting tested on her ability to beat a clock, which for her was a huge barrier,” Bell says. “With just a little more time to finish her exams, she ended the semester with a B or higher in all of her classes. It was such a little thing, but for her it made all the difference.”
At Bell’s previous institution, she worked with a student who had a visual impairment and was taking a required music theory class. Bell says the student’s professor was rigid in his belief that the student did not belong in the class due to his inability to read sheet music.
“He actually said to the student, ‘Somebody like you shouldn’t be in this type of class. I’ve never dealt with a student like you.’”
Bell says the professor’s ableist response was escalated to the department head, who asked the instructor to explore other ways the student could meet his course requirements outside of what the syllabus described.
“For this course, the goal was to identify patterns in music. The professor thought the only way was to look at the sheet music,” Bell says. “He was so set in his ways that he completely overlooked the fact that the student could identify patterns simply by listening to the songs.”
Randall Ward, DRC director, says one simple thing Purdue instructors can do to foster inclusion is to place an Accessibility and Accommodations statement in their course syllabus. Doing so highlights the DRC, part of Student Success Programs, as a resource for students with disabilities, while also conveying to the student that the instructor is supportive of equal learning experiences.
Individuals who have questions about the DRC’s accommodation process may contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Additionally, the Purdue community is invited to participate in the following events hosted by the DRC as part of March Disability Awareness Month.
Wednesday, March 28
— “Disability in the Media” discussion. Organizer: Disability Resource Center (DRC). For faculty, staff and students. Talk will feature clips from TV and film that depict disability. Attendees will discuss how this content shapes people’s perceptions and attitudes toward disabilities. 5:30-7:30 p.m. Wilmeth Active Learning Center, Room 2121.
Friday, March 30
— Disability Awareness Month student panel. Organizer: Disability Resource Center (DRC). For faculty, staff and students. Learn from students about the experience of disability. Topics will include ableism, language, microaggressions, intersectionality, and barriers faced by students with disabilities. 1-2 p.m. Beering Hall, Room 2290.
Writer: Andrea Mattingly, Student Success Programs, 765-496-3754, email@example.com
Last updated: March 20, 2018
Source: Purdue News