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Light at the End of the Tunnel

Light at the End of the Tunnel One student at a time, Wright State has become one of the country’s leaders in accommodating students with disabilitiesBy Mark FisherDAYTON, OhioWright State University never set out to become one of the nation’s leaders in accommodating students with disabilities. It happened quite by accident — and one student at a time.
Wright State’s first buildings were constructed in a cornfield near Dayton in the mid-1960s and included an underground tunnel system that school officials figured would make moving materials from building to building much more convenient. The tunnels served that purpose well — but they also attracted attention from wheelchair-using students who found  the tunnels gave them easy access to every building on campus. And that was in stark
contrast to buildings at most other colleges of the era, at which wheelchair-using students couldn’t make it through the front door. Word of mouth spread quickly, and within a few years, a sizable proportion of WSU’s students wheeled their way to classes daily. In the early 1970s, Wright State officials recognized they were carving a niche, so they applied for and obtained federal grants to further improve access and better serve students with disabilities.
Today, WSU’s Office of Disability Services serves 550 students out of the school’s total enrollment of more than 14,000. An estimated additional 250-300 students have disabilities but don’t require the office’s regular services, in part because the campus has been built with their needs in mind.
“We don’t claim to hold the recipe or the patent on disability services,” says Jeff Vernooy, director of WSU’s Office of Disability Services, who has worked at Wright State since 1977. “But since 1970, we’ve developed a culture, a way of life, that supports students with disabilities. It really is a part of the fabric of this place.”
The university learns from every new student it accommodates. It was among the first schools to serve students who use ventilators and students who could not speak but who use communications boards or voice outputs on computers. There are new challenges around every corner. “We’re accommodating students who are more and more disabled,” Vernooy says. “We’ve really evolved over the years based on the needs of the population.”
His office provides academic support through a technology center where textbooks can be transferred into alternate formats — read onto a tape or translated into Braille for visually impaired students, or put into a word-processing file better accessed through adaptive computer technology, for example. A certified adaptive computer technology specialist is available.
A test proctoring program allows students to use adaptive equipment and take exams in a monitored environment free from distraction. If a student taking a test has a question for the professor who is giving the test in another classroom, a “runner” is available to take a cell phone to the professor and allow the student to obtain the needed guidance.
Students with disabilities who cannot take notes effectively can strike a deal with a good note-taker in the class to photocopy notes, Vernooy says.
The note-taker receives a $40 gift certificate to the bookstore from Vernooy’s office at the end of the quarter. Sign-language interpreters also are available for those with hearing impairments. Students with learning disabilities have access to peer tutoring as well as individual or group counseling, and to a special course, “College Coping Strategies.” Embracing High-Technology
While some of the assistance may seem a bit “low-tech,” WSU also has embraced some cutting-edge technology to aid students. In May, Wright State became the first university in the nation to install “Talking Signs” technology in its student union and provide receivers to its visually impaired students. The students hold infrared receivers about the size of a TV remote control while directional transmitters guide them to elevators, stairs, restrooms, the bookstore and other important destinations.
Those holding the receivers can point them around the student union while voice messages that identify the destinations become stronger and clearer as the receiver zeroes in on each transmitter.
Some of Wright State’s visually impaired students have embraced the technology with enthusiasm and made some discoveries using the Talking Signs. Samantha Broshear says she had no idea there was a women’s rest room tucked away in the east end of the student union until her receiver pointed it out to her. Her classmate April Clark never knew there was a second elevator that provided a nifty little shortcut through the same building.
“When I came here as a freshman, finding out where things were … became the biggest problem,” says Janae Miller, a WSU senior who uses the device. “This will really help ease the transition for new students.”
The receivers can be used on two floors of the student union, where 30 transmitters emit a repeating voice message. The university would like to expand the service to include transmitters in its new food court, library and the tunnel system that connects the campus buildings. But such an expansion will hinge on WSU’s ability to raise money in the community, Vernooy says.
WSU has spent $50,000 on the project already, tapping into a special state fund designed to help public universities increase access for students with disabilities, but that state funding has run out.
WSU also offers its disabled students special vocational support. It’s an area near to the heart of Vernooy, who uses a motorized wheelchair. He started his career at Wright State as a career counselor.
“This is one area a lot of disability services offices don’t do. They rely on their career services office,” Vernooy says. “But we felt it should be a shared responsibility.”
Wright State’s career services officials teach disabled students resume-writing and interviewing skills, while the disability services office finds internships and co-op opportunities so students can have solid work experience by the time they graduate.
“We shoot for placing students into work experience between their first and second year,” Vernooy says.
Sometimes students are reluctant, even fearful, of taking that first work assignment, but the university strives to help them overcome that fear. There are other challenges, too. Students with multiple disabilities may need a special environment, and sometimes placing minorities can be difficult as well.
“Having a disability doesn’t mean you’re not going to be discriminated against based on your race,” Vernooy says. The university’s strategy appears to work: Vernooy says most of Wright State’s disabled students who graduate get jobs or go on to graduate school.
WSU uses other strategies to push their disabled students’ ability to become more independent. The university employs trained personal assistants for disabled students who need that level of help, but it also takes steps to make sure the students can manage that extra help.
Vernooy says his office was receiving feedback from graduates that some were struggling to find replacement care after they left Wright State. Some ended up in nursing homes, Vernooy says.
Now, the university offers students with disabilities a course entitled “Managing Your Personal Assistants” through which students are taught the ins and outs of interviewing, hiring and training personal assistants. Those students then assume responsibility for finding and training their personal assistant, with the university offering to be their backup, “their safety net,” Vernooy says.
Other Wright State courses geared toward disabled students include “Adaptive Computer Technology,” “Physical Education for the Disabled Student” and “Effective Career Planning.”
For extracurricular activities, there are more than 140 clubs and organizations on campus, plus a variety of athletic and recreational programs. They include Adapted Swim Club, Wheelchair Basketball, Quad Rugby, Wheelchair Tennis, Adapted Track and Field and Wheelchair Football.
“Several of our students have world titles and participate in the competitions such as the Boston Marathon and the ParaOlympics,” Vernooy says.
WSU’s disability services office doesn’t confine its efforts to campus, extending its advocacy role to surrounding regions. The office works with arts and cultural agencies in and around Dayton to make sure arts events and community festivals “are 100 percent accessible,” Vernooy says. “That allows the community to see disabled students at these events and accept that as normal,” he says.
But the overarching goal of the WSU disability services office is to eliminate all barriers that prevent qualified individuals with disabilities from obtaining a college education. Whenever a prospective student comes through its doorway with a new set of needs, the university takes another step toward that goal, Vernooy says. And it all started with a couple of tunnels. “We got here one student at a time, and that’s how we will continue,” Vernooy says. — Mark Fisher covers higher education for the Dayton Daily News.

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