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Southern Oregon University claims a culture of acceptance for the disabled

Posted: June 4, 2011 - 4:25pm

MEDFORD, Ore. — Southern Oregon University’s decision six months ago to remove a 20-year-old student with Down syndrome from an art class stirred controversy in the press and in campus dialogue, and some disabilities advocates have accused the university of discrimination.

However, behind the scenes, SOU provides accommodations for more than 400 students with physical and/or learning disabilities, ranging from hearing impairments to Asperger’s syndrome.

The number of students served by the university’s Disability Resources has more than tripled in the past six years, said Shawn Foster, SOU assistive technology specialist. They now account for more than 6 percent of the university’s 6,500-member student body.

The number of students with disabilities is actually higher, probably between 9 and 11 percent, as not all students with disabilities need accommodations. SOU’s small class sizes, acceptance of differences and affordable price are some of the reasons students said they chose the university over others.

“The numbers are increasing everywhere because of increased diagnosis, more services and more acceptance and understanding,” Foster said. “There has been a societal shift in the past 15 years.”

Accommodations could include transforming written text in a different format, such as Braille or audio, extra time to complete tests, a sign language interpreter or a note-taker.

Sophomore Jennifer Crumley, who has a hearing impairment, receives a sign language interpreter from Disability Resources to translate class lectures for her.

Meanwhile, a fellow student hired by the university takes notes for Crumley, enabling her to pay attention to her interpreter and follow along in class. The note-taker scans in the notes and saves them to a password-restricted website, where Crumley can access them. Her instructors also provide technological accommodations, such as captions on videos when possible.

Without such accommodations provided by Disability Resources, Crumley said she might be as lost in academics as she was several years ago when she attended public school in California, where she received almost no help for her disability.

So far, however, accommodations are not for everyone.

Eliza Schaaf, a 20-year-old woman with Down syndrome, was able to enroll in SOU as a non-admitted student. Until recently when the university’s policy was changed, non-admitted students were permitted to take coursework as long as they had a high school diploma. Schaaf had a modified diploma, the kind often granted to students with intellectual disabilities, and therefore was entitled to enroll, at least by policy.

However, Schaaf was removed from the ceramics class halfway through the term because her instructor said she required excessive supervision. Her classmates, embodying the university’s so-described spirit of acceptance, protested the university’s decision with a petition and a demonstration on campus.

SOU now requires non-admitted students to have a standard high school or general equivalency diploma, which excludes Schaaf.

Students with intellectual disabilities such as Schaaf’s are the least likely to attend college, but some of them do. There are about 150 college programs in the United States for people with intellectual disabilities, according to ThinkCollege.net.

SOU is required by federal law to provide accommodations to students with disabilities, as long as the student is capable of completing all coursework with the help of the accommodations and is able to advocate for her or himself, Foster said.

Senior Gayle Davis, who has anxiety and reading comprehension disorders, said staff at Disability Resources will change accommodations if they don’t work and offer alternatives.

Foster said the university also tries to offer services beyond what’s required by law.

For instance, the university provides a part-time learning specialist who looks beyond accommodations and works with students on ways they can do things differently within the classroom to enhance their success.

“I do a lot of outreach on campus to show how assistive technology might benefit students, even those without disabilities, so it’s more approachable,” Foster said.

In 2009, SOU started Delta Alpha Pi, an honor society for students with disabilities.

The school also hosts a three-week college-prep program for high school students with disabilities.

“That has brought a lot of education and insight here about different ways to make the learning environment more accessible,” Foster said.

The university serves students with learning disabilities, but there are limitations. A learning disability doesn’t always rise to the level of an intellectual disability.

For example, junior Jesse Rapport’s learning disability is dyslexia. The condition can muddle up or slow her ability to read and spell, but it doesn’t prevent her from understanding concepts.

Rapport uses a note-taker to help her capture key points during class lectures. She said the note-taker often doesn’t know which student he or she is taking notes for.

“It’s totally anonymous,” Rapport said.

Rapport, who studies human communications, also receives time and a half to complete her tests. She said the support she receives from Disability Resources has given her confidence in her studies and the ability to expand her social and extracurricular activities.

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