Disability Resources and Services promotes a rich living and learning atmosphere for every Temple student.
Story by Jennifer Sweeney
Photography by Joseph V. Labolito
Buying books, registering for classes, adjusting to a rigorous academic schedule— the beginning of each semester can be eventful, not to mention stressful. For the approximately 1,100 Temple students with disabilities, supplies and planning are only small parts of settling in to a new school year.
Kara Wexler, a senior Honors student studying film and media arts in the School of Communications and Theater, met with the staff of Temple’s Disability Resources and Services (DRS) when she arrived at Temple as a freshman. DRS advocates for the needs of students with disabilities and provides them with access to academic and professional opportunities.
“Since I have trouble writing for long periods of time, I often need a computer and extra time for essay tests,” explains Wexler, who has cerebral palsy. “I also use a note-taker in class.”
DRS—with the help of University Housing and Residential Life, Computer Services, Temple University Task Force for Veterans and all of Temple’s schools, colleges and offices—uses common-sense approaches to foster a more inclusive living and learning atmosphere at Temple, and to put a rich college experience within every student’s reach.
In Wexler’s case, DRS not only took care of her in-class technological needs; it also supplied letters of accommodation to her professors, which Wexler says are “helpful for getting a conversation going, so they know exactly what I’m going to need from the beginning.” Additionally, the letters can begin a dialogue that enhances both the students’ education and their relationships with their instructors, and encourages knowledge among members of the Temple community who might not have dealt with disabilities before.
One misconception about students with disabilities is the belief that all disabilities are visible. For example, DRS Director John Bennett says that more than 40 percent of the students registered with DRS have learning disabilities such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The department also provides services for students with mental health issues including Asperger’s syndrome and bipolar disorder, and medical conditions such as traumatic brain injuries and cancer. He also notes that soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan come to the department with injuries including post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition significantly affecting veterans of those two conflicts.
Temple’s history of advocacy for students with disabilities began in 1976—long before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. When Bennett first arrived at the university four years ago, he found a telling piece of DRS’s history in a desk: 30-year-old committee-meeting minutes detailing construction of unrestricted building entrances. “We were ahead of our time,” he says proudly.
Such foresight not only is a point of pride for the department—it also is a draw for prospective students. “One of the main reasons I came to Temple was how great it is for students with disabilities,” Wexler says.
So what, specifically, does “accessibility” mean for Temple students with disabilities? According to Bennett, it means getting “everyone through the same door,” literally and figuratively. In the past, a student using a wheelchair would have had to go to DRS for an elevator key, enter a particular building by a ramp around the back and use the key to ride the freight elevator to the building’s upper floors. Today, everyone can use the ramp entrances at the fronts of buildings and ride passenger elevators together. This extends to making their college experiences all-inclusive and allowing students with physical, cognitive or psychological disabilities to blend in, rather than stand out.
James Curran takes a break in the Honors lounge on Main Campus.
James Curran, Class of 2011, uses an iPad for classwork.
One initiative that extends beyond basic accessibility is Project Access TU: a set of web-based tutorials in which students explain self-advocacy strategies. The step-by-step videos guide viewers through the often daunting processes of adapting to college life, such as disclosing a disability or requesting accommodation. The videos, which were produced in conjunction with the College of Education, have helped expand the DRS’s reach while offering vital information to students. Being able to review that information from the privacy of one’s own computer has contributed considerably to the number of students who register with the department.
With the help of Computer Services, DRS provides students with current assistive technologies. For example, Project REMOTE supplies real-time captioning and sign language interpretation of lectures, enabling students with hearing impairments to keep pace with class discussion. Students also may receive class materials in alternate text formatting in lieu of standard print documents, or be granted access to specialized equipment such as dictation software, screenmagnification software and custom hardware.
Another virtual aid, Project ROUTE, is a collaborative effort with Computer Services, Creative Services, Space Management and the Office of Facilities Management. ROUTE users can navigate all 117 buildings across the 115 acres of Main Campus. Turn-by-turn directions and photos map paths to any destination, indicating accessible entrances, restrooms, parking and elevators. Navigation is customizable for different accommodations, such as wheelchair access, improving independent travel on campus. Visitors also can take advantage of the mapping and photo features to plan their routes ahead of time, so that they can arrive on campus confident in their ability to get around.
Mainstream electronic devices also improve learning for some students. James Curran, a senior in the Fox School of Business with spinal muscular atrophy, relies on an iPad for quick and easy note-taking in class. The multitouch features of the tablet are quicker and more responsive than a standard keyboard, he says. His Honors course load and impending graduation do not leave him much free time, but “being able to buy e-textbooks online [and] use the iPad and an iPhone to take notes is a lot easier.” The devices he uses streamline tasks that used to be much more time-consuming.
Beyond the Classroom
Ultimately, DRS encourages students to communicate clearly and ask for exactly what they need in an academic setting, laying the groundwork for the self-advocacy on which students will have to rely when they enter the workforce.
Employment searches are made even more difficult by the challenge to overcome negative stereotypes about on-the-job performance. “It’s hard enough getting good internships,” Bennett says. “If you’ve got a disability label on your back, it’s even harder.”
DRS eases that particular challenge by participating with Temple’s Career Center in Project FWRP (Federal Workforce Recruitment Program). Project FWRP is a government program that offers students with disabilities paid, full-time internships in a range of federal agencies: the Coast Guard, NASA, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, the National Park Service and more. In just two years, participation in FWRP increased from nine Temple students during academic year 2008–2009, to 95 in 2010–2011. The program’s most recent round of interviews, held in October 2010, led to at least one-third of Temple applicants being offered positions through FWRP.
Senior mechanical engineering major Kenneth Carter was hired through FWRP for an internship at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Virginia, where he helped track weather satellites. And Christopher Ludwig, SBM ’10, garnered two paid internships from the Department of Defense while he was a student.
Curran added “congressional intern” to his résumé last summer, after having been selected by a DRS partner, the American Association of People with Disabilities, to participate in a 10-week program in Washington, D.C. He helped with research and attended briefings on Capitol Hill for U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers.
Curran says DRS definitely influenced his success as a Temple student. “From start to finish, the DRS office has been a tremendous resource during my time at Temple. The staff made my transition to the college level seamless.”
Jennifer Sweeney is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Philadelphia.
Read about the Joshua A. Winheld/Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation Scholarship Fund, established by DRS.
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