The Accessible Education Center (AEC) at the University of Oregon (UO) is aiming to curb the often-misjudged negative connotation of the term ‘disability,’ using their name change away from “Disability Services” in the fall of 2011 as a starting point to provide integral services to a wider-scope of students who may not identify as disabled, yet would benefit from the support that the center provides.
Commonly thought of in terms of gender, racial, and sexual identity, diversity is catchall term that encompasses any and all facets of an individual’s identity beyond what the average person traditionally recognizes as a form of diversity. Students with physical and/ or mental disabilities are frequently labeled as disabled or special instead of being embraced as an equally important part of the diverse culture that defines campus life.
“We’ve gone away from the disability services name to include people that don’t want to associate themselves as having a disability because they don’t claim that identity. It is a challenge,” says Jeff Larson, an academic adviser at the AEC.
Just like a traditional undergraduate academic advisor at the advising office, Larson’s role at the AEC is to ensure that each and every student has an equal chance of being successful in and outside of the classroom. The challenge comes in having students recognize that they could utilize the AEC to assist and supplement their educational needs.
“Each student has a very unique identity and disability is often a part of that identity. Disability is a very large umbrella; a student with a physical disability is going to be very different than a student on the autism spectrum,” says Larson.
Students that are commonly labeled as the primary recipients of the services that the AEC offers are those who have a visible physical disability, however Larson is quick to dismiss this generality.
“We get people who wouldn’t necessarily connect with us that come up to us and say ‘what is this all about?’ They kind of say ‘well this doesn’t fit me,’ but then we can describe all the scenarios: depression, anxiety, and things that may not impact you now,” says Larson. “Students who have a concussion, a traumatic brain injury – just because you don’t fit a disability label at this moment in time doesn’t mean you wont be connected with us in the future.”
This is indicative of how the AEC plans on the name change being reflective of a positive attitude shift towards those suffering from disabilities, apparent or unapparent. However, for those students who do strongly identify with having a disability, the name change is a blurred line.
“It’s kind of a difficult line that we have because we don’t want to push students aside who identify as having a disability. We need to foster that, if you’re strong with your disability identity, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing,” says Larson. “It’s all about access; making sure students are comfortable getting over here.”
Garrett Roberts, a senior at the University of Oregon and a member of Oregon’s hockey team, does not identify as having a disability but utilizes the services they provide in order to ensure his success in the classroom.
“I use the text-to-talk program. Where they take the text of anything and it reads it out loud to you. I also use their notes to inform my teachers that I have the ability to use them through out the year,” says Roberts.
The text-to-talk program is just one of many services the AEC offers. The most popular of these services is the Access shuttle, a shuttle that provides free transportation from one campus location to another. This is especially pertinent to those who identify as having challenges with mobility. The demand for the Access Shuttle has continued to grow as the number of students admitted to the UO who have physical and mental disabilities has grown accordingly.
“Where we’ve seen the most growth are in students with psychological and mental health issues like depression and anxiety. The Disability Services office would traditionally serve those students, but if you’re a student struggling with depression, probably not the first thing you’re going to think of is ‘the disability service office can help me out,’” says Larson. “The students that we serve most are the students with non-apparent disabilities: learning disabilities, ADHD, and psychological. That’s where the name change does help for some of those issues.”
One reason students do not seek help from the AEC is simply because they are unfamiliar with the name and the services the center provides, especially now that it has veered away from the traditional Disability Services title.
“I really think they don’t use it because they don’t know about it,” says Roberts. “Also it is kind of embarrassing to some people to say that they have for example test anxiety.”
Roberts, who utilizes the center’s services but does not identify himself as disabled, disagrees with the philosophy behind the name change. “I was never offended by the name [Disability Services] but I could see how it could affect others,” Roberts says. “The University of Oregon has done a fantastic job with diversifying their campus that a simple name change is not going to do much.”
For Larson, the name change symbolizes the change of an inherent flaw in the fabric of society surrounding the disabled community. “The system is kind of designed for ‘lets mask your disability.’ A student with ADHD – we’re going to take medication and do this so you look and act like the rest of the population as opposed to looking at some of the positives that come along with ADHD and use those skills and natural ability that you do have,” says Larson. “It is difficult to say ‘I am different, some of my challenges may be different from yours, and that’s okay, I don’t have to be like everyone else’.”
Moving forward from this point, Larson hopes to expand the AEC’s services to encompass instruction inside the classrooms on campus. “There needs to be faculty development on working with students with disabilities,” says Larson. “What that looks like as in terms of support from our office in the future, I don’t know. But I think there is a lot to be said for professors knowing how to interact with students with disabilities.”
This is especially true for students who have non-apparent disabilities such as anxiety, depression, and ADHD. Professors often overlook those disabilities because they are either never mentioned by the student, or seem to lack to severity compared to those students with visible disabilities.
Ultimately, the goal of the AEC, just like other advising groups on campus, is to ensure long-term success and financial security for those who graduate. “The statistics show in the general population, anyone with a disability is much more likely to be underemployed or unemployed,” says Larson. “Those are all real concerns in terms of, if we get them here and have them succeed that’s the first step but we want to make sure they’re ready for the next step just like every student. [We are] getting students with disabilities connected to career opportunities.”