Exploring diversity and accessibility at Southeast
No two Southeast students are alike, and for students with a disability, this is no exception.
One of the most important factors in college education is the type of learning environment students are in. It has the potential to make or break their college experience.
There are several factors that go into determining the accessibility of a campus. Some are official, as stated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), while others rely on a more personalized, unofficial basis. For the purpose of this article, the effectiveness of Southeast’s “learning environment” will be evaluated under three criteria: diversity of students (based on varying levels of ability), accessibility (physical, learning, mental and other) and overall effectiveness (as rated by various faculty, staff and students).
The question remains: how effective is Southeast at integrating students with various disabilities into the classroom and campus mainstream?
Dean of students and assistant to the president for diversity and equity Sonia Rucker deals with equality issues on Southeast’s campus all the time. From her perspective, leveling the playing field is one of her department’s most important goals.
The Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity focuses primarily on the enforcement of two federal laws — Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The Civil Rights Act established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against someone based on race, color, sex, religion or national origin, and the ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability. The office investigates claims of discrimination, including those involving people who have applicable disabilities.
“Our overarching goal is to make sure that the campus is welcoming and safe for anyone with a disability,” she said.
Rucker said when someone on campus makes a discrimination-related complaint, there is a multistep process the office follows to handle the matter.
“Our initial process is to find out exactly what the situation is,” Rucker said. “Our primary responsibility is to try to gather all the facts and determine exactly what occurred, what disability accommodation was possibly not provided, and then to go from there and determine what we can do to try to rectify the situation.”
She said students who have a specific need should first register with Counseling and Disability Services and speak to staff if an issues arises. If needs still aren’t met, a complaint can be filed. The complaint process begins with the completion of an Office of Equity and Diversity Intake Form available on the university website (The form can be found here: http://www.semo.edu/equityissues/policies.html). From there, Rucker will investigate to determine if any policies have been violated and takes appropriate actions to resolve the situation.
Rucker said the university does a good job overall in integrating special-needs students into the mainstream.
“One thing that’s really important is that the student with a disability reaches out and speaks directly with each of their faculty members,” she said. “It’s one thing to receive a letter saying what those accommodations are, but it’s more important to have a conversation and determine exactly what it will require to meet those accommodations.”
When students enter the classroom, Rucker said they should approach teachers and talk about their accommodations.
While student needs are addressed by Counseling and Disability Services, Rucker said the university’s human resources department addresses faculty and staff accommodations
“When it comes to any person on campus that has a disability, we do try to make sure that we are prompt in our replies and getting those situations handled correctly,” she said.
Rucker said it is important for people to report issues with mechanisms on campus and obstacles that may hinder daily tasks.
“I think the most important thing is to make sure that the information is getting to us,” she said. “If we can’t hear about it, of course we can’t correct it.”
Overall, awareness is key. Rucker said every opportunity should be taken to educate those who don’t know much about special needs.
“If it’s something you don’t have to think about, you don’t think about it,” she said. “It’s up to us to constantly provide awareness and education.”
College of Education dean Diana Rogers-Adkinson has a background in meeting the diverse needs of students with disabilities. As a former special education teacher and a current facilitator for future educators, she knows what is needed to help teachers and students thrive.
Rogers-Adkinson said the first thing to be aware of is the person — not the person’s diagnosis or label.
“The thing that’s really important is understanding ability first,” she said. “When you focus just on how somebody’s labeled, it creates stereotypes about what that person can or cannot do.”
By taking on the people-first, ability-second mindset, Rogers-Adkinson said everyone involved in a special-needs situation is more likely to come up with constructive solutions that do not inhibit an individual’s potential for success.
“With the Americans with Disabilities Act, what we’re really challenged to think about is, how is this person otherwise qualified to be able to do what anybody else can do?” she said. “There are tools and services we can put in place for someone that allow them to have the same free and open access to employability and quality of life as anyone else.”
Rogers-Adkinson said the Counseling and Disability Services office is an asset to students in that it provides a resource for students while training them to advocate for themselves.
“One of the things I think we do well is helping our students who need accommodations be their own self-advocate,” she said.
This, in turn, will prove to be a valuable skill when job hunting, Rogers-Adkinson said.
“They might need different technology to do that job, but they’re still very qualified for that job,” she said. “They need to be able to help that employer see the accommodations I would be asking you for are not a barrier to hireability.”
Like Rucker, Rogers-Adkinson said a big issue for students who need help is the fear of being stigmatized by requesting it.
“Many students, when they come to college, worry about the stigma of requesting their accommodations,” she said. “Some wait until they start failing to declare.”
Rogers-Adkinson said the stigmas likely are perpetuated because of the way Missouri’s special education functions.
“In Missouri, special ed still has an awful lot more pull-out or segregated services for people with disabilities. We still have state schools that have people with more severe conditions sent to a private off-campus — not a part of their community,” she said. “When you have that segregated system, it shapes your cultural view about disability. More inclusive services allow people to perceive themselves less as stigmatized because of their condition.”
In addition, she said there is not as much diversity among those with special needs at Southeast as there could be, in part because of the university’s physical landscape, but also because of the feelings of inadequacy some special-needs students may feel when considering higher education.
Rogers-Adkinson said the university not only looks into student success, but the effectiveness of educators as well.
One recommendation Rogers-Adkinson has for faculty members is to gain awareness of the simplicity most accommodations require.
“We need to make sure our faculty better understand how easy some of the inclusive practices are for accommodation,” she said.
Rogers-Adkinson currently oversees Southeast’s education majors, and she said one thing the College of Education stresses in its programs is an emphasis on inclusion and awareness of diversity.
“Regardless of what ed major [students] are going into, they all have to take one course just on understanding disability, but then all of our methods classes also teach differentiation,” she said.
Differentiation addresses issues such as how to adapt a lesson to meet different learning needs of all the students.
Rogers-Adkinson said taking time to look at logistics and put oneself in the shoes of a special-needs person can go a long way in raising awareness.
“One thing I used to hand out in a course I taught, I sent [students] all over campus with an ADA checklist and had them really think about navigation,” she said. “Have people go through those experiences of just trying to imagine what it’s like to navigate in that way.”
She said accessibility comes down to ensuring everyone has an equal chance.
“For me, it’s really, ‘How do we help people — both faculty and students — just understand accommodations are not a bad thing?’” she said. “For our society, we need to be able to unlock everybody’s potential.”