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Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Roadblocks to Resources

In a large, quiet room tucked away in a corner of Old Main sits the disAbility Resources for Students center, a place where almost 1,700 students seek accommodations to help them succeed in their college courses.

With five staff members, the disAbility center has space for three offices, one common reception room and a testing center with computers for students who need a quiet space and more time for exams.

This past academic year, the center saw requests from an additional 200 students, or a 12 percent increase. Over the past eight years, the center saw an 87 percent increase in students who qualified for disability resources. Although only a small portion of those students come in for weekly visits, each of the two counselors on staff must take on more than 850 students.

According to David Brunnemer, the director of the disAbility Resources for Students, the state requires a minimum of five counselors for a university this size. Budgetary restrictions, though, will not allow for this necessary increase. The university is not currently facing repercussions for this insufficiency. The students may not be able to see a counselor or get the help they need.

Peak times for disability accommodation counselors are the beginning and end of each quarter when students are struggling most, according to Kim Thiessen, an Accommodation Counselor for Western. Interns and staff members supervise testing on a daily basis and counselors monitor how accommodations are progressing for each student. Thiessen is one of two counselors, along with Brenda Kotewa. Kotewa works with alternative text and Thiessen, with deaf services.

Another issue Western students with disabilities face is a delayed graduation rate. With a learning disability, students can end up working at a slower pace and may not be able to complete coursework for a bachelor’s degree in four years.

Elmer Carampot is a regular visitor of the center and has weekly meetings to manage his mild intellectual disability.

Diagnosed with ADHD at a young age, Carampot spent years struggling with education, medication and anxiety that wouldn’t go away. At age 25, he was diagnosed again, this time with a learning disability that has been keeping him down for years.

When he started at Western, he found a love for communications. With the help of the center, he is working hard toward his bachelor’s degree and a future helping others with disabilities advocate for themselves.

Shahaela Wargo, an administrative assistant at disAbility Resources for Students, July 24, 2017. // Photo by Kevin Lake

What does disAbility Resources do?

Students come to the center for many reasons, including physical and mobility, mental health issues and learning disabilities. The center is federally mandated and required to provide students the help they need. In order to gain access to resources, every student must go through a documentation process to make sure their disability has been properly diagnosed.

The first step for any student is getting an examination by a physician or medical professional. They then take this documentation to the center for a counseling session to determine their specific needs in the classroom and on campus. Some of the accommodations offered are priority registering, housing accommodations, extra time on assignments, interpreters or alternative texts for classes.

Students at the center may see a counselor on a regular basis to check in on their progress but many primarily need help in the first few weeks of a quarter setting up their accommodations, Thiessen said.

In the initial meeting, the counselor will notify each professor letting them know that a student in their class may need extra help from them during the upcoming quarter.

The individual students are responsible for telling the professor that they need help, setting up how their accommodations will work in that specific setting and providing documentation to the center. Because the center is federally mandated, the professors are required to work with the student and try their best to accommodate them properly. When this doesn’t work, students have the option to go to the Equal Opportunity Office and file a grievance.

The center operates with a combination of state money, personally-raised funds and student health fee contributions, but has yet to have a budget over $1,000,000 for disAbility Resources.

Although there are federally-mandated regulations in place for disAbility Resources, every school operates differently. Evergreen State College, Central Washington University and Eastern Washington University are similar in size and scope to Western as comprehensive teaching universities. Schools must have resources available, but not all counseling and resource services work exactly the same, according to counselors and directors from Western, Evergreen and Eastern.

Even though resources are scarce and budgets are rarely large enough to meet demand, the stigma is going away. More students are aware of their rights and resources they need. Disability Resources directors from separate schools agree students have become more comfortable over time coming into the center.

 

The trouble with access

For a student who needs additional resources, the resources center has multiple options for getting help. Some students qualify for having a note taker in the classroom while others may need more time to complete an assignment.

When a student decides to get help from the center, they must first go through the process of getting approved for their needs. Part of this process includes getting documentation from a qualified professional outside the center. For this, a student must have access to health care and pay for tests necessary to diagnose their disability.

“It might take a little time, but people usually get the accommodations they are eligible for,” Thiessen said.

The center works to make sure the students get the resources they are legally entitled to, but sometimes there are roadblocks to the process. Thiessen said sometimes doctors will not send the information over or students will come in without their papers and then have to go out and get the exam done. That process could take weeks or months to complete, which leaves the student without the help they need.

If a student is unable to pay for these tests at Western, the center works with their financial aid to see if some money can be provided if needed, but if the student does not qualify for financial aid, they must come up with the money on their own.

“Those referrals take time and sometimes it’s expensive. It would be nice if there was money somewhere that students could use to go get an evaluation done. We do work with financial aid, for students who have it. If students don’t have financial aid, they are just kind of stuck.”

Kim Thiessen, Accommodation Counselor

“Those referrals take time and sometimes it’s expensive. It would be nice if there was money somewhere that students could use to go get an evaluation done,” Thiessen said. “We do work with financial aid, for students who have it. If students don’t have financial aid, they are just kind of stuck.”

At Eastern Washington University, medical assessments are covered by the student health fee and a $100 co-pay. Eastern also has an on campus psychologist who is qualified to do assessments, according to Eastern Washington University Disability Services Director Kevin Hills. However, there are still students who come into the center without insurance.

“We had about 45 who couldn’t get services, and I presented them to administration and we were able to fill that position,” Hills said.

Western’s disAbility center allows students to decide when, where and how they get their resources, which allows those with significant needs a level of freedom.

Carampot, a first year member at the center, has personally seen how the center operates and what makes its policy successful for students who take an active role in advocating for themselves.

“Some universities may have a more systemized form of setting up accommodations and whatnot, but here at Western it’s more student centered,” Carampot said. “The DRS will send the information about the student’s accommodations to the professor via email.”

The student centered system allows each student to be their own advocate and set up their accommodations in whatever way they see fit. Carampot said that their experience with the center is only as complicated as they make it for themselves and if they have the ability to advocate for their needs, it should be easy for a student to get the help they need.

However, when students are unable to take full credits due to lack of resources, they can fall behind and end up in school longer, Carampot said. His disability only allows him to take 10 credits per quarter.

“The school designs itself on 12-15 credit participation. So how does that work for someone who can only at most do 10 credits?” Carampot said.

Some students end up taking five or more years to graduate because the system is not built for their needs or they end up stuck in administrative roadblocks.

At Eastern Washington University, graduation rates for students using the disAbility center are not only matching the graduation rates of other students, but a handful of students are exceeding the GPA of their peers, Hills said.

The demand is rising while the budget falls 

In the past eight years, the DRS has experienced an 87 percent growth in the number of students who qualified for the accommodations. Western is a school that is known for its ability to give students the help they need and for this reason, people in disabled communities are more likely to come to the school Brunnemer said.

Western does exceed in one area: resources for deaf and hard of hearing. According to Brunnemer, not a lot of schools in Washington have adequate resources for deaf people. Brunnemer said that this makes Western an appealing choice for those within the deaf community. From 2009 to 2016 the deaf community at Western rose from 18 to 35 students.

One of the largest categories has been mental health needs. The use of mental health services more than tripled from 183 students in the 2009-2010 school year to 460 in 2015-2016.

“There’s probably more diagnoses now, so where in the past, families had just chalked it up to ‘oh it’s boys being boys’ and those kinds of stereotypical things and now they’re saying let’s go see what the underlying cause is,” Thiessen said.

The use of disability resources at other schools in Washington is increasing as well, but other R2 sized schools are handling increases differently.

In the past 10 years, documented disabilities increased 52 percent at Evergreen State College, 63 percent at Central Washington University and 137 percent at Eastern Washington University.

At least a third of recorded disabilities were psychological across all three schools. Each school also reported peak numbers of students with psychological disabilities in 2016, the last year of recorded data. Disability resource usage rates are steady with the rates of enrollments at Eastern and Central, however, enrollment rates at Evergreen have decreased in the past ten years, but students using the resources have increased.

“I’ve noticed a difference,” Meredith Inocencio, Access Services provider for Evergreen State College said. “In the last 15 years, students are more open about having a disability and comfortable claiming that identity, knowing they have rights and seeing that those rights are met.”

Western has only two of the state required five certified accommodation counselors necessary to control the needs of the program. Comparatively, Evergreen has nine counselors for an overall population one-third the size of Western.

Evergreen State College has a counseling center that’s apart of Disability Resource Center, with extensive walk-in hours. There are nine counselors on staff who will see any student at any time.

“The one limitation is at some point they’ll refer [the student] to the community,” Inocencio said. As of 2016, nine counselors are serving 4,000 students at Evergreen in the DRS and, at Western, two counselors are serving 15,000 students.

Only a small number of students see a counselor on a weekly basis, but during the beginning and end of the quarter, the counselors are booked setting up accommodations or monitoring student’s progress as the quarter comes to a close.

This means that in a short amount of time, Thiessen and Kotewa may see several hundred students in the span of a week.

“Well, right now, we only have two counselors, which is not nearly enough for 1,400 or more students,” Thiessen said. “We need more staff but in order to do that, we need a bigger space because we don’t have any space in here to put another person.”

The budget for the disAbility center comes from a mixture of federal money, fund raised money and a portion of the student health fee from every student. Students pay an average of $89 per quarter to the health services fee. This covers visits to the health center and accommodations provided by the disAbility center.

As of the 2016-2017 school year, the state budget for the disAbility center is $847,894, the third smallest amount in the Business and Financial Affairs section of the Operating Budget. Their self-sustaining budget is only $38,447. Together this gives the center a total budget of $886,341.

“Because we are mandated by federal law to provide the accommodations, we do have federal money to cover that,” Thiessen said. “Whether the money is in the budget or not, we have to provide those things.”

Although needs have been rising, Western has taken steps over the past 20 years to make the campus more accessible to students with physical disabilities and those who need to take tests in the testing center. According to the disAbility Resource center’s website, they have added computers to the testing center and provide a quiet test-taking room. The campus as a whole still has issues that do not comply with disability accommodations, such as the unstable brick pathways, but steps have been made to keep campus safe for all individuals with disabilities.

“Bricks are never good for people who have trouble walking. But now that every building has an elevator, things are easier for people with physical disabilities,” Thiessen said.

Western has plans to upgrade the space by moving it to a different building, but this process may take years and plans are not concrete.

 

Needs exceed stigma

The stigma around disabilities is decreasing, according to students and faculty from Western, Evergreen and Eastern Washington University.

“I think a lot of students come in as freshman, thinking it’s a huge stigma because that’s what they experienced in high school and then they find that the stigma is not the same here. People are usually accepted for who they are,” Thiessen said.

But some students may feel that if there aren’t enough resources, it’s not worth going to the center. Other students with psychological or emotional disabilities may not know they have options.

Inocencio said some students who struggle with mental health don’t understand they have access to less obvious accommodations. Some of these accommodations include flexible due dates, breaks in class as needed and alternative textbooks.

Thiessen has noticed another problem students face with asking for help. When new students come in, they must balance asking for help and being independent for the first time.

“They will say ‘I want to prove I can do it on my own’ and then we see them two years later and they say ‘I wish I had come in the beginning,’” Thiessen said. “I think mostly it’s a pride issue. They feel like they shouldn’t be taking advantage of accommodations when somebody else doesn’t get it.”

Carampot experienced this when he took an English class in summer quarter that he thought he could handle, and then realized he needed help too late. He said because he did not disclose his status or accommodations until later into the quarter, he faced discrimination from his professor.

“The thing to understand about the professor’s position is that they are subject to federal laws surrounding disabilities as a protected class,” Carampot said.

At Eastern, Hills said he has confronted faculty who will not cooperate with a student who requires additional resources. A professor can only overrule a student’s accommodations if the professor can prove it’s a “hindrance to learning,” Hills said.

“Sometimes faculty don’t understand what they need to do, sometimes they don’t like to be educated,” Hills said.

Over his 17 years with the center, Hills has dealt with three grievances from professors, and each time he met with professors personally and they eventually came around.

“Ninety percent of the time the faculty is wrong about [the accommodation] being a hindrance to learning,” Hills said.

From his negative experience working with a professor, Carampot said he learned how to advocate for himself and realized how hard it is for all involved to react to a student’s sudden call for help. Carampot considered this as one of the leading factors that drove him to help other students become their own advocates.

“My idea of ‘disability’ is that a person with a disability receives stigma from the culture. Removing the stigma requires rewriting the self.”

Elmer Carampot, disAbility Resources Center user

“My idea of ‘disability’ is that a person with a disability receives stigma from the culture,” Carampot said. “Removing the stigma requires rewriting the self.”

Other students decide not to use disAbility services because they don’t think they are eligible for the services that the center provides.

“I have ADHD and I just haven’t been to the center,” Jenessa Ho, a junior at Western Washington University said. “I am doing fine in classes and I don’t want to take anything away from someone who needs it more.”

Thiessen said that students like Ho may not be aware of what they are missing, and should come to the center regardless so they can understand what accommodations they may be able to get.

“As a student, if you have friends or know someone who is struggling, encourage them to come in just to talk. Because maybe there is that underlying reason why they’re struggling. We are here to help support students and their success so we can usually be pretty helpful,” Thiessen said.

According to the 2017-2019 Capital Project Proposal, the disAbility Resource center has recommended the university fund for more space to meet demand. As of June 2017, the plan has yet to be officially approved, Thiessen said.

Providing that all requirements are met: procuring the right documentation, cooperation from all professors and ample amount of space, a student can get the resources they need to succeed in college. For now, the disAbility Resource center attempts to provide services to the over 15,000 students who need them.

THIS STORY WAS WRITTEN BY JOURNALISM STUDENTS IN AN ADVANCED REPORTING CLASS IN SPRING 2017, IT IS PART OF A FOUR PART SERIES OF INVESTIGATIVE STORIES. CHECK OUT OUR LAST TWO INSTALLMENTS ‘DARK DAYS’ AND ‘WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS’!
INFOGRAPHICS BY REPORTERS & LAUREN DRAKE.

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