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Programs
3/24/2015 12:00 AM

In addition to living away from their parents or guardians for the first time, having to make new friends, and navigating an unfamiliar institution and processes, new college students with disabilities also must seek out the support services they need to succeed, even if they’ve never before had to advocate for themselves. It can be a frustrating and isolating experience that sets students up for failure.

At McDaniel College in Maryland, students with disabilities who register with the Student Academic Support Services Office can access fee-based support beyond just reasonable accommodations. There are three enhanced support programs, offering everything from interactive workshops on disability-related topics to weekly meetings with academic advisors, who help students with whatever difficulties they may be experiencing.

In addition to living away from their parents or guardians for the first time, having to make new friends, and navigating an unfamiliar institution and processes, new college students with disabilities also must seek out the support services they need to succeed, even if they’ve never before had to advocate for themselves. It can be a frustrating and isolating experience that sets students up for failure.

At McDaniel College in Maryland, students with disabilities who register with the Student Academic Support Services Office can access fee-based support beyond just reasonable accommodations. There are three enhanced support programs, offering everything from interactive workshops on disability-related topics to weekly meetings with academic advisors, who help students with whatever difficulties they may be experiencing.

“We noticed that there was still something missing,” said Melanie Conley, the SASS associate director. “Despite all the support we offered, some students were really struggling during that first year, and the missing link was the transition to college.”

Speaking with students with disabilities about their past experiences and hearing from parents confirmed that. So SASS administrators decided to create a short bridge program, called McDaniel Step Ahead, which offers incoming freshmen and transfer students with disabilities a chance to acclimate to the college environment before other students move in for the fall semester.

The five-day, early-move-in program is available to students registered with SASS. It ends as first-year orientation begins, and focuses on equipping students with the academic, independent living and social skills required to live in college, said Dana Lawson, the assistant director of McDaniel Step Ahead and an academic counselor at the institution.

After securing support from the college leadership, Lawson and Conley worked with the institution’s advancement office to secure funding. The parents of an upper-class student who wished their child had been offered access to such a program as a freshman provided a contribution to fund the program for three years.

The Step Ahead program, which is staffed by SASS staff and graduate assistants, was launched in 2012. That first year, students wishing to participate paid just $100 for the program. The second year, the cost was $250 per student. However, those who couldn’t afford it received scholarships.

Students who signed up for the pilot were invited to connect with each other and ask questions on Facebook during the summer. They also received a call a couple of days before the program started to make sure they were ready. When they arrived on campus, they got welcome bags that included a branded T-shirt, a refillable water bottle, snacks, and a binder with all the paperwork they needed, such as their fall-semester class schedules, important policies and procedures, SASS resources, and handouts to be used during the bridge program.

After students got settled in, a luncheon gave the parents a chance to spend some time with their children before saying “goodbye.”

Over the next few days, students took part in workshops on a variety of topics, including classroom etiquette, time management, study and test-taking skills, and organization. They also learned about the institution’s honor code, different learning styles, and assistive technology available to them through SASS. Students toured various campus facilities and heard from administrators of different service units. And they participated in “College 101” skits on topics such as managing stress.

Activities designed to promote bonding included a visit to a farmer’s market, an ice cream outing, and a movie night. Toward the end of the program, students took a trip to Target to purchase any class or dorm supplies they still needed.

As things wound down, students got the chance to do their laundry and clean before other students arrived on campus. The program ended with a scavenger hunt, a picnic, and an awards ceremony where students received awards such as “Best Thinker,” “Best Team Player” and “Happy Attitude.” They also got their accommodation letters.

Evaluations completed by 25 students at the start and end of the 2012 pilot helped staff gauge student learning. They showed that most students had significantly increased familiarity with the resources available to them at the institution. Students also felt they knew how to communicate with professors; understood what constitutes acceptable classroom behavior; realized the role their disabilities play in their learning; and had made friends on campus. Meanwhile, 90 percent of their parents reported their children’s transition to college was “good,” “very good” or “excellent,” and all parents said they would “definitely” recommend the program.

Despite that, program staff felt they could do better. At the end of the spring 2013 semester, 71 percent of pilot participants were still enrolled at the institution, but just 67 percent were on active status. Changes were made for the fall 2013 program.

For one, assistive technology training was made a much bigger part of the curriculum. That way, students feel more comfortable using the tools, which are available at the SASS office. And that, in turn, gets students to visit the office more frequently so that if they were experiencing problems, they were more likely to tell staffers.

Another significant change was the creation of a peer mentor program. The peer mentors were Step Ahead participants from the pilot year who were in good academic standing and in good standing with the honor and conduct board, or other students registered with SASS in good standing who program staff felt had the qualities needed to be good mentors.

The role of the mentors was to help connect incoming students to the campus, teach students about ethics and boundaries, create understanding of students’ roles and responsibilities, and prepare them for both Step Ahead and the academic year. In exchange for serving in that role, mentors received a $100 stipend and two internship credits. An intensive weeklong training prepared mentors for the job.

The mentors connected with Step Ahead students before they arrived on campus. They participated in the five-day program with students as a way to bond with them and address any issues immediately as they came up. They also helped with activity planning. In addition, mentors attended short debrief meetings at the end of each Step Ahead day, sharing insights and concerns with program staff. And after Step Ahead was over, mentors stayed involved in students’ lives, first offering to eat lunch with them in the cafeteria so they didn’t feel self-conscious or isolated, and then checking in with them periodically throughout the semester.

“We thought that was important because we found that the first time around, after we gave students their accommodation letters, we sometimes didn’t hear from them again until being notified of their withdrawal,” Lawson said.

Those strategies paid off. The 35 students who participated in the 2013 program were still enrolled a year later, 90 percent were still in active status, and, of those in active status, 96.3 percent were in good academic standing.

Program staff is now working on how to keep the program going without that initial contribution, and how to keep the program small as more people hear about it and demand grows.

Use these tips to create bridge program

Want to create a program like McDaniel College’s Step Ahead to help incoming students with disabilities get better acclimated with your institution and campus living? Conley and Lawson offer the following suggestions:

  • Create a detailed program proposal. Include a proposed budget. Outline the proposed curriculum, plus explain how the curriculum addresses students’ needs and common skill deficiencies. Talking to upper-class students could help you determine what areas your curriculum should focus on. Address what role assistive technology will play in your curriculum and why.
  • Gain institutional buy-in. Find administrators from other units that you think would support the idea, since you will need their help to incorporate resources and information from their office into the program. And help your top campus leaders understand what the program could do for student retention to get them on board.
  • Find start-up funding. Work with your advancement office, since staffers from that unit may have good ideas as to what donors or potential donors may be interested in funding such a program.
  • Determine your staffing needs. Some of your existing staff may be able to help with parts of the program, but more likely than not, you’ll also need additional help. Find out where that help may come from.
  • Identify relevant institutional policies. Consider any policies and/or procedures that may apply to any aspect of your program, such as those from your residence life department and those dealing with transporting students off campus.
  • Make fun a key component. Don’t make your program all about learning. Find ways to get students to have fun so they can bond, which will help in their retention later on. Find out where current students like to hang out in your community. Consider activity costs and transportation issues when planning outings.
  • Engage students before, after program. Social media and brief phone calls before the program starts can ensure participant readiness and nip any potential problems in the bud. Plus, engagement with students after the program ends creates a bridge between your program and the rest of the semester.
  • Consider whether to use peer mentors. While you may not be able to employ peer mentors for purely financial reasons, a built-in mentoring program can make a big difference in immediate student engagement and long-term retention. If you decide to use mentors, determine up front how many you will employ, how they will be selected, how you will compensate them, what their responsibilities will be, and what training they will need.

For more information, you may contact Melanie Conley at mconley@mcdaniel.edu or Dana Lawson at dlawson@mcdaniel.edu.

Accommodation
2/20/2015 12:00 AM

When students with hearing impairments seek accommodations on standardized tests such as those needed to enter graduate school or gain professional licensure, they sometimes find their requests questioned or even denied. As a disability services provider, you’re in a good position to help students understand why that is, and guide them in requesting accommodations that make sense and have a good likelihood of being granted to ensure they have an equal opportunity to succeed in these critical exams.

When students with hearing impairments seek accommodations on standardized tests such as those needed to enter graduate school or gain professional licensure, they sometimes find their requests questioned or even denied. As a disability services provider, you’re in a good position to help students understand why that is, and guide them in requesting accommodations that make sense and have a good likelihood of being granted to ensure they have an equal opportunity to succeed in these critical exams.

That’s according to Ruth C. Loew, the assistant director of ETS’s Office of Disability Policy; and John A. Hosterman, the director of global accessibility for Pearson VUE and the GED Testing Service.

Define ‘accommodation’

While this may sound overly basic, a common issue Loew and Hosterman encounter is a lack of understanding among students as to what constitutes an accommodation.

“Accommodations enhance access to a test. They change how something is assessed,” Hosterman explained. “On the other hand, modifications change what is being assessed.”

In other words, accommodations change the input or output, whereas modifications change the content. For example, when captioning is provided, students receive the same information, just in a different way, so this is an accommodation. Now, let’s consider an essay question. If the essay format is meant to assess writing skills, allowing a student to instead answer a multiple-choice question would be a modification and a prohibited fundamental alteration.

Hence, be sure that students aren’t seeking modifications, because they’ll likely find their requests are denied. But receiving an accommodation is no guarantee that students will do well on a test, or even that they will finish it. Make sure they understand that to promote proper preparation.

Address assumptions and generalizations

Another part of the problem is that people — including parents and students themselves — sometimes make false assumptions about the accommodation needs of deaf and/or hard of hearing students on standardized tests, Loew said. And those assumptions can hurt students.

Some common assumptions include that students who are deaf or hard of hearing will need accommodations for all tasks and in all settings; that they are always poor readers; that they generally process information more slowly than their hearing peers and thus need extra time; or that they will need an interpreter for all tasks and in all settings, she said.

But every student is different, even if their hearing impairments are equal in severity, she said. One student who is deaf may be able to read lips and respond clearly, while another may lack both abilities altogether. Accommodation requests should be clearly tied to students’ specific limitations and not to assumptions or generalizations.

For example, a student with a hearing impairment may very well have another disability that hinders his ability to process information at the same speed as his hearing peers, in which case extra time to take a test may be necessary. But there’s nothing about being deaf or hard of hearing alone that would cause this impairment. So, while deaf or hard of hearing students may desire extra time to read questions on an exam, the accommodation request will likely be unsupported by documentation and approving it won’t make sense to agency evaluators.

Explain factors that determine reasonableness

While ensuring that requests are tied to documented impairments is critical, there are various other factors students should consider to make sure their accommodation requests are reasonable. One of those has to do with context.

“The accommodation must fit the setting,” Loew explained.

An accommodation that may be appropriate in the classroom may not always be appropriate on a standardized test. For example, it may make sense to accommodate a student in class by having an instructor provide clarification or check for understanding of concepts being taught or discussed. In some situations, it may even make sense to allow students to use notes for quizzes and exams or deliver an answer to an essay exam orally in the classroom setting. But because of the very nature of standardized tests, those types of requests simply cannot be allowed.

“While we are very much in favor of testing equity, we also have a responsibility to ensure that the test and test scores are meaningful,” Loew said.

Get students to consider what the test is intended to measure in determining what accommodations to request. And remind them that accommodations can’t fundamentally alter the test. For instance, if a standardized math test is meant to assess computational skills, the use of a calculator would not be appropriate.

Likewise, if a test with a practical skills component, such as a nursing licensure exam, is meant to measure whether a test-taker can perform the tasks required of individuals in that profession, a request to have a task waived will not go over well. On the other hand, testing agencies will consider — and very often grant — accommodation requests that allow students to perform tasks differently.

For example, someone taking a nursing licensure exam could ask to use a digital stethoscope instead of a traditional one because either way, they are still showing that they know how to assess a patient’s heartbeat.

“Show us you can accomplish required tasks in different ways. That’s something we’re very open to,” Hosterman said.

Clarify interpreting role

Students who use sign-language interpreters may feel entitled to bring a sign-language interpreter to a testing site with them. And often, that’s an easily granted accommodation. However, there are some limitations in how students can use interpreters.

“Generally, interpreters are more appropriate as an instructional accommodation than as a testing accommodation,” Loew said.

While interpreters are typically allowed to help students with check-in procedures and other communication with testing center staff, they are usually not allowed to interpret written test instructions or questions. There are several reasons for that.

For one, individual interpreters may inadvertently change the meaning of a text question, give away an answer, or change the difficulty of a question. Plus, it just doesn’t make sense to provide on-the-fly sign-language interpreting when on-the-fly translation into any oral language isn’t permitted for hearing students who feel more comfortable communicating in an language other than English, Loew pointed out.

Spell out documentation requirements

Students who are deaf or hard of hearing may feel that they don’t need to provide documentation of their impairments to receive accommodations on standardized tests because their condition is obvious and maybe lifelong. But while disability services providers who provide these students with accommodations in the college setting get to interact with students and see how their impairments affect them, that’s not the case for testing agency evaluators, noted Loew and Hosterman. That’s why they still need to see documentation, namely:

  • Evidence of a disability. Documentation should provide evidence of the disability, and can consist of an audiogram or audiometric report or a simple letter from a doctor or audiologist.
  • History and relevant background information. That could include a history of how an accommodation has helped a student in various past settings; an explanation of comorbid conditions or other extenuating circumstances; information about a student’s reading and writing skills if he claims these are impaired; and information about the age of onset of the hearing loss and history of amplification usage.
  • Rationale for the requested accommodations. This may take the form of a short note that addresses things such as whether listening and/or speaking assistance is needed in checking in to a testing site; whether help is needed communicating with a proctor during the test; compatibility issues between a student’s hearing aid or cochlear implant and headphones used for listening portions of the test; whether background noise will be an issue and why; and how needs for assistive technology such as FM loops, amplified stethoscopes, or digital readouts of blood pressure monitors address documented limitations. “We’re not looking for chapter and verse here; just a couple of short sentences are OK,” Hosterman said.

While students don’t need to submit everything on the list above, the more documentation they can provide, the better.

“We don’t want to haggle with anyone over accommodations, but we need to know what’s appropriate,” Hosterman said. “And the more information we have, the easier it will be for us to approve the accommodations that students need.”

For more information, you may contact Ruth C. Loew at rloew@ets.org or John A. Hosterman at john.hosterman@pearson.com.

Accommodation
2/18/2015 12:00 AM

There’s much you can do to limit your institution’s liability related to providing accommodations and ensuring accessibility for students living in fraternity and sorority housing.

That’s according to Laura Rothstein, University of Louisville law professor; and Beth Stathos, general counsel for Chi Omega Fraternity in Memphis, Tenn. They spoke at Stetson University’s last National Conference on Law & Higher Education.

There’s much you can do to limit your institution’s liability related to providing accommodations and ensuring accessibility for students living in fraternity and sorority housing.

That’s according to Laura Rothstein, University of Louisville law professor; and Beth Stathos, general counsel for Chi Omega Fraternity in Memphis, Tenn. They spoke at Stetson University’s last National Conference on Law & Higher Education.

When determining whether your institution is required to provide accommodations in fraternity/sorority housing, you must consider so many different factors, including state laws and whether your institution or a chapter owns the building and land, whether the house is on or off campus, and if your institution regulates recruitment or other aspects, they said. The more involvement the institution has in the chapter, the more responsibility the institution bears, Stathos said.

So rather than trying to figure out what’s required, and rather than risking costly litigation after the fact, just focus on doing the right thing, they said.

Consider whether you have accessible properties that are safe and secure for members, guests and elderly grandparents.

You don’t have to provide every accommodation for free. For example, a sleepwalking fraternity member requesting a single room can be charged a higher fee for that room as long as you can demonstrate your institution can’t afford it and it’s unduly burdensome.

Check architectural barriers

If a three-story fraternity house without elevators has a member who uses a wheelchair, move basement chapter meetings to the main floor, Rothstein suggested. But remember that an intrinsic part of living in a fraternity house is the ability to go into all the different rooms, she said.

And don’t always assume accommodations require expensive retrofitting or significant alterations to a historic building, Rothstein said. Creative, affordable changes could suffice, such as installing a ramp in the back entrance, she said. Also consider safety.

If elevators or ramps aren’t available, don’t expose the institution to liability by allowing members or visitors to be carried up the stairs, Stathos said. Talk to the chapter president, facility manager, landlord and national/local organization to determine how you can all improve safety and accessibility, including parking spots and ramps, Rothstein said.

Instead of saying “We can’t afford it” or “We’re not even going to try,” take a proactive approach, because a good attitude goes a long way in preventing and defending litigation, Rothstein said.

Prepare for service, therapy animals

Think about members bringing therapy, support or service animals. Although it’s difficult to determine exactly what the rules are, the Department of Justice says only dogs or miniature horses are permitted as service animals in public places, Rothstein said.

You’re legally permitted to only ask if the dog/horse has been trained for an accommodation but you can’t ask for documentation, she said. And you can remove the animal if it’s disruptive, bites or makes a mess, she said.

Fraternity and sorority housing can also be subject to the Fair Housing Act, which would allow you to legally require more documentation for emotional support animals in those settings, Rothstein said.

Consider how you’ll handle roommates who have legitimate allergies or phobias related to animals, Rothstein said. And be ready to address health concerns about animals in fraternity and sorority kitchens or dining rooms, or fleas in bedrooms.

Don’t assume it’s unhealthy to have animals around food areas or charge up-front fees for animals in bedrooms — instead, make individualized assessments, she said.

You can probably charge members for repairing damage an animal caused, she added.

Consider food, mental health

With increases in food sensitivities and allergies, expect to have more members requesting ingredient lists and gluten-free or nut-free meals, Rothstein said. But you’re required to comply only if it’s a true allergy, not a preference, Rothstein said.

Also have plans for handling mental health issues. For example, a sorority member with anorexia, bulimia or depression could be a danger to herself because it could result in death or serious physical problems, Rothstein said. However, you can’t treat an individual differently because she’s a danger to herself — only if she’s a danger to others, Rothstein said.

So unless you can demonstrate her condition is so disruptive to the sorority environment, you could be liable for discrimination, she said. Instead, make individualized assessments and don’t act on myths or stereotypes, she advised.

Such situations can impact other members who might become enablers or feel overwhelmed, Stathos said. Ensure members know how to access resources and your counseling center if a member seems depressed or hasn’t come out of her room for a while — before everyone’s impacted, she advised.

Review membership requirements

“You do not have to excuse misconduct even if a student says, ‘I’m an alcoholic or addicted to drugs,’” Rothstein said. Instead, consider whether the student meets membership requirements, which often include GPA, conduct and morals — all permitted for private organizations, she said.

If members with learning disabilities request extended probation to meet a fraternity’s GPA requirement, that calls for individualized assessments, Rothstein said. As long as that fraternity consistently applied the GPA requirement, they don’t have to lower it for students with disabilities, she said. Talk to disability services about other assistance, Stathos said.

You may contact Laura Rothstein at laura.rothstein@louisville.edu or Beth Stathos at BStathos@ChiOmega.com.

Conversation With: Melanie V. Tucker
3/10/2015 12:00 AM

Melanie V. Tucker, the assistant vice president for student affairs at Northern Illinois University, spearheaded efforts to implement the principles of universal design across her unit and campus.

Melanie V. Tucker, the assistant vice president for student affairs at Northern Illinois University, spearheaded efforts to implement the principles of universal design across her unit and campus. Below, she explains her motivations for doing so, and the outcomes.

Q: What got you interested in universal design applications for student affairs departments?

A: Prior to my current role, I served as the director of two disability resource centers, so I was very familiar with universal design to begin with. When I stepped into my current role, I realized that implementing some universal design strategies across my department was a way to not only contribute to retention initiatives, but also to increase partnerships across campus. I was particularly moved to do this by research about student persistence when students feel valued and included in their campus communities, and I wanted to move us away from the compliance and medical model toward a social justice model.

Q: How have you specifically promoted the principles of universal design within student affairs?

A: My division puts on professional development conferences each year for us and our partners across campus. I use that opportunity to conduct training for staff from offices within my department, as well as other areas of the institution, on how to infuse universal design into what they do.

Part of what I love about universal design is that it just makes sense. Once people get that universal design doesn’t have to be real complicated, there’s this sort of lightbulb moment, and suddenly they start looking at all of the things they do, down to the very basics, like how they market programs and events. For instance, do they place fliers on bulletin boards across campus? Well, that doesn’t work for everyone. So they then start considering how they might do such things differently to create inclusion.

Sometimes, people also find that what they’re already doing is in line with the principles of universal design, and so they see off the bat that being inclusive can be easy, and it doesn’t necessarily mean any added work.

Q: What advice would you have for someone at another institution looking to emulate your efforts?

A: Find allies across campus. Those folks could be faculty members or colleagues from other departments. Knowing who has people’s ears can make a big difference, because as a UD advocate, I can’t be in every meeting or at every table.

Invite people to come and have a conversation about universal design. Once you create some excitement around the topic, it will spread. Other departments have started inviting me to their departmental meetings to talk about what universal design would look like within their divisions.

And approach the conversation from a perspective that offers broad appeal. For instance, explain how inclusion creates a welcoming environment that promotes retention, not just for students with disabilities, but for all students. Don’t frame universal design as being a cure-all, but rather one more tool we can use to positively impact retention.

Counter resistance before it comes up. For example, talk about how, sure, some things can cost a lot of money, but there are many others that would cost little or nothing at all and can make a huge positive impact.

For more information, you may contact Melanie V. Tucker at mthompson3@niu.edu.

Conversation With: Elizabeth G. Harrison
1/19/2015 12:00 AM

Elizabeth G. Harrison is the director of the University of Dayton’s Office of Learning Resources and associate director of the Ryan C. Harris Learning Teaching Center. She has presented extensively on the topics of working with faculty to promote universal design and expanding accessibility for students with disabilities.

Elizabeth G. Harrison is the director of the University of Dayton’s Office of Learning Resources and associate director of the Ryan C. Harris Learning Teaching Center. She has presented extensively on the topics of working with faculty to promote universal design and expanding accessibility for students with disabilities.

Q: How can disability services providers work with faculty members to increase accessibility?

A: It’s sometimes easier to say this than to do, but disability services providers should really get to know the faculty development and learning support people on their campuses. These people can become powerful allies in reaching out to the faculty and educating them about how to broaden accessibility.

Get to know those folks on campus who, from your point of view, have roles that seem in one way or another to be related to what you do. See exactly what it is they do and how it overlaps with your own role or what you think needs to be done to broaden accessibility. Find out what they think about disability and talk with them about the things you want to do. If they’re receptive, work together on those things. Don’t think that it has to be you alone doing this, because we all care about helping students succeed.

Q: Why aren’t such collaborations more commonplace?

A: Disability services providers may sometimes think of themselves as the only people on campus who serve students with disabilities, the only ones who care about serving students with disabilities, or the only ones who can serve those students. But that’s not the case. There are many others who, if you could just help them to understand the issues facing students with disabilities, would become committed to expanding accessibility.

For some DS providers, I think it may be the case that they got into disability services because they have a family member or someone they care about who has a disability and needed support in college. Or perhaps the DS providers themselves experienced college as students with disabilities, so now they feel a personal commitment to expanding access for others, and they feel that they can’t put that commitment on others. We all operate on certain assumptions that have been built over the years as a result of our own experiences, and that can get in our way.

I encourage people to explore their own assumptions about things such as faculty and their own roles at their institutions. Ask: Why do I think I’m the only one, or my office is the only one, who can do this work? Why am I convinced others will say “no, we can’t do this” or “this won’t work”? Why do I think others may not care? Try to get past that and work intentionally to expand your own mental model while at the same time educating others to help them do the same thing.

For more information, you may contact Elizabeth G. Harrison at eharrison1@udayton.edu.

Conversation With: Tom Merrell
1/7/2015 12:00 AM
Image of Tom Merrell
Tom Merrell

Tom Merrell is the assistant dean and director of student disability services at the University of San Francisco, where he has used technology to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of his office’s myriad functions, deliver more personal service, and improve accountability through the use of a digital database.

Tom MerrellTom Merrell is the assistant dean and director of student disability services at the University of San Francisco, where he has used technology to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of his office’s myriad functions, deliver more personal service, and improve accountability through the use of a digital database.

Q: Why did you decide to embrace a digital solution for your unit?

A: Part of our jobs in disability services is to deal with things like assistive technology and alternate media, so it’s kind of ironic that sometimes we tend to fear new technology for our own offices. When I first proposed going digital, I got some sideways looks from the higher-ups. And of course, there was the question of “Do we really need this?” because everything costs money. But digital is simply where the world is going, so if you don’t do this now, you’ll just have to do it later. And we knew that in the long run, having an electronic database in place would help us capture and use data about our students, improve accountability on every side, and better serve our students.

Q: Can you tell me about the database you use and how you selected it?

A: We found this great tool called Accessible Information Management. It’s a database platform that covers our disability services operation from beginning to end. Students start out by completing a quick registration form. That puts them in the queue to speak with one of our specialists, and from there all the touch points from the program are done through the database. Everything from requesting accommodations, communicating with their assigned DS specialists, and getting accommodation letters to instructors takes a lot less time, so that our specialists can spend the majority of their time listening to and talking with students, as opposed to taking care of different housekeeping tasks.

What we were looking for was a solution developed by someone who really understood disability services and our day-to-day operations. AIM was patient with the hundreds of questions we had in the beginning and even flew someone down to really show us how the product works. I also liked that the database talks to Banner to get specific information such as students’ GPAs and demographic data. At the same time, it doesn’t feed information in the opposite direction, so disability-related information is kept confidential.

Q: What was the implementation process like for your office?

A: We implemented AIM in January 2012. We were given two options. The first was the equivalent of dipping your toes in the water, which could have entailed just entering freshman students into the database to start. The second option was to jump right in. We decided to jump right in and make the switch over the spring semester because there are typically fewer students then. We also began by using the more basic features until we felt more comfortable working in the program.

Q: What advice can you share about choosing an electronic database provider?

A: Every disability services office is different. Look at what’s out there and make a choice based on your office’s individual needs. For example, we wanted something with a comprehensive proctoring component, and AIM offers that. Also, don’t settle for one that just doesn’t feel right, because there are many of these vendors out there now. Look for something that’s very user-friendly and intuitive to navigate.

For more information, you may contact Tom Merrell at merrellt@usfca.edu. Check out AIM at www.accessiblelearning.com.

 

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    Cynthia Gomez
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    Cynthia Gomez has been the editor of Disability Compliance for Higher Education since 2005 and has covered higher education for more than a decade. She has also written and edited pamphlets and books on a variety of disability-related topics.
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