The Disability Services Center assists almost 1,000 RIC students with reasonable accommodations and supports them in achieving their academic goals.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines an individual with a disability as a person who has a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." The terms used to discuss disabilities are often loaded, with some that were common in the past – "handicapped," "differently-abled," "crippled," "special needs" – no longer socially acceptable.
Keri Rossi-D'entremont '01, MA '03, director of the Disability Services Center (DSC) at Rhode Island College, recommends using people-first language when talking about disabilities, which refers to the individual first and the disability second. "For example: 'a person with a disability' instead of 'the disabled', or 'a person with autism' instead of 'autistic.'"
The DSC, which is located in Fogarty Life Science and falls under the office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the organizational chart, assists almost one thousand graduate and undergraduate students with reasonable accommodations and supports them in achieving their academic goals. It is also a primary resource to educate, train and guide the college community in understanding disability access, rights and responsibilities.
"We serve students with all types of disabilities: mobility, hearing, vision, motor, psychological, learning, attention, speech, medical, developmental and other conditions," notes Rossi-D'entremont. "There are many disability diagnoses that are invisible, such as learning disabilities, ADHD and mental health conditions."
Jose Rosario '17 is an alumnus who majored in psychology and chemical dependency/addiction studies and formerly served as coordinator of the DSC (2017-2019). While attending RIC, Rosario, who also has a disability, utilized DSC for accommodations in his classes and worked as a student employee in both DSC and Learning for Life. Later, as a professional DSC Coordinator, he used his firsthand knowledge of the service model to provide accommodations to students and encourage their self-advocacy.
Rosario emphasizes that accommodations are meant to provide equal access and a level playing field. "Our work in disability services strives to be as accommodating as possible, while valuing student autonomy," he says. "We must provide adequate resources, staffing, and professional development to ensure that the center can meet the rapidly increasing needs of RIC students. We find that more students with disabilities feel they can attend a higher education institution, and we need the resources to support this shift."
Last semester, the move from in-person classes to primarily remote learning brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic presented new challenges in supporting students with disabilities. Since then, the DSC staff is making sure that RICstudents who are registered with them receive their accommodations within remote learning.
To accomplish this, the DSC's Assistant Director Karley Batalon and Coordinator Mia Downes '10 continue to meet with students remotely to provide assistance, and Assistive Technology Coordinator Benjamin Dugas '14, MA '16 works with students with disabilities to request textbooks from publishers in other formats (e.g. Braille, e-text), secure adaptive equipment, add learning tools for students (like browser extensions and specific apps such as a talking calculator), install reading software on their laptops and help students with sensory and mobility disabilities obtain their course materials in audio, electronic or other accessible formats as needed.
Rosario says that everyone at the center as well as faculty and staff want to support students with disabilities and are willing to learn and get extra training when necessary. "The Disability Services Center also provides consistent consultation and expertise to support faculty engaging in ever-evolving best practices," he adds.
This past June, RIC's first-ever campus wide Accessibility Committee (AC) was established. Rossi-D'entremont and sociology professor Mikaila Arthur co-chair the AC, which has been engaged in short-and long-term work, including both planning for the fall semester and making recommendations to enhance accessibility for students, faculty, staff, and visitors. "The committee's work will result in a set of recommendations to enhance the sense of belonging, inclusivity, and climate of our campus," says Rossi-D'entremont.
With most fall classes being conducted online, the main focus of the AC was to make sure that students with disabilities received proper accommodations, which are very individual in nature and must be directly related to each student's disability.
"One of the interesting things about teaching and learning online is that the environment provides greater accessibility to some while making things less accessible for others," explains Arthur. "For instance, students with physical or mental health conditions that limit their ability to travel outside their homes are clearly better served in an online environment. And there is a vast array of things we can do, both institutionally and in terms of individual course design, to facilitate greater accessibility."
For the fall semester, incoming and returning students with disabilities were able to register with the DSC to get proper accommodations and ensure that their learning process is staying as close to the in-person experience as possible.
"Many of the students get extra time on online tests and assignments, remove 'lock out' functions from online tests, use of adaptive equipment, assistive technology, and learning software such as recorders, screen reading software, and more," explains Rossi-D'entremont. "They also get access to alternatively formatted course materials to be compatible with students' learning software or assistive device, technology for note taking such as an iPad or laptop, sign language interpreters for video conferencing, one-on-one early advising appointments, and alternate format print materials like Braille from DSC's braille printer."
Despite the emphasis on remote learning, there was still work to be done to ensure access to the limited number of classes happening in-person on campus. "For those who will be on our physical campus, this includes ensuring that there are Americans with Disabilities Act compliant plans in place for dealing with screening and other COVID-related issues, that all signage is accessible, and that traffic flow patterns in buildings take accessibility into account," Arthur explains.
The AC has tried to think of everything and make sure equity is built into its plans. This encompasses many things: providing captioning or sign-language interpretation, employee participation in trainings, and building access plans. Building access is an example of the kind of nuance that goes into ensuring equity: with COVID precautions limiting the number of entry points to each building, the committee must ensure that the doors that are in use are easily accessible from disability parking spaces.
"Part of the goal of the Accessibility Committee is to ensure that we do a better job of equity for people with disabilities going forward. Some of what we are learning now will certainly help with that," says Arthur.
"We recognize disability as a form of diversity, promote the inclusion of individuals with disabilities in all aspects of college life, and endeavor to make students aware of the many opportunities and resources available to them at Rhode Island College," adds Rossi-D'entremont.
Rosario, who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Clarke University, emphasizes that the DSC is there to empower and help students achieve their goals. "This is your education. You can do this," he adds. "We at the DSC are cheering you on!"
For more information about the Disability Services Center visit their website: www.ric.edu/disabilityservices