OSWD: Increasing Access for More Students

Forty years ago, the US Congress passed The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and these words, from "Section 504", became federal law:

No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States ... shall, solely by reason of ... disability, be denied the benefits of, be excluded from participation in, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

The words are simple but the implications have been profound. Although the process has been slow, colleges and universities across the country have been making their courses, their programs, and their campuses more accessible to more students with more disabilities. Gallaudet University, through its commitment to being "a bilingual, diverse, multicultural institution of higher education", has been a leader in improving accessibility for students with disabilities, and the Gallaudet Office for Students with Disabilities (OSWD) has been at the center of that activity for 40 years. OSWD has changed a great deal in those 40 years, just as Gallaudet University and federal law itself has changed.

Providing support services specifically geared toward students with disabilities got its start in 1974 as a unit of the Counseling Center, under the leadership of Mary Ann Royster. That program, funded by a Student Support Services grant from TRIO, a Federal grant program designed to provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. The program took its name from the grant: "Student Support Services" (SSS). The first director of SSS as a stand-alone office was Judith Duff who served in that capacity until 1978, when Jo Anne Simon became the director.

In 1988, the office changed its name to the "Office for Students with Disabilities" (OSWD), which name it used until 1994 when it was briefly called "Disabled Programs and Services" DPS). In 1995 the name returned to "Office for Students with Disabilities", as it continues to be known today.

Before the Rehabilitation Act and the founding of SSS, Gallaudet was a markedly different environment for students with disabilities: there were no interpreters, no thought of access, no accommodations. After the Rehabilitation Act, accommodations provided by SSS assured equal access for qualified deaf-blind students.

When SSS first began to offer services, the number of students with disabilities that it assisted was small: only about 75, of whom only one was deaf-blind. In the earliest days the majority of SSS students were mobility impaired and used wheelchairs. Not surprisingly, increasing accessibility around campus was a new idea; problems and solutions were enthusiastically discussed by SSS students. From the "SSS Newsletter", April, 1978:

April 7 & 8 were important days at Gallaudet for everyone concerned with creating a barrier-free environment. Many students, faculty and other interested people participated in AWARENESS DAY and the 504 WORKSHOP. AWARENESS DAY was held to try and sensitize the Gallaudet community to the obstacles faced by persons with hearing losses, visual impairments and orthopedic disabilities. With the aid of a fleet of wheelchairs, some canes, blindfolds, earmuffs, and taped-up glasses, both the brave and the timid tried to "see what it's like" to have one of these disabilities.

A student at the time remembers how inaccessible many parts of campus were:

Only HMB and Peet Hall had elevators besides the library. College Hall, Fowler Hall, SUB, Ely-none of those buildings had elevators. And the library itself could not be accessed directly with a wheelchair. There were no ramps on campus. Instead of the sloping sidewalks you see leading to the library today, you saw steps.

As OSWD still does today, SSS provided interpreting, note taking, Braille, closed-captioned televisions, and orientation and mobility training; however, the focus then was on making the campus more accessible to individuals in wheelchairs. SSS worked closely with the Physical Plant Department to get ramps, elevators, and curb cuts installed so that the facilities were more accessible to those in wheelchairs. Removing barriers is an ongoing process of recognition, assessment, and implementation that continues today.

The process of making the University's programs and campus more accessible to students with disabilities increased its pace in 1990 when Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA as amended is the civil rights guarantee for persons with disabilities in the United States. It provides protection from discrimination for individuals on the basis of disability. The Act also made more precise the definition of "disability", and increased its scope. As a result new disability groups not previously recognized emerged.

In particular, larger numbers of students with learning disabilities and psychological disabilities appeared on campus and were served by OSWD. For instance, in 1989 OSWD served only 4 students with learning disabilities; after ADA, the numbers quickly increased: 17 students were served in 1990, 44 in 1991, and 32 in 1992.

The trend in legislation and OSWD programs has been toward greater inclusiveness. After the ADA Amendments of 2008, OSWD began serving students with ADHD, chronic disabilities, migraines, episodic and temporary disabilities-conditions not previously recognized as "disabilities". OSWD continues to provide services for its traditional constituencies, but has expanded its repertoire to help accommodate students with different learning challenges.

Recognizing and understanding how to accommodate a broad spectrum of disabilities has meant that more and more students have been able to participate in a university education. OSWD serves primarily deaf students with disabilities. Disability groups most frequently served by OSWD include students with learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, deaf-blind or low vision, psychological disabilities, neuro-muscular disorders, and chronic disabilities.

OSWD mission is to provide individually tailored, comprehensive support services and programs for students with disabilities. OSWD empowers eligible students to succeed in their pursuit of higher education by striving to assure equal access and opportunity to curricular and extra-curricular activities. Supporting the ideal of life-long learning, OSWD encourages and provides experiences and opportunities to build confidence beyond the classroom.

Understanding disabilities and accommodating students with disabilities was just as new for faculty and staff in 1974 as it was for students. Again, our student from the time recalls:

Teacher's attitudes were very important. In the 1970s and 1980s, some teachers didn't know how to accommodate students. They came and complained: "Why must I do this? Why?" They were told that the law says they must meet students' needs first. Some disagreed and refused. Some SSS/OSWD students were kicked out of school. SSS/OSWD set up an advisory committee and held workshops and provided training. Bit by bit, attitudes started to change through training. It is very important.

OSWD serves several roles for Gallaudet University. Through collaborative efforts with other departments and units, OSWD arranges accommodations and special services for students with disabilities.

In addition, OSWD serves as a source of information regarding legal issues pertaining to disabilities and accommodations. OSWD also plans workshop trainings for students and faculty alike. OSWD collaborates with the Office of Academic Quality in providing faculty development opportunities that include providing strategies for teaching and accommodating students with disabilities in the classroom. "On-campus professionals consistently attend OSWD's disability support service programs," says Dr. Patricia Tesar, the current OSWD director.

OSWD was honored by the White House with an invitation to give a presentation in the President's Briefing Room in the West Wing of the Old Executive Office Building in recognition of October as National Disability Awareness Month in 2003. The October 27 presentation, entitled "Making the Vision a Reality: Promoting Successful Employment Outcomes for Adults with Disabilities", was given to staff in the Office of Management and Budget by Dr. Patricia Tesar, director of OSWD, Daniel Timien, interim director of the Gallaudet Career Center, and Arthur Roehrig, academic support services counselor for OSWD and vice-president for the American Association for the Deaf-Blind.

Services provided by OSWD fall into two general categories: direct services provided by OSWD itself, and indirect services provided in collaboration with and through other units, departments, and agencies on and off campus. Direct services include producing materials in alternate formats (Braille, large-print, raised-line drawings, and eBooks) for students, providing adaptive technology, and arranging testing accommodations.

Services such as interpreting services, priority registration, audio-logical testing, and psychological and psycho-educational evaluations are classified as indirect services, since they are provided by other units and departments. Indirect services may also include referrals to service agencies that provide wheelchair repair or rentals. personal attendant care, orientation and mobility assessment and training, specialized transportation, or tutorial services.

Today's OSWD is a busy place. In recent years nearly 300 students have been served annually by OSWD, a number that has nearly doubled since the early 2000s. In the 2010-2011 academic year, over 14,000 pages of Braille text and nearly 26,000 pages of large-print text were produced for students. 69 note-takers were hired to serve 36 OSWD students in 140 classes. Requests for note-taking has been increasing rapidly; note taking is the most commonly offered reasonable accommodation for students with disabilities regardless of their disability.

Not only has OSWD helped students with disabilities understand and obtain accommodation during their student career at Gallaudet, but it also helps students understand reasonable accommodations that they may expect under Federal law in their working career. Gallaudet University believes that education is a dominant influence on our lives and recognize that learning is a lifelong quest. OSWD acts on that belief by helping students with disabilities participate as fully as they can in the Gallaudet experience, preparing students to be informed, literate, productive, and responsible citizens, and helping them find the path to becoming a lifelong learner.

Former Gallaudet student and OSWD staff member Art Roehrig expresses a shared sentiment: "Many OSWD students have gone on to secure good jobs in government. They know how to apply for and get accommodations, like interpreters, get Braille, obtain a closed-captioned television, etc. Some deaf-blind clients have gone on to become teachers and succeed with the assistance of a teacher's aide. Some have gone on to become social workers. Having worked for OSWD and having a hand in their success, it makes me proud-very proud."