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GW Helps Students With Disabilities Excel Academically
April 30, 2012
Disability Support Services provides an array of services to assist students both inside and outside the classroom.
By Ari Massefski, Class of 2015
Alexa Dectis has spinal muscular atrophy – a disease that means her body cannot regrow stem cells after they die, causing her to progressively weaken. When she was younger, she could walk; today, she uses an electric wheelchair and has limited movement in her arms.
Last semester, Ms. Dectis, a freshman in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, took a class where all the exams required written essays. With the help of the George Washington University Disability Support Services, she was able to overcome the writing barrier and still take the exams.
“I was able to type my test responses on a DSS-provided laptop,” said Ms. Dectis. “I did very well in a class in which I would have otherwise been unable to succeed because writing by hand is too physically strenuous. DSS has been absolutely wonderful.”
DSS was established in 1978 to provide effective access for all qualified students. Support is available to address the educational impact of a student’s specific disability. In addition to customary accommodations such as extended time on exams, note-taking support, reading services, and housing accommodations, students are encouraged to develop an individual working relationship with staff to address learning and disability management issues. Christy Willis, DSS director, said that above all, DSS helps to encourage a diverse GW community.
“DSS encourages all members of the GW community to actively participate in making our campus culture one that is inclusive,” said Ms. Willis. “It should be a community that recognizes disability in the context of diversity, challenges ideas of normality and disability, promotes disability-culture building, influences scholarship across disciplines and creates opportunities for collaboration.”
GW professors are generally more than willing to accommodate students who have disabilities, said Ms. Willis. With the assistance of DSS, they are able to create an environment suitable for both the class and the student.
“On the whole, professors graciously and generously accommodate DSS students,” she said. “Many of those professors have, over time, established strong working relationships with the DSS staff, and we are grateful to have those relationships.”
One such professor is Derek Malone-France, executive director of the University Writing Program and associate professor of writing and of religion. Dr. Malone-France worked with Ms. Willis and the Office of the Dean of Columbian College at the beginning of this academic year to hire Wade Fletcher, a faculty member in the UW program who, along with his teaching obligations, spends 20 hours per week working in DSS. His main focus is on helping disabled students with writing-related issues and developing initiatives that link the UW program and DSS to better support students. In addition, earlier this year the UW program and DSS co-sponsored a national conference on writing and disabilities at GW, and they have partnered to help disabled student veterans return to the academic world.
“In my view, universities have an absolute moral responsibility to provide this sort of robust support for students with disabilities,” said Dr. Malone-France. “DSS works to help professors and the GW system as a whole to make the necessary adjustments to provide a student with disabilities with the maximal opportunity to learn and succeed, which is precisely what we owe to every student.”
Dennis Schell, assistant professor of psychology, said DSS helps to pave the way for a working relationship between the student and the professor.
“It’s important for a student with a disability to feel comfortable discussing the type of accommodations needed and make adjustments as the semester progresses,” said Dr. Schell. “The research in education is clear that teaching methods, within reason, should match the students. Faculty cannot be expected to accommodate all students, but they can work cooperatively with DSS in providing the best quality learning environment possible for all students.”
Ms. Willis said that this determination — whether a reasonable accommodation that will allow the student to meet their academic requirements exists — is made carefully and deliberately.
“DSS strives to make it clear that we are here to support both students and faculty when it comes to managing extended time requests, requests for in-class technological support, interpreter arrangements or other accommodations,” she said. “The success of the accommodation process depends on effective communication and the recognition that students with disabilities are students first.”
Chelsea Swift, a junior in Columbian College, has lupus cerebritis, a debilitating illness that drains her of energy and causes severe daily pain and mental restrictions, such as loss of memory or the ability to think or speak. She said that DSS was able to help her work with the Office of Financial Aid to prorate her financial aid in the event that she was unable to maintain her full-time status.
“I think that students’ needs could get lost in a large university, but DSS gives us a voice,” said Ms. Swift. “Christy listened to my concerns and provided me with emotional support, as well as the names of people in financial aid who could help. Even that little bit of help, a listening ear, is enough of a reason to have a division of Disability Support Services.”