For some Dartmouth students, attending class is not as simple as just showing up, taking notes and participating in discussion. Looking around the room, you may not notice that the student next to you isn't taking notes because he is physically incapable, or that he needed a few extra hours on last week's midterm because of a learning disability. Or maybe you do notice because there is an aide in the front of the class translating into American Sign Language.
Learning with a disability at Dartmouth can be a struggle that often goes unnoticed. In order to combat the difficulty disabled students face in the classroom, the College offers support through Student Disabilities Services.
An extension of the Academic Skills Center, SDS has been operating since 1987. Cathy Trueba, who previously worked as disabilities resource coordinator at the University of Wisconsin, became director of SDS this summer after long-time director Nancy Pompian retired. Her job is to facilitate accommodations for all disabled students, acting as a liaison between them and the College's faculty.
Kristen Wong '06, a religion major, has sought support through SDS because she is hearing impaired.
"Being hearing impaired is like a hidden disability sometimes," she said. "Few people tend to notice right away so their behavior isn't adjusted for it. I function extremely well regardless, but I'm not ashamed to use the aids that are available for me."
Wong is one of almost 300 Dartmouth students who receive daily academic and co-curricular support from SDS.
Trueba's role as director of SDS has a defined process. She must first determine if a student has a disability and is eligible for assistance. If a student is eligible, she helps provide the necessary accommodations for both curricular and co-curricular activities. Trueba pointed out that her job does not entail individual outreach, as a student must come to her with concerns about a disability before she can initiate the accommodation process.
In order to be eligible for assistance after approaching SDS, a student must prove that he or she has a documented disability. Trueba defined the standard as "anything that affects the learning process." She placed the disabilities she deals with into three categories: learning disabilities, health- and psychological-related disabilities, and mobility and sensory disabilities.
Trueba highlighted one shared characteristic in most of the cases she sees.
"The thing most disabilities share in common is time. As in more time to read, more time to write," she said. "It's a thread of continuity through a lot of the accommodations we provide."
For Wong, time can be the most demanding aspect of the learning process, especially when class discussion becomes intense.
"It's hard to tell people to only talk one at a time when everyone's in a heated debate," she said. "I hate having to change people's behaviors and so most of the time I just try the best I can. Sometimes I can feel very isolated from the group because I'm always a step behind."
Instead of utilizing an interpreter to translate lectures into American Sign Language, Wong uses a technology called CART to transcribe lectures and discussion in her classes. At the beginning of a lecture, she opens up a telephone conversation on her computer using the program Skype. An employee on the other end of the phone line, who may be in Nevada or Oregon, transcribes the lecture into note form with almost no delay.
The program Wong uses is one of a host of new technologies available to students with disabilities and falls into the category of adaptive technology.
Trueba listed voice-recognition software and audio texts as other examples of adaptive tech developments. She sees this type of technology as a rapidly developing area in disabilities services, and something she hopes utilize more in the future.
As for faculty response to student disabilities, Wong said some professors are better than others.
"Dartmouth went above and beyond what I expected," she said. "However, I will say that I have had some truly atrocious professors who can be completely insensitive to my needs."
Trueba took a more positive stance on faculty cooperation, citing that in her first term here she has not encountered any problems.
"The most common question I get is 'What can I do to help the student?'" she said. "I would expect the faculty are more interested in how to do it than why to do it."