Accessibility Services lacking, students say

by Erin Jaeger | 6/1/09 10:00pm

In an effort to address concerns raised by multiple students that the College's Student Accessibility Services fails to provide students with disabilities the accommodations they need, a group of Dartmouth students presented a report to the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity last Wednesday asking administrators to revise College accessibility policies.

In the report, the students requested that the College develop guidelines for professors to grant students disability-related accommodations, increase funding to Student Accessibility Services and improve communication across administrative departments to ensure that students with disabilities receive equal access to all aspects of the Dartmouth experience.

Multiple students said in interviews with The Dartmouth that they were frustrated with Accessibility Services' current practices, including the amount of time it takes to receive classroom accommodations. Several of the students were also highly critical of Accessibility Services director Ward Newmeyer.

"In our first meeting, [Newmeyer's] words to me were, I have no idea what I'm doing,'" Alessandra Necamp '09, who has partial hearing loss, said.

Students also expressed concern that Newmeyer takes too long to provide them with accommodations and fails to advocate for students when professors refuse to grant these accommodations.

"When a professor doesn't want to do something, we feel like we have no options," Necamp said. "Personally, at this point, I feel like my only option is to sue the school."

If professors fail to provide students with the accommodations they request, Newmeyer said he is not authorized to require them to do so.

"My enforcement authority is limited," he said. "I can't tell a professor that they have to do something beyond what I've already done."

Necamp is one of several students with disabilities who meets regularly to discuss their experiences at the College. She said Accessibility Services was not involved in the formation of this group.

"We felt that, on some level, there's no support for us in terms of advising or counseling," she said.

Accessibility Services currently does not reach out to students on campus who have disabilities, but instead allows these students to request accommodations only if they want them, according to Newmeyer.

"I don't actively try to get students to come to me," Newmeyer said. "It's not like I'm trying to get students to come to my door."

The office serves students with various needs, including physical, mental and learning disabilities, Newmeyer said. The office often receives requests for note-takers and extended time to take exams, he said.

Newmeyer said he would like to provide more services for Dartmouth students with disabilities, including support groups, but that his office's current budget cannot fund such endeavors.

"In terms of us organizing support groups, we are so under-resourced that I'd love to do that, but I just don't feel that we can," Newmeyer said.

The students interviewed by The Dartmouth also expressed frustration with a stigma that they believe the Dartmouth community places on students with disabilities.

"I think it's hard for people to understand, because in order to have gotten to Dartmouth, you have to be able to compensate really well," Melissa '12, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter, said.

Brendan Hart '10, a transfer student from the University of Maryland, said that his experiences at the College prevent him from encouraging other students with disabilities to attend Dartmouth.

"At this point, if a student with a disability came to me and asked if Dartmouth was the best place for them, I'd have a hard time telling them yes," he said.

A female member of the Class of 2011, who wished to remain anonymous due to the nature of her disability, said it is overly difficult for students to request the accommodations they need.

"The fact that you have to jump through so many hoops to legitimize your condition is extraordinary," she said. "I think that not only makes it hard on those students, but it also discourages others from registering with Accessibility Services or speaking up if they're encountering some problems."

Because so much responsibility is placed on students, she said it sometimes feels as if professors are skeptical or annoyed when students request accommodations.

"I always wonder if professors think that the accommodations I need are an unfair advantage," the student said. "It's always in the back of my mind."

Although Necamp said the various administrators she has contacted have expressed support for her and for her situation, she said they have done little to actually address her concerns.

"They're all very helpful, because they'll listen, but I haven't seen anything change," she said.

The student group is also organizing a workshop for faculty and administrators on June 4 to better educate professors on how to accommodate students with disabilities, Necamp said. The workshop will include a panel of students with disabilities and information to help professors make their classrooms more accessible, she said.

Associate Dean of the College Mary Liscinsky, who works closely with Student Accessibility Services, said she had not heard of these criticisms and declined to comment on Newmeyer's practices.

"I think you could pick any administrator on campus and hear a wide range of opinions," she said.

While federal law mandates that institutions of higher education provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities, Newmeyer said Accessibility Services has tried to provide services beyond those legally required.

"Our goal, and our job, is to ensure equal access as much as possible in an integrated and inclusive manner," he said. "At this point, we are meeting the legally required access needs of students at Dartmouth."