By Anna Beard
& Jenaye White
Union’s ever-growing campus is home to more than 3,000 students. Most plan out routes for their days based on the fastest way to class from their rooms and then from class to the cafeteria and so forth.
They do not consider such concerns as where accessibility ramps are or how they will find someone they are meeting for lunch that they have never met before.
These thoughts do come up in some students’ plans, however — they arise in the minds of students on campus with disabilities.
The Office for Disability Services helps make transition into Union campus life easier for these students. Disability Services also supports these students throughout their academic careers by offering mentoring and academic assistance.
Jonathan Abernathy has been director of the Office for Disability Services since its creation two years ago.
Disability services used to be handled by Union’s counseling services. However, the number of students with disabilities has grown by 50 percent since the creation of this department.
Abernathy serves 153 students with disabilities. Of that number, 86 have ADHD, 21 have other learning disabilities, 16 have psychological disabilities, 13 have a chronic medical condition, 10 have orthopedic or neurological disorders and seven have sensory disorders.
“I probably meet with about 25 prospective families per year,” Abernathy said. “This office makes the difference between [students with disabilities] coming to Union or not. If you have a child with a disability it makes a big difference that there’s going to be someone on campus to actively advocate for them and support them.”
Unlike other schools, Union’s disabilities services are set up using a self-advocating model. Should the student decide to use the accommodations available to them, it is their responsibility to let their professors know their needs, Abernathy said.
“What that means is when you get here you have to be an adult and you have to own your disability,” Abernathy said. “That helps you kind of develop those skills so that when you get out into the workforce you can do the same thing if your disability impacts the workforce.”
Abernathy said that Union’s retention rate for students with disabilities is 80 percent from freshman to sophomore year, compared to a national average of 50 percent.
He also said that the average GPA is 3.1, which has increased since the creation of his office.
Union’s disabilities services fall under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s website, this section protects disabled students from discrimination based upon their disability, meaning that the needs of students with disabilities must be properly met.
Section 504 states, “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 706(8) of this title, shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…” [29 U.S.C. §794(a), 34 C.F.R. §104.4(a)].
Elizabeth Shaw, senior history major, has Osteogensis Imperfecta, a genetic brittle bone disorder.
Shaw has used a wheelchair since age 5 or 6 because her legs are not strong enough to support her.
“I was born with eight broken bones and have had 60 or more breaks,” Shaw said. “We lost count.”
Shaw said she tries to maintain a positive outlook.
“I have not let my disability stop me,” Shaw said. “It is actually a gift from God, and I am always thrilled to see how I have be an encouragement to others through it.”
Shaw has to give herself plenty of time to accomplish tasks in order to get everything done. For instance, she sometimes leaves 20 minutes early for class so that she does not get in a hurry and hurt herself.
Shaw said certain situations can be hard for her, such as getting food in the cafeteria and maneuvering in bathrooms not equipped with accessible facilities.
“Students are always helping me, and the professors are always understanding,” Shaw said. “I hate to leave because I have loved my experience at Union.”
Rebecca Leon, a sophomore social work major, is another one of these students.
Leon has been legally blind since she was 7 years old. Although she can see people, shapes, and colors, she has trouble with depth perception, night vision and detail.
“Focus was weird and nerve-wracking. Finding classrooms was difficult, and I was afraid of how people would judge me,” Leon remembers.
She says that she used her 4-foot-long walking stick all the time until she became familiar with the layout of campus.
As university classes began, Leon quickly learned her way around campus, embracing her new environment with ease and enthusiasm.
Leon credits many friendly students, helpful professors and a stellar disabilities counselor who helped her quickly adjust to college life.
Now, in her fourth semester at Union, Leon rarely uses her walking stick, joking that people who remember her as “the blind girl” are surprised to see her without it.
“I should really use [a walking stick] more often around Union so I don’t confuse people,” said Leon, laughing. “But sometimes I get tired of using it because some people have trouble seeing past it.”
Although Leon knows how to read, it is much easier for her to listen to audio recordings of all her assignments.
She also has to be proactive in making sure professors email her the assignments, read things aloud in class or notify her about schedule changes.
“There’s also a lot of small things that are that are different for me,” Leon said. “If I’m walking somewhere and need to meet someone, I have to call them beforehand or ask someone where they are. Saying hi to people, placing an order in The Lex — little things like that are different.”
Although she has encountered many helpful people at Union, Leon still has difficulties working with professors and staying on top of her responsibilities.
She still worries about people judging her. Yet she says one of the best ways for her to face the daily challenge of blindness is by keeping it light.
“Understanding the funny side of things – whether that is people’s reactions to my stick or to hearing that I am blind – is key,” Leon said.
Leon also credits her roommates and close friends for always supporting her and her faith in Christ for keeping her grounded.
Leon says her experiences and challenges as a blind person have taught her a new perspective.
“I have an enhanced gratitude and enjoyment of the things I can see and what I can do,” Leon said. “I understand what it means to have a disability and how it affects many parts of your life.”
In order to better serve students such as Leon and Shaw, Abernathy said Union will be launching a campus accessibility committee in fall 2013.
The committee will include a current student and will serve the students with disabilities on campus by determining what can be done to make campus more accessible.
The committee also will be in charge of determining in which order any updates should be made, which will ensure that Union’s campus is updating the most pressing matters in a timely manner.
Abernathy said that in regard to ADA physical accessibility, his office has had an advisory role from the very beginning in the new library planning process.
That planning process demonstrates another way that Union is taking proactive steps to accommodate students with disabilities.
“The biggest thing I would want is that when someone hears ‘the Office for Disability Services’ or if a student says, ‘I’m going to meet with Jon’ – the negative stereotypes about what the disability word means would change, at least on this campus,” Abernathy said. “That it would be something – just like the Hundley Center – just a resource you use to support yourself in your academic endeavors.”