Anyone who has negotiated the Pullman campus in winter will hardly be surprised that students dependent on wheelchairs tend not to select Washington State University. Only about five wheelchair-using students currently brave WSU’s hills. Among them is Svetlana Lockwood, a graduate student in computer science.
Lockwood, who has cerebral palsy, married a Pullman resident and moved here from Latvia. Her description of life in the former Soviet country illuminates a stark contrast.
Teachers there discouraged Lockwood’s parents from bothering to pursue further education for their daughter. She was largely confined to a third-floor apartment with no elevator. Even when she emerged, streets and sidewalks were nearly impassable for a wheelchair.
Anyone in her circumstance was almost completely dependent on family members for help—just as she was dependent on her husband her first semester at WSU. He would deliver her to class and pick her afterward. But one thing he could not do was help her take tests.
Even though her hands are crippled with cerebral palsy, she says she can take notes, if slowly and in a script only she can interpret. But her first time taking an exam in a computer class, she was able to finish only about 80 percent of it. Obviously, such an approach would not work.
After struggling through her first semester, Lockwood learned of the University’s Access Center. Among the many services the Access Center offers, one of the most valuable is working with faculty and instructors to accommodate students who need extra time, arranging schedules and proctors.
Access Center Director Meredyth Goodwin estimates that of 600 students served by the center, 550 need testing accommodations. Many simply need extra time to complete their task, and testing accommodations mitigate the majority of disabling conditions.
Overall, says Goodwin, “We mitigate difficulties. We provide them with an even playing field and hopefully remove barriers as much as we can.”
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, educational institutions receiving federal money are required to provide access to any student who has met admission requirements. Given the wildly varied nature of human needs, such a requirement is neither easy nor predictable. The difference the ADA made, on top of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, is difficult to quantify. But without these pieces of legislation, it is likely that disabled students’ experience would be more like Lockwood’s in Latvia than here.
“Both laws allow people with disabilities the access they need to be able to compete on an equal footing in an academic arena,” says Goodwin.
The disabilities of students served by the center range from being in wheelchairs to psychological and learning disorders.
Most of the students served by the center have “invisible” disabilities, says Goodwin. “They look just like you and me.”
One of the challenges to the center’s workers is they generally do not know the nature of the disabilities until the students arrive.
This year, for the first time in about a decade, four hearing-impaired students arrived on campus, and four signed up for distance learning. The on-campus students required sign language interpreters for lectures, and the online students required transcriptions. All of which is very expensive, particularly for science classes.
“It’s one thing to interpret Psych 101,” says Goodwin. “But when interpreting advanced science curricula at a medical level, it’s very difficult. The joke was that signers working with a vet med student should go ahead and get their degree.”
The largest group the center works with are students with psychological issues like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. The center also works with a small number of low-vision or blind students.
Staff members help the students with time management, as well as academic coaching and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder counseling.
Much of their work is trial and error, says Goodwin, involving a “lot of conversation with faculty.”
Overall, however, says Goodwin, it doesn’t matter what the disability is. “It all impacts their learning.”
Goodwin says the center’s staff of eight are all strong proponents of self-advocacy, which is quite different from high school.
“We will help the student identify what is appropriate,” she says. But then the student has to go and identify himself or herself to their instructors and talk about what they need.
“We can be advocates if things go awry, but we cannot put things in place for the student.”
Neither does the center go out and find students, she says. “They must identify to us. Our role here is access,” she says. “Of all the services provided, in the end it is up to the student.”
Of the students served by the center last year, 55 percent have grade point averages above a 3.0. Goodwin interprets that figure as 55 percent who are not particularly struggling.
But for those who are, and who also work very hard, “I would love to be able to award those students scholarships,” she says wistfully.
In the case of Svetlana Lockwood, add opportunity and accommodation to an intelligence and talent that her earlier teachers did not recognize, and one result is the dissertation on higher dimension computation that she is currently writing.
In 2011, she received a National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship, which provides three years of funding. Last year she was awarded a NSF grant that enabled her to study for seven months in Norway at the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience and Centre for the Biology of Memory, part of a group working to better understand neural networks in the brain.
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