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Students with disabilities find bright future at ASU

Nealie Kaplan
March 05, 2012

The future looks promising for Nealie Kaplan, a vivacious Arizona State University senior who will graduate in May with a degree in recreation management and sociology. She’s come a long way from the shy young girl in special education classes who refused to talk to anyone but her sister.

Nelli Racca, a senior in communication, also is looking forward to a future career, possibly in management at Target, where she has worked for six years. Racca has cerebral palsy, but her determination and positive personality have minimized the obstacles she’s faced along the way.

Both students have used the services at ASU’s Disability Resources Center (DRC) since they were freshmen, helping them overcome barriers that would have made a college degree almost impossible years ago.

About 2,200 ASU students were helped by DRC last year, some on a temporary basis after an injury, others from the first day they set foot on campus.

ASU was named one of America’s “most disability-friendly colleges” in a new book, “College Success for Students With Physical Disabilities.” The book lists 77 colleges that go beyond the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act in providing services to students.

And while the book concentrates on those with physical disabilities, ASU has long been known as having a wide range of accommodations for students with special needs, from those with learning disabilities to students with visual or hearing impairments.

Kaplan was diagnosed in kindergarten with an auditory processing disability, and she received special ed services throughout public school in Massachusetts. Her crippling shyness lifted after she started playing tennis in middle school. By the time she graduated from high school she wanted to spread her wings, so she and her mother researched schools with disability services and selected ASU.

Tutoring has been helpful for Kaplan, in addition to text-to-speech software which reads her textbooks to her as she follows along in the books. She also uses the program in writing her papers, finding it helpful to hear the text read back to her as she writes.

Though she has used testing accommodations at the center, most of her classes are now online and she is able to complete them at her own pace.

“This place (the DRC) has saved me,” she says. “It became my second home, especially after I was put on academic probation after my first semester. Now I try to set an example for other students.”

Kaplan works as a peer mentor for other students at DRC. Having discovered an affinity for helping people, she hopes to work for TRIO, the federal program that provides services to college students with disadvantaged backgrounds.

Note-taking has been the most helpful resource for Racca, who has the use of only one hand. DRC provides independent note-takers in each of her classes, hiring students who are already in the classes and can provide Racca with computer-transcribed or handwritten notes.

She also likes using voice recognition software that types her papers into a computer as she speaks. While it requires some editing and rewriting, it’s better than typing one-handed, she says.

DRC provides many alternative formats for textbooks, including Braille, audio, large-print screen readers and refreshable Braille displays that can make the visual, symbolic materials found in science and math readable.

Students also can request accessible housing, on-campus transportation, quiet rooms for study and testing, and assistive technologies at the DRC Learning Lab. Hearing impaired students have access to sign language interpreters or computer assisted voice-to-text translation.

Today’s population of students with disabilities is much different from those who were on campus 15 years ago, according to Terri Hedgpeth, DRC director. They have grown up with the advantages of technology, in a more accessible society that came about after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. They have higher goals and expectations.

“Now, students come to college with a goal, a degree in mind,” she says. “They are very computer literate, very focused on academics, and they tend to take a full course load and to graduate in four or five years with their peers. Most of them can find jobs when they get out of college, and that’s quite a change from the way it was 15 years ago.”

Two recent graduates who are blind took different paths: one went into the business world and is now managing a large group of staff in a call center, and the other is getting his doctorate at MIT. A deaf graduate teaches kindergarten and also is on the faculty at Gallaudet University.

Hedgpeth says ASU’s increased availability of online courses has been a boon to the students, making it easier for them to graduate on time. But as publishers scramble to produce online content, they don’t always make their materials accessible.

“It’s an extremely complex problem,” she says. “The companies say their materials are accessible, but that’s not always accurate. For example, there are materials in which you have to use a mouse rather than a keyboard, or there are icons on the screen that aren’t labeled, so a screen reader can’t find them. For a vision impaired student, those are obstacles.”

In those cases, the DRC staff members work to come up with adaptations so the students can learn.

Hedgpeth is proud of the fact that students find the center a friendly, helpful place. She says that attitude extends to the broader university, as students move with ease between the ASU campuses using light rail and shuttles.

“Many students with physical disabilities don’t even need classroom assistance, which is a good thing. Our concern is that all students with disabilities should have access to the tools they need to be successful, whatever those might be.”