DECATUR — Claire Parker could hardly believe her eyes when she opened the letter informing her she’d been chosen for the Delta Alpha Pi honor society.
Delta Alpha Pi is an American Honor Society founded in 2004 to recognize high-achieving college and university students with disabilities.
Parker, whose interests lie in science but who hasn’t yet decided on a career path, never thought she’d receive such an honor, and credits the support of her family, Richland Community College professors and staff, and her own hard work.
“I had an IEP late junior year of high school,” said Parker, referring to an Individalized Education Plan for students with disabilities. “I didn’t really know at first that Richland had an Academic Success Center, but my mom and I just kind of researched it, and I got connected with the staff here.”
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Students must provide documentation of a disability and have an in-person meeting with Britt Linne Semenow, the accommodations specialist, but once they have done that, and the specific accommodations are determined, those accommodations stay in place throughout their time at Richland unless the student herself requests they be removed.
In the case of Maya Olson, who has Tourette’s Syndrome, one of her accommodations is being able to take tests in a quiet room alone rather than in the classroom with her fellow students. If she has tics, Olson said, the quiet room and extra time for a test allows her to wait for the tics to subside so she can continue with the test, without feeling self-conscious. When she realized one of the accommodations offered to her was unnecessary, she had that one removed.
She is studying to be an X-ray technologist.
“I struggled all throughout junior high and high school,” Olson said. “I had a very hard time in high school, and I didn’t want to get made fun of and have accommodations in high school, but I said college is different and I definitely wanted to have accommodations in college in order to achieve my academic goals.”
She thought people might think she was getting special treatment when the accommodations are meant only to give her an equal opportunity.
Students are their own best advocate, said Leanne Brooks, director of student success. They know what they need and, like Olsen, what they don’t, to have a level playing field with their fellow students who do not have a disability.
“Everyone was really nice and very accommodating,” Parker said. “I had to fill out paperwork. I needed official documents to prove that I legitimately need (accommodations).”
Students are given a form via email which they can email to all their professors, and they keep a copy of it so they can email it to new professors each semester. Semenow remembers when she was in college, she had to physically carry a letter to each professor and walk up to the desk to hand it over, which she found awkward and embarrassing.
“I’d give it to them and run away,” she said with a laugh.
The email option safeguards the students’ privacy and is a much-preferred alternative, she added.
Brooks said some 30 percent of college students have some type of disability and could qualify for accommodations, but some of those students don’t realize it and struggle. The law requires colleges, like K-12 schools, to provide assistance under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the updated version of the Act, which took effect in 2010, includes private institutions as well as public ones.
“The wonderful thing, from my perspective, is that all services (in Academic Success Center) are student support services, and it all works together collaboratively,” Brooks said. “A lot of times, students with accommodations might need extra tutoring, and all the staff is part of the same team, so we can just walk the student over and introduce them to the math center and get them started.”
The testing center is part of the center as well, and many of the accommodations students need are in testing, making it convenient to set up a quiet room such as the kind Olson uses for tests.
Online resources, including 24-hour-a-day academic help, also provide convenience for any student, not just the ones who require accommodations.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Parker said of accommodations for students with disabilities. “It just means you learn differently.”
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Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter