Jan. 4, 2006
By Anita Martin
The 1804 Lounge of Baker Center filled to capacity for the public panel entitled "Affirming Diversity." At first - and even second - glance, it was difficult to tell what connected the panelists. The five faculty and staff members waited while a sign-language interpreter translated the opening remarks.
"Disability is the only equal opportunity underrepresented group," said Katherine Fahey, director of Disability Services. "Anyone in this room could develop a disability."
According to Provost Kathy Krendl, there are 600 students enrolled Ohio University with disabilities. "We try to define disability very broadly," Krendl said, "and we try to define diversity very broadly." That definition includes psychological and chronic illnesses, learning and mobility disabilities, and hearing and visual impairments, to name a few.
The disability panel, held last November before a standing-room-only crowd, was the fourth in a series of public conversations about "the future of diversity at Ohio University." The panelists discussed their disabilities - ranging from reading disorder to schizophrenia to paralysis - and conditions at Ohio University.
"When I was looking at graduate programs," said Margaret Quinlan, panelist and doctoral student in communication studies, "I judged by how they responded to my area of interest: individuals with learning disabilities. Ohio University was the most responsive, so I knew it would be a good place for me." Quinlan has a learning disability that impairs reading and writing.
Ohio University's accessibility has improved, according to panelist J.W. Smith, associate professor of communication studies. "In the past, if you had a disability, you didn't come to Athens," Smith said. Smith, who was born blind in one eye due to glaucoma, moved to Athens because the people in his department "seemed like really genuine people. They showed they really wanted me, they asked the right questions and they weren't afraid to use the word blind."
Campus conditions were not always ideal for panelist Carolyn Lewis, director of the WOUB Center for Public Media. Lewis was paralyzed after undergoing surgery to remove a tumor on her spinal cord. Through therapy, she regained use of her limbs and even began walking without aids. When, a year later, Lewis fell on her back in the rain, she could feel herself slowing down again.
Last year, after her husband passed away and she required campus transportation, Lewis was surprised to note that the university had no wheelchair-accessible vans.
"I talked with Institutional Equity as well as OU Transportation," Lewis said. "I e-mailed the university administration. Within several months, the wheelchair-accessible van arrived on campus." Lewis uses the van, called CATCAB, four to five times a week.
To better address such issues, President McDavis appointed an advisory committee on disabilities in late July 2005. The committee is co-chaired by Bill Smith, assistant to the president for Institutional Equity, and Larry Corrigan, interim vice president for finance and administration. The 14-member group will "ensure that the university develops and carries out all policies of program accessibility as well as vigorously pursuing the elimination of architectural and attitudinal barriers."
Their initial meeting took place on Oct. 19, during which they broke into four subgroups, each charged with one of four priority subjects: academic issues, programmatic issues, architectural access and campus climate. Additional meetings will be scheduled as needed.
"The work of creating a campus with equal access doesn't just happen and you're done; it's constantly being done by everyone at the university," says Fahey, who is also a member of the committee. "With each new program or technology, we must keep in mind how persons with disabilities can have equal access. This needs to become a part of our daily consideration."
According to Smith, the university is doing a "great job. We just need to press the accelerator and get schools, departments and offices to utilize the Office of Institutional Equity. I think it's an untapped resource."
The Office of Institutional Equity houses Disability Services, which works to "ensure equal access and full participation in programs and services for all members of the university community." The office provides information, referral and liaison with university departments and campus administrators in coordinating services and facilitating discussions.
Disability Services arranges priority registration and academic advising for disabled students, CATCAB and parking accommodations, academic support, counseling and auxiliary aids such as interpreting and Braille services. Each of the five regional campuses of Ohio University employs a disability student services coordinator.
Students wishing to register for disability services must submit disability documentation. Guidelines are available on the Disability Services Web site and in their office. Students then meet with office representatives to discuss particular needs and requirements and outline an accommodation plan. Requests may range from housing to extra time for test-taking and are determined on an individual basis.
"I find that students often use our services as a last resort, once difficulties begin or grades start dropping," Yegan said. "We are here to serve the university community. The important thing is just to ask. Our services are confidential."
As November's panel came to a close, the conversation turned to advocacy and activism.
"Ohio is one of the better states, in terms of responsiveness," J.W. Smith says. "But a lot of times, I get back the response that 'we don't get enough requests.' If TABs, as I call the typical able-bodied, would ask for these things more often, it would help."
Lewis agreed, stating that anyone can be an advocate. "Talk to managers if accessibility is not up to par," she said. "Sensitize others around campus. When I see that something's not right, write, I call, I email. You just have to keep at it and not give up until changes are made."
Anita Martin is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.