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Vision in Action

New disability standards raise bar for state institutions

OHIO council works to achieve compliance, inclusivity

This special Compass series features the programs and initiatives through which Ohio University students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends put the OHIO vision into practice every day.

2010 was a banner year for the American Disabilities Act (ADA). In addition to celebrating its 20th birthday, the ADA rolled out new design standards, expanding the definition of equal access and raising the bar for disability services at all state institutions.

At Ohio University, work has begun to achieve compliance with the regulations through a newly formed Presidential Advisory Council on Disability and Accessibility Planning. Commissioned by Ohio University President Roderick J. McDavis, the council is working to promote increased inclusivity for OHIO's disabled population through the development of a Comprehensive Continuous Improvement Plan.

On Friday, McDavis will meet with the council members to communicate the importance of their charge. The meeting marks the second time the council has assembled since its initial planning meeting on March 14.

At the start of spring quarter, 1,112 Ohio University students had registered disabilities through the Office of Disability Services (ODS). According to Laura Myers, executive director of the Office for Institutional Equity, these individual cases will inform the University's long-term strategies in the area of disability services.

"We want to take the case-by-case anecdotal information and funnel it into comprehensive planning," said Myers, who co-chairs the council along with Associate Vice President for Facilities Harry Wyatt.

Changing times

Compliance with the ADA's 2010 Standards will be required for all new construction and alterations, beginning March 15, 2012. Myers said a focus at Ohio University will be planning for accessibility in renovation projects, such as classroom buildings and residence halls. Another area of focus will be web access and accessibility of online education.

Despite the increasingly strained financial environment, there is no better time for comprehensive planning, added Myers.
"The time is really right. At the federal level there is a lot of interest from the Obama administration in improving access to education…. (We're hearing) that there is a lot of interest in equal opportunity in employment for persons with disabilities and veterans. And that translates into enforcement by agencies such as the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Labor. We must ensure that individuals with disabilities are provided equal access to our educational programs and to jobs on our campuses," she said.

At the same time, universities are witnessing a paradigm shift in their undergraduate populations, necessitating the need for improved disability services.

"The traditional 18-year old undergraduate is a shrinking population," Myers said. "We have a lot of people returning to school from the workforce. We have returning veterans. We have people retraining into new professions. And a significant percentage of them –greater probably than ever before history – brings some issue with them, some medical condition that may functionally impair their ability to do their job or get their education. And the law tells us that we're responsible for doing what we need to do to provide access."

Rising numbers, rising needs

Currently, there are two disability service people on Ohio University's Athens campus, who work directly with approximately 850 students with registered disabilities.
Despite the current hiring freeze, Myers said that funding additional staff is her office's highest priority, as numbers of students with disabilities steadily climbs.

In each of the last three years, the total number of OHIO students registered with disabilities increased by about 100 students, according to Carey L. Busch, assistant director of ODS. The number of students registered with disabilities is 2.6 times higher than it was a decade ago.

According to Myers, numbers of reported disabilities on college campuses are climbing everywhere as institutions become more sophisticated in identifying and documenting learning disabilities.

Many students with registered disabilities now enter the University with transition plans, provided by high schools to ensure continuity in educational opportunity. And more students with more complex medical conditions are now enrolling in post-secondary educational programs. 

"Students who would not have been able to transition into college before the passage of the ADA are now able to do so," said Myers. "This is exciting for families who know that their children can and will achieve a college education with the proper support from Ohio University."

In addition to accommodating students, ODS is also working with University Human Resources to review the hiring processes, recruitment and retention of individuals with disabilities.

Currently, there are more than 100 faculty and staff at Ohio University who have registered disabilities with the ODS, according to Busch.

"When people think of (ODS), people think of students. But there may be faculty out there suffering in silence. Staff people as well. We need to give them an avenue to express accommodations for them," said Associate Professor of Journalism J.W. Smith, who serves on the council.

Defining disabilities

Smith speaks from experience. Having been blind from birth, he has a vested interest in disability issues and has participated in past advisory councils for disability compliance at Ohio University.

"Some of the past groups have gotten so heavy in terms of architectural things," said Smith. "I don't want the group just to become a mobility wheelchair group. (People) tend to think of mobility issues and we definitely have to broaden that."

In fact, mobility impairments and chronic medical conditions only comprise about 10 percent of the disabilities reported at Ohio University.

The most common disabilities registered with ODS are Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and specific learning disabilities. Each category currently comprises about 30 percent of the University's total registered disabilities.

According to Busch, these percentages are fairly similar to most other schools in the University System of Ohio (USO), based on a survey conducted by the USO disability services liaison.

Smith's aim of expanding the disability definition is well supported by the new ADA standards, which contemplate subtleties and differences between disabilities.

As an example, Myers points to the new thinking on disability ramps, which were once assumed to provide superior accessibility over steps. Under the new standards, both are suggested, providing ramp accessibility for people in wheelchairs and steps for those with endurance issues.

"I thought it was actually a nice evolution in how we think beyond just one-size-fits-all solutions," Myers said of the new legislation.

Advocating for access

The standards also find favor with students who possess less common disabilities, such as Leisha Lininger, a first-year journalism major in the Honor's Tutorial College who lives with severe to profound bilateral hearing loss.

"Not many students who are deaf or hard of hearing attend Ohio University, so the services provided are limited, simply because the University has not had a huge demand," said Lininger, a council member and Students with Disabilities Delegate for Student Senate.

Lininger uses spoken language to communicate, rather than sign language. But accommodations are still needed in order to have equal access to the materials – something that many professors do not initially realize, Lininger said.

"I have to explain that to my professors and advocate daily, reminding them on how to use the equipment properly and clarifying what I need in order to be able to do as well as any other student," she said.

Though Lininger said her professors to date have been very helpful, the provided technologies are inadequate.

"The largest barriers to accessibility for me were often due to technical breakdowns. For example, the captioning decoder on the media players for tapes has malfunctioned in the last two classes I have had that used that equipment, even after visits from the technical support staff," said Lininger.

The ADA's 2010 Standards address the need for improved technology and communication for the deaf community through video remote interpreting (VRI) services, an interpreting service that utilizes cutting edge video conference technology.
According to the ADA website, the department has established performance standards for VRI and requires training for users of the technology so that they may quickly and efficiently set up and operate the VRI system.

Momentous moves

Meeting the new criteria will require collaboration from many University entities – namely Facilities in concert with Institutional Equity, Disability Services and Human Resources. All of these bodies are represented on the council, which comprises students, faculty and staff from eight colleges and departments across campus.

And according to Myers, action is in the air.

"There's been a shift in University leadership saying we want to not only be compliant, but we want to make this a campus that is welcoming and inclusive and open," she said. "I feel like we have some momentum going… All the voices are saying the same thing, and to me, that gives us some opportunity to actually make some change." 

Disabled students by campus*

Athens – 850

Chillicothe – 69

Eastern – 40

Lancaster – 50

Southern – 48

Zanesville – 55

*Estimates provided by the Office of Disability Services

Student disabilities by type*                

Mobility impairments or chronic medical conditions – 10 percent

Visual/Hearing impairments – 5 percent

Psychological conditions – 15 percent

Specific learning disabilities – 30 percent

ADD/ADHD – 30 percent

Multiple disabilities – 10 percent

*Estimates provided by the Office of Disability Services

Related Links

Office of Disability Services Diversity, Access & Equity American Disability Act*

Additional Info

*Following this link takes you outside of Ohio University's website.