It is that time of year again when college students are going back to school to begin their classes for the new academic year; everyone has academic needs. However, for students with disabilities, whether they are coming straight from high school or transferring from community college or another four-year university, it can be intimidating to inform their professors and fellow students about their disabilities and to fully integrate themselves into campus life.
Students with additional needs should carefully and properly assert their needs as necessary with others in the university environment. First, students with disabilities must acknowledge and accept themselves for who they are. Then they are challenged to get faculty members and fellow classmates to embrace their disabilities. Some non-disabled students and professors are closed-minded about interacting with or being friendly towards students with disabilities. They exclude people with disabilities because they do not fit the norm. In order to change this, students with disabilities have to be bold and assert themselves. They might be reserved about introducing themselves because of their disabilities and the sense of judgment. Students with disabilities must take charge and own their disabilities by putting themselves forward. They should not let their disabilities overcome them, but instead, they must overcome obstacles to succeed.
I understand how difficult it can be for students with disabilities to integrate into classes and campus life. I am a current student at the University of Maryland (UMD) with a Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NVLD). I am still struggling to fit in on campus and journalism school. Furthermore, I feel I am already an outsider. I am a second semester transfer student. I am not enrolled in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism yet because I am currently taking a prerequisite core course and completing additional requirements to be admitted to the journalism school. Since it is a limited enrollment program, all the students and faculty members know each other. This makes me feel excluded and really out-of-place. These feelings still exist even though I have had an interest in journalism since my early adolescent years and have journalism experience from previous institutions and internships.
Some students and faculty members in the journalism school and on campus are really unaware of what it is truly like to live with NVLD and to have a learning disability. I feel that some students and faculty members in the journalism school at UMD will assume I am not here for journalism. They might also presume that I cannot do journalism or be a part of the UMD community because I am not normal, like them. Also, I fear they could ridicule, judge and discriminate against me because of my learning disability. This could prevent me from partaking in extracurricular activities, pursuing career opportunities or taking any journalism courses. However, in an attempt to overcome these feelings, I go by the 40 percent rule. 40 percent of people will like you, 40 percent of people will not like you and 20 percent of people will not even care. Even considering the 40 percent of people who will like you, it takes time to be acquainted with faculty members and other students.
Students with disabilities must integrate themselves by sharing and discussing common interests. For example, I had joined several organizations and other extracurricular educational programs during my first year on the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) campus. During my time at UMBC, I joined the campus newspaper, the fencing club and the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Camp Shakespeare education program. These organizations and programs enabled me to interact with people. Pretty soon my disability did not matter because people began accepting and acknowledging me for who I am. They interacted with me on the level of common interest as opposed to treating me differently because of my learning disability. In the Camp Shakespeare's educational program, I had to read and perform my lines to other people and they did the same. In fencing, I had to pair up with a partner and learn the moves of sword-fighting. In the campus newspaper, I had to interact with the editor when writing a story or covering an event. The students accepted me without judgment or ridicule; I did not feel I had to hide myself in embarrassment from anyone. So these interactions allowed me to reach out to others in the hope of gaining real acceptance.
On the other hand, students with disabilities may experience more difficulty with faculty members. Often faculty members will not give students with disabilities services, support or accommodations guaranteed to them. For instance, I attended another academic institution where professors refused to grant me accommodations for my disability for no reason, although the accommodations were reasonable. This situation illustrates that they may not care about students with disabilities or have much experience working with them. I also had several professors at UMBC who refused to announce note-taking requests in the classroom. They believed it was the disability office's responsibility to provide note-takers, when it was actually their responsibility. I had other professors who simply did not want to do anything and did not want to help me. Most of these professors do not have any respect for students with disabilities. These types of incidents change the classroom dynamic for the students with disabilities. Faculty members should understand with whom they are dealing. Most of them whisk by with a, "Hi. Bye. Hope you do not die," attitude.
The disability offices on all college campuses should offer a toolbox for each faculty member. First, they should educate each faculty member about all the different types of disabilities so that no discrimination and wrong judgment will arise. Second, the faculty members should know the different types of services that are offered for students with disabilities. Third, the disability offices should tell all faculty members to respect all students with disabilities. When a student with a disability comes in during the professor's office hours, it is important that the professor not whisk by and pretend that the student is invisible. Also, a professor should ask the student what his or her disability is and inquire about the challenges they face. Students with disabilities should register for accommodations at their college's disability office. They will be given accommodations such as extended time, note-taking, use of a tape recorder for class lectures and other services in place at the beginning of the semester. It is not helpful to students with disabilities to have to constantly wait for these accommodations. In fact, it frustrates them to spend three-fourths of their college semester repeatedly calling the office trying to get accommodations that they should rightfully have. Students with disabilities, as they register for various classes, should have their required accommodations communicated to the professors of those classes and any needed support service departments. It makes sense to have the services ready at the beginning of the semester and even before the semester begins so that they are established in order for the student to feel comfortable in a classroom setting.
College students may have disabilities despite their youth, just like people from any other segment of society. They have different ages and backgrounds. They come as neighbors, family members, coworkers and friends. Their beliefs and actions can break the ice of false pretenses, snobbery or prudishness. They are commonsense people, also, true and real. College administrators and officials, staff members, professors and non-disabled students should get real and accommodate students with disabilities with eagerness and empathy.