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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Annual symposium discusses accomodating disabilities in education

Published: March 12, 2010
Section: News

Academic experts Manju Banerjee and Loring Brinckerhoff discussed the advances the disabled have made in the world of academia at the annual Disability Symposium Wednesday in Rappaporte Treasure Hall.

Banerjee, the associate director for the Center for Students with Disabilities at the University of Connecticut, began the symposium by outlining the history of the movement to accept people with disabilities in society, specifically in America.

She explained that disabilities’ “origins were shrouded in mystery, superstition and misunderstanding.”

“A lot of civil rights and institutional shaking up, if you will, [was] happening in the 1960s and 70s,” she said. “And the 1990’s saw great achievements for equal rights for disabled persons, especially in the field of education.”

“We at the University of Connecticut talk about students with disabilities as the most quickly growing minority on campus,” Banjeree said.

In fact, she explained, this is a nationwide trend. In 2000, 9 percent of college students had disabilities; this rose to 11 percent by 2008. Furthermore, the number of disabled students who attend four-year colleges is predicted to rise in the next few years as well.

In addition to these statistical improvements, disability advocates have also achieved legislative advances. In the 1990s, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) declared disabled and non-disabled persons equal under federal law. The ADA’s even more progressive amendments include people with various types of impairments, concentration disorders, reading disabilities and chronic health issues as legally disabled.

“A lot of the disabilities cycle in and they cycle out, and these are now protected,” said Loring Brinckerhoff, the director of the Office of Disability Policy at Educational Testing Service. “If someone has a clear history of migraines, then we have to be proactive and accommodate that,” he added.

The speakers also discussed methods of making the learning environment more accessible to the disabled. It is important to offer students an array of methods, not only including lectures but group work, handouts, usage of the Internet and simulations to demonstrate what they’ve learned in classes.

Universal Design is a movement that focuses on how new technology can help disabled students to learn. Flash drives and smart pens, which help students take notes, are just some of the technological innovations that are being used for this purpose.

“I always thought that technology was the great equalizer for people with disabilities,” said Brinckerhoff.

However, both speakers emphasized there is room for improvement. Many disabled students are hesitant to come out about their conditions. For example, Banerjee discussed a survey recently filled out by disabled students on the Brandeis campus. She emphasized how it demonstrated that some Brandeisians might try to hide their disabilities in order to avoid judgment from their peers and professors.

“One of the key things is creating a better understanding,” she said. “You have perceptions that are perpetuated by media, by experiences that people may have” and these become generalized to the whole disabled population, she explained.

The speakers’ long-term goals are to raise knowledge about disabilities in higher education, encourage dialogue about disabilities on the Brandeis campus and raise disabled and non-disabled students’ comfort level with the topic.

“Everyday we’re reminded there’s more work to do,” said Brinckerhoff. “What we want for students with disabilities is to know that every option is open to them.”