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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

$1.16 million grant improves climate for students with disabilities at URI, seven other colleges in R.I.

Media Contact: Dave Lavallee, 401-874-5862

KINGSTON, R.I. -- January 13, 2006 -- Students with disabilities at the University of Rhode Island and seven other colleges in Rhode Island don’t have to worry as much these days about seeking extra time on an exam or other accommodations.

“They’ve been telling me it is now routine for professors to announce at the start of classes that those needing accommodations because of disabilities should see them after class or during office hours to make arrangements,” said Pamela A. Rohland, URI assistant director of student life for disability services at URI. “We also have fewer requests in my office from students who seek help in gaining accommodations from professors.”

Those are just two of the many improvements in the climate for students with disabilities that have occurred in the last seven years thanks to $1.16 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Education awarded to URI to change attitudes about people with disabilities. URI is in the final year of the grant and is now preparing reports for the federal government.

While the initial funds focused on training programs for URI, Rhode Island College and the Community College of Rhode Island, the grant also benefited the New England Institute of Technology, Brown, Salve Regina, Roger Williams and Johnson and Wales universities.

“The most important outcome of the Changing the Culture grant was that we trained a total of 310 disability resource mentors at the participating institutions,” Rohland said. “We have about 90 disability resource mentors at URI.”

The mentors were trained to help their colleagues respond to students with disabilities in the classroom, on or in campus facilities or during campus jobs.

Each semester and during the summer over the past seven years, faculty and administrators selected for the program were immersed in four-day training sessions. The lively, informative and participatory training helped them confront common stereotypes related to disabilities, so they in turn could help their colleagues deal with the same stereotypes.

Each of the groups reviewed and discussed scenarios involving students with disabilities, some who felt they were put off by faculty and some who manipulated faculty members to get out of assignments. Participants also heard from students with disabilities who helped broaden their understanding of disability. For instance, one student reported that she had chronic fatigue syndrome as a result of Lyme disease being initially misdiagnosed. She told how professors were reluctant to provide her with accommodations because she was an A student. Another described his life with bipolar and attention deficit disorders.

“The concept is brilliant,” said Professor Lynne Derbyshire, chair of Department of Communication Studies who went through the first training session. “Because mentors have been trained for every department, change occurs at the most basic level among colleagues who work closely together. So, it is this ripple effect that effects culture change.”

She said the training affects the day-to-day interactions of faculty and staff, and so it is more effective than top-down directives. The discussions occur at the level where they can lead to effective change, she said.

“Through this program we didn’t just level the playing field for students with disabilities, we became better teachers so that all students benefit. In this way, it became a learning process from which everyone in the classroom benefits,” Derbyshire said.

Jason Black, who earned his bachelor’s degree at URI and is now pursuing his Ph.D. in psychology here, said he has seen changes over the past few years.

“The one thing that I noticed is that the issues (surrounding disability) are much more visible and professors are taking more interest,” said Black, who as a student with cerebral palsy, has participated in the training as a teaching assistant and as a student panel member. “All or most of the syllabi now have at least a sentence on them urging students with disabilities to talk to professors about accommodations.”

There were some heated discussions in his training sessions, but that can be expected “because you are trying to get at behaviors, attitudes and expectations. The grant was trying to accomplish some big things in a short time, and any progress is good.”

Rohland credits her team of Susan Roush, associate dean of URI’s College of Human Science and Services and associate professor of physical therapy, and Bette Erickson, assistant director for instructional development at URI, for putting together such a successful program.

“We developed a program that helped put participants in the shoes of people with disabilities,” Rohland said. “Because this program tries to emphasize respect for students with disabilities, the entire learning experience becomes more respectful and more flexible.

“The mentors have been great to work with, and without them, we would not have seen so many big changes,” Rohland said.

At Rhode Island College, the mentors advocated for the hiring of a full-time disability services director and now the college has one, Rohland said. In addition, URI Provost M. Beverly Swan, vice president of academic affairs, has now recommended that professors address accommodations as part of University policy. “You know when change reaches the level of University policy, you have had an impact.”