Celebrating neurodiversity and equal opportunity at URI

Office of Equal Opportunity launches learning series, preparing for fall

KINGSTON, R.I. – July 11, 2023 – At the end of the spring semester, the University of Rhode Island’s Office of Equal Opportunity hosted a lunch-and-learn session to provide a forum for faculty and staff. Interest in the topic was high: 92 attendees spent their lunch hour learning and asking questions about neurodiversity and compliance with applicable federal and state laws and regulations.

This was the first program offered of its kind since the advent of COVID-19, with more planned for the year ahead.

URI remains committed to increasing inclusion and eliminating barriers to participation in the University’s programs and services. Photo by Nora Lewis

Dorca Paulino-Smalley initiated the program, and began offering a roster of similar events and conversations soon after joining URI in December as the University’s first director of the Office of Equal Opportunity. She came to URI from the Rhode Island Supreme Court, where she developed the Rhode Island Judiciary’s equal employment opportunity and affirmative action compliance programs.

But Paulino-Smalley wants to see the work be viewed as more than a legal requirement.

“We want to bring subject matter expertise to the table, not just check a box,” she says. “Our goal is to be an institution that is responsive to the needs of our students and workforce.”

Neurodiverse student and personnel needs at URI

At URI, the office of Disability, Access and Inclusion is often the first point of contact for students. Qualified students who identify as having a disability or chronic condition have the right to equal access to the University’s programs, services, activities, and facilities. Accommodations are determined on a case-by-case basis, in compliance with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and University policy.

A person who is neurodivergent — a term coined in 1998 — has a different learning style, social preference, or way of communication compared to a “neurotypical” person. Common types of neurodiversity include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, Tourette syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, dyslexia, dyscalculia, tic disorders, dementia, and depression.

Neurodivergent individuals at URI can connect with the following offices for support: the Disability, Access and Inclusion office (for students), the Human Resource Administration office (for employees), the Office of Equal Opportunity (for students or employees), and the Facilities Group (for Americans with Disabilities Act standards for accessible design). The University’s Event Planning Accessibility Toolkit provides a list of internal partners dedicated to supporting institutional ADA compliance.

Paige Ramsdell, assistant dean of Students for Accessibility and Inclusion, says the University has students with complex needs and those numbers are increasing.

Student Hannah Sears of the new student group Student Advocacy for Disability Awareness/Action shared her personal experiences with ADHD and says she joined the student group to help lessen judgment and stigma for students with a similar profile. “The more we can do, the more acceptance and visibility on campus we can start to see,” she said.

Sears described getting her diagnosis as akin to puzzle pieces falling into place. She’s used her new self-knowledge to continue in her program at URI and is due to graduate from the school’s rigorous Doctor of Pharmacy program next spring.

Sears counsels other students to speak up about their situations to find solutions. She became a student leader in the student advocacy group to help normalize neurodiversity, increase awareness, decrease stigma, and make URI a more inclusive and accessible place.

Ramsdell says that ecosystems benefit from variety, and the University is no different.

She acknowledged that many faculty and staff may want to help but are unsure of the best way to do so. In the classroom, some faculty disclose their own challenges to students, as a way to support students, or share resources on their syllabus. The Disability, Access and Inclusion office also offers workshops for faculty to help make their classrooms more welcoming to all students.

The office offers resources that will be of particular interest for new faculty, especially when working with students across a range of learning styles.

Federal mandates aside, several in the group asked how URI can increase inclusivity because it’s the right thing to do as a community.

This spring’s preliminary lunch-and-learn event demonstrated that the work of advancing civil rights compliance does not begin or end with one person, one division, one initiative, or one program.

July 26 marks the 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and is recognized as National Disability Independence Day. URI remains committed to increasing inclusion and eliminating barriers to participation in the University’s programs and services, as well as ensuring employees with qualified disabilities can perform their essential job functions. This summer, Rhode Island also passed legislation to eliminate the income limit and the asset cap, allowing individuals with disabilities the opportunity to realize their full potential at work through the “Ticket to Work” program for working adults with disabilities. To learn more about other topics referenced in this article: