OPINION: Without proper disability services, education becomes a barrier rather than an opportunity

Starting college is a daunting adventure of meeting new people, learning new material in classes, and overall, figuring out your future. But for students with disabilities, there is an added worry of being properly accommodated so they can learn just like their other classmates.

Imagine in every college class you took, you only heard about 20 percent of what the professor was saying. Imagine how much information you would miss, how much harder learning the subject would be and how insecure you would feel for being left out of the conversation.

That was my unaccommodated life in college because of my hearing loss. Yet, I’m not the only one with a similar story.

According to The National Center for Educational Statistics, about 20,000 hard of hearing and deaf students attend college every year. The National Federation for the Blind states that less than 16 percent of blind or visually impaired individuals have earned a college degree. Postsecondary National Policy Institute’s research reported that 11 percent of all undergraduates have at least one disability that impacts the way they learn.   

While disability laws require students to be accommodated, schools can get away with doing the bare minimum or without  having the proper resources to accommodate  the wide spectrum of disabilities. I experienced those bare minimum accommodations as I was only provided with student notetakers, which wasn’t all that helpful, preferential seating, and priority registration for classes. Without the proper accommodations and not fully knowing their rights, students with disabilities can have a very challenging time at college.

I spent four years teaching myself through Google, or asking my classmates for help so I could pass my classes. My university’s disability office was unable to give me the accommodations I needed and my professors didn’t know how to help me besides go easy on me when grading. 

After I graduated from college in 2017, I never wanted to step foot in a classroom again. To me, school was for people who didn’t have disabilities.   This year, I decided I wanted to be a paralegal, which requires studying and obtaining a certificate. DePaul University not only has a Paralegal Certificate Program but also has the Center for Students with Disabilities (CSD), which strives to make sure each student gets the proper accommodations they need to succeed.

After going through their enrollment process, CSD set me up with closed caption real-time translation services so I would never miss a word. Everything the teacher or students said was transcribed to a mini-tablet they give me.

It’s something so simple but it completely changed my outlook on school. I don’t have to guess what is going on or try to learn the subject on my own. My insecurities went away. I am now raising my hand in class to answer questions or give my opinion. I’m excited to go to class and learn. I know what the assignments are and the instructions on how to do them.

It’s the experience I wish I had when I attended college, but I’m grateful that DePaul University inspired me to want to learn again.

Emelia Patterson earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Missouri and has severe bilateral sensorineural hearing loss. She also had a great experience working with her college’s disability office, where she was accommodated with microphones in each classroom and subtitles on all videos watched in class.

“All of the accommodations I received were so helpful and instrumental to my success,” she said. “It’s a big part of my identity that I’m proud of, and Mizzou always celebrated that.” When asked what advice she has for incoming college students with disabilities, she said, “I’d say take advantage of what’s available, be open-minded, and never stop advocating for yourself and your needs.”

The number of students with disabilities attending and receiving a college degree can be greater if colleges stop doing the bare minimum set by disability laws.

Rosalee Wolfe is the division director of Human-Computer Interaction and team lead for the American Sign Language Project, which is creating a digital English-to-ASL translator using an avatar named Paula.

“There are many situations where members of the Deaf and [hard of hearing] communities face challenges in sharing information with the hearing community,” she said.

Wolfe created Paula, named for DePaul University, with the hopes that it will help bridge the communication between deaf and hearing worlds.

“However, for a classroom situation, machine translation is not capable of replacing a certified sign language interpreter,” Wolfe said. “Interpreters have knowledge of history, of culture and of context which is not available to a machine translator,” she said.

If you have a disability, don’t be afraid to ask for help, because you have every right to be equipped with any tools you need to earn your degree.

As for colleges, you have a duty to educate your students and those with disabilities should not be left out of your mission statement. Don’t wait for your first student with hearing loss, vision impairment, and so on to walk through your doors to figure out how to accommodate them; be prepared to know exactly how to accommodate them.