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November 10, 1994

Access at Pitt said to be improving for disabled students

Disabled students are gaining increasing access to Pitt classrooms, thanks to policy changes and building renovations mandated by the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

ADA took effect in July 1992 and requires Pitt and other institutions receiving federal funds to make unprecedented accommodations for disabled persons. ADA is widely considered to be the most far-reaching U.S. civil rights legislation since the 1960s.

As Pitt becomes known as a place that accommodates the disabled, more of them are enrolling here, according to Marcie Roberts, Disability Resources and Services coordinator.

In a report to Faculty Assembly Nov. 1, Roberts said that her office currently serves 209 students. Only 17 are continuing students; the rest are fall 1994 freshmen or transfer students, she said.

"What we're finding is that the more accessible we become…the more we're going to be tapped into as an accessible campus with accessible programs," Roberts said. "And these numbers are going to increase significantly." In an average week, four new students come to the Disability Resources and Services office to register as being disabled, Roberts said. So far this fall, only a quarter of these students have reported being blind, deaf, wheelchair-bound or otherwise physically disabled, she said. The rest have so-called "hidden" handicaps such as learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder and depression — often in combination, she noted.

Roberts said that her office usually does not require documentation of physical disabilities. But a student wishing to register as suffering from a "hidden" disability must provide a physician's letter stating that the student has been tested and diagnosed with the disorder within the last three years. One reason for the three-year requirement is that such problems often improve or get worse over time, Roberts said.

Once a disability has been documented to the office's satisfaction, the student meets with office staff to develop a plan to accommodate the student in each of his or her classes, said Roberts. "It's not an advantage. It is a skill or a tool that we hope will suffice to bring that person onto a level playing field with their [non-disabled] peers," she said.

Roberts said her office urges students to meet early in the semester with each of their teachers to discuss special services they will need. "Something that I really stress to students is the importance of identifying [disabilities] early, registering with me and getting everything out in a timely fashion so there is no surprise along the way," she said.

Accommodations vary from student to student, and class to class. Some students need to have lectures audiotaped or translated into Braille. Occasionally, Roberts asks faculty members for copies of lecture notes. Some faculty ask students to sign agreements promising not to distribute lecture tapes or to return such tapes to faculty at the end of a term.

"Some of the things [done to accommodate disabled students] are truly amazing in terms of the amount of time and effort put into creating an exam that is purely visual for a deaf student or purely audible for a blind student," Roberts said.

When students are unable to take tests under normal classroom conditions, Roberts's office administers the exams. "I want to take this opportunity to assure all faculty that we maintain as much control over exams as you would in a classroom," she said. "We proctor exams very closely." Exams are locked in a file cabinet prior to being administered, and are returned to faculty 60-90 minutes after the testing period, Roberts said.

She added that her office serves students with temporary disabilities such as broken bones, although it isn't legally required to do so.

Roberts said that she is visiting the regional campuses to meet with personnel who work with disabled students at those campuses.

In other Assembly business:

* Assembly members endorsed granting, in special cases, more than one honorary degree at Pitt's honors convocation and more than one at commencement. The University's policy is to grant just one honorary degree at each of those events, although exceptions have been made. For example, Pitt awarded four honorary degrees during the University's bicentennial in 1987. Senate president James Holland noted that some professors strongly object to Pitt awarding any honorary degrees, saying they cheapen all academic degrees and are often used as the equivalent of appearance fees for big-name speakers. However, the Assembly approved a motion to support Pitt's committee on honors and commencement speakers should the committee find it "suitable and in the University's interest" to propose more than one honorary degree at honors convocation and commencement.

* The Assembly voted to approve a proposal by member Nathan Hershey for direct faculty participation in the Association of American Universities. While university administrators from AAU universities meet and serve on committees to discuss higher education issues, faculty have no such role, Hershey noted. His proposal calls on Chancellor J. Dennis O'Connor to recommend to his fellow AAU leaders the establishment of a congress of elected faculty representatives to foster better communication among faculty at AAU schools. AAU is a group of 56 eminent doctorate-granting public and private research universities in the United States and Canada. Pitt was elected to the AAU in 1974.

* Assembly members endorsed two amendments to the document governing Pitt's Planning and Budgeting System. The first amendment extended the length of terms from two years to three for members of the University Planning and Budgeting Committee (UPBC). Also, terms will be staggered. The changes are intended to promote continuity in UPBC membership. The other amendment will allow UPBC members to work through several task forces (as has been the actual practice) rather than splitting UPBC into two subcommittees, as originally envisioned.

Senate Council approved the amendments Nov. 9.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 27 Issue 6

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