Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

May 29, 1997

Disability Resources staff expands to meet burgeoning student need

In 1993, Pitt's Office of Disability Resources and Services employed just one staff member (director Marcie Roberts) and served 86 students.

With the hiring June 3 of a learning disabilities specialist, Lynnett Van Slyke, the office will be up to five full-time staff members serving approximately 700 students and 25 faculty and staff members.

Only about 15 percent of those people are physically disabled, Roberts pointed out. The rest, she said, suffer from learning disabilities such as obsessive-compulsive syndrome, from depression and from attention-deficit disorder, among other so-called "hidden" disabilities.

"It's a growing population at the University, and Lynnett will be working directly with them, mainly on a one-on-one basis," Roberts said. "We've really needed somebody working in the trenches to help with this massive caseload" of students with non-physical disabilities.

Van Slyke was unavailable for comment this week. But Roberts, her new boss, said: "We did a national search for this position and it turned out that the best-qualified person was from our own backyard." Most recently, Van Slyke was the learning disabilities specialist at the Community College of Allegheny County. She has a master's of education degree from Pitt and a master's in student personnel services from SUNY-Buffalo.

For students and employees with physical disabilities, Roberts said, accommodation procedures tend to be straightforward: providing Braille materials for blind students, for example. But strategies for aiding the learning disabled vary from one individual to another, she said.

"That's why it's so important for us to have someone like Lynnett, who will be able to work one-on-one with people," Roberts said.

She cited the example of a student who writes extremely well but has great difficulty reading. "For someone like that, we will develop an accommodation strategy to provide classroom materials in audio form," Roberts said.

While the Pitt Office of Disability Resources and Services usually does not demand documentation of physical disabilities, a student wishing to register as suffering from a non-physical handicap must provide a psychologist's or learning disabilities specialist's letter stating that the student has been diagnosed with the disorder within the last three years.

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1992 requires Pitt and other institutions receiving federal funds to go to great lengths to accommodate the disabled.

For example, Pitt spent $87,000 during the 1995-96 fiscal year to serve nine deaf students. Most of that money paid for the services of sign language interpreters from Pittsburgh Hearing, Speech and Deaf Services. But last summer, Roberts instead hired a "real-time reporter," Ann Curry, whose work has helped the office to serve 11 deaf students this year for under $45,000.

Curry types verbatim transcripts of classroom lectures and discussions, serving much like a courtroom stenographer. The transcripts are simultaneously fed to deaf students' computers, allowing students to read their instructors' and classmates' words almost at the same instant they are spoken. Or, deaf students can later acquire disks of Curry's transcriptions — the equivalent of notes. "It was a gamble. We couldn't be sure the system would work, but it's been very successful," Roberts said.

Roberts's office continues to hire sign language interpreters to cover classroom sessions when Curry is assigned elsewhere. But Roberts says a real-time reporter is a more versatile aide to deaf students.

"A traditional interpreter is only effective for persons who use they same sign language they use," Roberts said. "But not all deaf people use the same language. American Sign Language, for example, is very difficult for someone with a hand or mobility problem. Whereas, Ann can work with any deaf student who can read." The hiring of a real-time reporter and a learning disabilities specialist were the chief priorities in a long-range plan that Roberts and her staff developed with input from consultants Loring Brinckerhoff and William Opperman, both formerly of Boston University.

— Bruce Steele

Leave a Reply