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March 19, 2009

On teaching: Disabilities in the classroom

“When I start a class, I tell students I’m a hard of hearing person and here’s how we’re going to get along,” says School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences professor Katherine Seelman. In the classroom, Seelman, SHRS’s associate dean of disability programs and professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences and Technology, asks students to use a microphone that allows her to hear conversations more clearly.

“Most of my life it’s not obvious that I’m hearing impaired because I have this great technology,” said Seelman, who also uses hearing aids and a dog for assistance.

Seelman, who directed the National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research during the Clinton administration before joining the Pitt faculty, is one of several professors in SHRS who not only teach in the field of rehabilitation science, but also bring to the classroom their own experience in living with a disability.

From its inception in 1994, the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences and Technology actively has recruited faculty and students with disabilities, said SHRS Dean Clifford E. Brubaker. Department chair Rory Cooper, an engineer and expert in wheelchair technology who himself is a wheelchair user, was the first recruit.

Brubaker said that for the size of the department, which lists 28 faculty members, Rehabilitation Sciences and Technology likely has the largest percentage of faculty with disabilities anywhere. At least four professors in the department have obvious disabilities while others have disabilities that are less apparent, Brubaker said, noting that about one in six Americans — or some 50 million-60 million people — have some form of disability.

The Forbes Tower lecture hall Seelman uses is equipped with assistive devices that help users on both sides of the podium — including microphones in the ceiling, automated projection screens and an adjustable lectern to accommodate speakers who use wheelchairs. “It’s a wonderful feature,” she said.

Seelman views disability as a “new slot in the diversity mix,” adding that faculty and students everywhere need to be knowledgeable about disability and may need some training.

She sees the rehabilitation sciences and technology field on the rise. One population with a growing need for accommodation are those with mental or cognitive disabilities, such as soldiers returning from Iraq with traumatic brain injuries.

Another is the aging. Faculty members themselves may find accommodations useful if they lose sight, hearing or dexterity as they get older.

In discussing accommodations they need with their classes, faculty should give an explanation if they want students to meet expectations, Seelman said. Not all professors are comfortable with discussing accommodations, but students need to know. “They don’t understand. You teach them,” she said.

Seelman is an advocate of mainstreaming assistive technologies and accommodations. “If you can make something accessible, there’s no need to spend extra money on something special,” she said. Some common examples are ramps and wider doors that accommodate wheelchairs, or closed captioning on television. “Everyone uses them,” not just people with disabilities, she said.

Ashli Molinero, who co-teaches an ethics class with Seelman in the specially equipped lecture hall, said, “This department is among the best and the whole school is the best in accessible technology in the classrooms.” Molinero, who was born with spina bifida and walks with crutches, finds the adjustable podium a helpful accommodation for her short stature.

Accommodation is “ ingrained into the culture,” Molinero said, adding that the school goes to great lengths to ensure the classrooms accommodate a diverse range of students. Among her students are people who use power wheelchairs, a ventilator or are accompanied by a service dog.

Students see the department’s commitment not only in the classrooms, but in their professors as well. “Students recognize that when they see us. Collectively as a faculty there are so many faculty with disabilities.”

Now a faculty member, Molinero initially worked in the school’s information technology department, concentrating on web site accessibility issues, particularly for people with visual impairments.

She knew she wanted to pursue a master’s degree, but was unsure about what field she should choose.

Colleagues would ask every day at lunch whether she’d made a decision. “I was amazed they would care that much about asking about the graduate program,” she said. “People helped me find my way and apply my skills.”

She began pursuing the prerequisites for occupational therapy, but eventually decided against it. A doctoral student suggested the School of Education’s instructional design and technology program. “That essentially was what I was helping faculty do,” she said.

She earned her master’s degree at Pitt then went on to Robert Morris University for a doctorate in information systems and communications. She became an assistant professor on the SHRS faculty a year and a half ago. “The mentoring here has been amazing. They just let me carve out my little niche.”

Early in her career, Molinero said, disability was not an area she focused on. Raised by pragmatic parents who didn’t make her disability an issue, when challenges arose, “My parents said ‘Figure it out,’” she said. “They taught me to learn to adapt when there’s a barrier anyplace.”

Molinero added, “Many of the barriers are attitudinal ones.”

With that kind of upbringing, she considers her disability a part of life. “I didn’t really think about how people think about people who have disabilities.”

She said the faculty in SHRS impacted her worldview.

“Part of what I like about the culture of SHRS, the perspective that faculty and administrators have cultured here is one of practicing what they preach,” she said. “I’d never thought about doing something to help people with disabilities in my career before I was here. It’s definitely something worth doing.”

She observed how faculty took control over problems they saw people having, or might have experienced themselves. “Seeing people here and what they chose to do with their career, how much change they influenced — I was in awe of what they did here.”

Faculty member Diane Collins credits Rory Cooper for bringing disability awareness to the University at a very high level. Labeling him her hero, she said he opened her eyes to the idea that disability is no big deal.

“It doesn’t mean that you should be treated any differently or that you can’t achieve,” she said.

Collins uses a scooter when pain and fatigue from arthritis and fibromyalgia make it difficult for her to get around. Although she typically doesn’t use the scooter in the Forbes Tower, she finds the wheels help to preserve her energy during the parts of her day she spends in the sprawling Veterans Administration complex where the school has research partnerships.

“If you don’t use this kind of technology, you don’t think about how it is for other people,” said Collins, who tells students in her epidemiology of disability class, “You think you understand disability, but you don’t get it until you live it.”

Collins advocates for others with disabilities, having learned that “people treat people with disabilities rudely.” Ironically, it can happen even in classes that focus on disability sensitivity, she said, recounting how a foreign student who was blind essentially was being ignored by classmates. To accommodate his visual impairment, she had students announce their names when they spoke in class to help him associate names with voices. When she noticed that he was being excluded from conversations, she confronted others in the class with their own blind spot: “I’m teaching you disability training and none of you have come up to this man.” The problem was resolved by assigning an icebreaker of sorts — group projects in which students were required to interview someone from a foreign country about how disability is viewed in their homeland.

In addition to her work in the department, Collins pairs up with Pitt School of Social Work graduate Shirley Abriola, who has cerebral palsy and uses a power wheelchair, to train UPMC employees — some 7,000 to date — in disability sensitivity.

Collins, who brings 26 years of experience as an occupational therapist to the classroom, said the “where there’s a will, there’s a way” school of thought prevails in her profession as well as in the department.

As she sees it, the role of an occupational therapist is to find solutions — the simpler the better — to help people adapt activities regardless of disability. Simply put: “We foster independence.”

While independence is encouraged, having the department’s support system close at hand is a benefit. “We have the know-how and it’s a family atmosphere,” she said. “We look out for each other.”

Her own clinical background enables her to assist students who need help, and she’s confident that she has access to technical help should the need arise. “If I broke down in my power wheelchair, they’d come get me,” she said of her co-workers. “That’s the mindset here. We don’t leave people stranded.”

While such a family atmosphere couldn’t be orchestrated or engineered, it is in keeping with SHRS’s mission. Brubaker said the aim of the school and its related programs and centers is to provide information and access to technology that improves quality of life for people with disabilities.

“It’s all focused on this whole notion of how to improve the potential for the person to function in a self-determined way. Not to dictate what they should do, but to make them aware of what’s possible and provide the technology to enable them to do it,” he said.

“You couldn’t work effectively in this arena unless you really embrace this notion,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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