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The Journal Gazette

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Theo Thompson, a student at IPFW who is on the autism spectrum, has Sam, his service dog, to help keep him calm.

Sunday, April 29, 2018 1:00 am

Special education

Local colleges accommodate student needs

'There's no one-size-fits-all': Official

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

Devin Carroll knew when he enrolled at Indiana Tech two years ago that he would need help.

Diagnosed in middle school with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the 21-year-old Cincinnati native once took hours to finish assignments meant to be completed in 30 minutes.

The disorder turns ambient classroom sounds – papers shuffling and fingers tapping on keyboards – into maddening distractions.

“I know the information, but it takes me longer to process the work,” said Carroll, a junior majoring in network engineering.

In his first days on campus, he met with staff at Indiana Tech's Office of Student Success to work on a plan to ensure ADHD does not leave him languishing behind his classmates academically. He is one of hundreds of students with special needs in Fort Wayne using accommodations provided by colleges to provide equal access to education.

That means Carroll takes tests and quizzes in a room away from his classmates and distractions. He is given extra time to complete them.

“I've had an improvement in my grades,” he said. “I don't feel like I'm running through my tests.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires colleges and universities to provide equal access to educational opportunities. The federal law mandates reasonable accommodations for students to take part in courses, programs and activities.

It is largely up to the institutions to figure out how to do that.

Sometimes, accommodations are simple. Like Carroll, many other students simply need more time or a quiet work space.

In other cases, college administrators have to get creative.

John Sheehan remembers an IPFW student who was studying education with a focus on math but who was nearly blind.

An accommodations specialist in IPFW's office of Services for Students with Disabilities, Sheehan said the student could not see lessons presented in the classroom. He could see information on his phone, he said, and bright colors on dark backgrounds.

So IPFW provided the student with a black surface – like a whiteboard – on which to use neon markers. A 3-D printer also was used to print items meant for tactile learning.

“They all have unique issues,” Sheehan said. “There's no one-size-fits-all.”

Todd Nichols, director of Disability and Support Services at Ivy Tech Community College, recalls a military veteran with a brain injury.

The student had difficulty completing math assignments in which multiple equations were listed on a single page.

“He didn't want to use a distraction-reduced environment,” Nichols said. “He said he was in a combat zone and he could handle the noise. He was doing OK, but he was struggling.”

The solution: an assignment with one equation per page. The student was successful after the change, Nichols said.

The list of accommodations available to college students is long, and administrators say they work hard to entertain reasonable requests for help. The key is “reasonable.”

Colleges will not provide students with advantages, but staff in offices including the one at Ivy Tech work to give students with special needs access to lessons and materials provided to other students.

Blind students are provided books in Braille. Students who can't type because of a physical disability can use speech-to-text software that allows them to talk rather than use a keyboard.

There are screen magnifiers for students with visual disabilities. Tests can be read to students who can't see information printed or on a computer screen.

“I'm there to make sure you have access,” Nichols said. “My job is to make sure you have a shot at it.”

To receive accommodations, students must have documentation of a special need or disability. They also must meet with administrators to go over plans to help them.

Those efforts aid academic success, but some colleges also cater to students' social success.

At IPFW, Sheehan advises the Awetism Student Group, a support group for students with autism or related conditions. The group – the “awe” stands for “awesome” – allows students to socialize and discuss their college experiences, which can be overwhelming for students with autism.

Sheehan, who estimates up to 300 of IPFW's nearly 11,000 students have a documented special need, is well-suited for the role. He has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism that includes difficulties in social situations and nonverbal communication.

The college in recent years has seen an increase in students on the autism spectrum, he said, though an exact number is unclear.

“When I talk to these students, it comes from a place of knowledge,” Sheehan said. “I'm one of these people.”

Theo Thompson is, too.

Thompson, 21, is a freshman studying special education at IPFW. He is on the autism spectrum, he said, and has been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder.

The Angola High School graduate is given extra time to take tests, but there's another accommodation that helps him deal with overstimulation on campus: a 70-pound goldendoodle named Sam.

“He can do different things to help keep me calm, in case I panic,” said Thompson, who has had the dog for about a year.

If he gets nervous or starts to panic, Sam will place his head in Thompson's lap to calm him.

“He's definitely changed my whole life,” he said.

Nichols said about 8 percent of students at Ivy Tech use services through his office. At Indiana Tech, 1 percent to 3 percent use the services, according to Nicole Scott, associate vice president of student success in the college's Office of Student Success.

The number of students who could use help or accommodations through the offices might be higher.

Some students do not ask for help because they don't want to be labeled as disabled, Nichols said. Others – most often students who use wheelchairs – have been dealing with disabilities their whole lives and shun help.

Students have to disclose information about disabilities or special needs, Scott said.

“It's completely up to the student to divulge that information to us,” she said. “Sometimes, they'll divulge a couple semesters in.”

Geneva Burgess is coordinator of disability services at the University of Saint Francis. She said more than 100 of the university's 2,200 students have disclosed a disability to her office. 

Still, she said, the number eligible for help is likely higher.

“Sometimes they're not accustomed to asking for help,” Burgess said. 

Carroll said he is glad he filled out the forms that were emailed to him before he enrolled at Indiana Tech and that he asked for help.

Thompson said the help he has received at IPFW is invaluable.

“They're getting me everything I need as a student,” he said.  

mleblanc@jg.net