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Campus Center gives students equal access 

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UNLV is ranked as one of the nation’s most diverse college campuses, but among its varied population are students who need a little extra help.

That’s where the Disability Resource Center steps in. The DRC helps over 600 students with a wide range of accommodations, whether they need to help students hear or see classroom materials or just provide a quiet room to take a final.

“We love to start campaigning that students with disabilities are not really disabled. We want to take away the label,” said Raquel O’Neill, interim director at the DRC.

The center helps all manner of students, not just those with physical disabilities. That includes students with anxiety or depression, as well as learning about disorders like ADHD and dyslexia or dyscalculia, which make it difficult to read words or numbers.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities defines a learning disorder as a disability that “affect[s] the brain’s ability to receive, process, store, respond to and communicate information.”

“More recently there’s been a lot of talk about people who are autistic. We see Sheldon on Big Bang Theory and laugh, but it’s true – there really are students who are extremely gifted or extremely talented but they may have certain limitations in certain areas,” she said.

Students on the autism spectrum may be overly sensitive to lights and sounds, or have difficulty interacting with peers. The DRC works with these students to ensure that they have equal access.

The DRC also assists students with temporary disabilities, which O’Neill said many don’t recognize or utilize.

O’Neill mentioned a student that went snowboarding over winter break and broke all the bones in both of their hands.

“So when they came back they didn’t know what to do – they thought they were going to have to take a semester off because they couldn’t write or they couldn’t do their exams,” she said.

The student reached out to the DRC, and was given a scribe, someone who writes exam answers for disabled students, and taught how to use a voice-operated computer.

“They ended up having a pretty good semester, and it was kind of neat,” she said.

This year will mark the return of ThinkAbility, an annual event in the Pida Plaza run by the DRC that will bring together community agencies that assist people with disabilities and show demonstrations of assistive technology.

O’Neill said that the event’s main focus is to make disabled students more visible, so that programs like the DRC can keep trying to give them all the assistance that they need.

“This is an area that you might have a family member in, or a neighbor or a friend of a friend that you know has something going on but nobody knows how to help them,” she said.

Oct. 16 will be the first time the event has been held since 2010.

“We want to recognize that everybody is differently abled, everybody has limitations, and whether you’re ready to express that in your life is a personal thing,” she said.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, any institution that receives funding from the federal government is required to provide equal access. This includes UNLV, CSN and every other publicly-funded higher education institution.

While the original ADA focused on physical disabilities that impact everyday living activities, the ADA Amendments Act, passed in 2008, widely expanded its definition of what constitutes a disability or daily living activity, and now includes abilities like concentration, thinking and reading, as well as smelling and being able to use the restroom without assistance.

Under the ADAAA students with disabilities or illnesses in remission are now covered, such as students who may have flare-ups from lupus or are managing their epilepsy with anti-seizure medication, and even students who are recovering from drug or alcohol abuse.

“Unfortunately once you’ve utilized drugs it leaves a lasting damage on your brain and on your body, and that’s what we’re accommodating,” O’Neill said. “The law specifically says that if they’re not using, if they’re off of the drugs or alcohol, then we can accommodate them. Once they go back on it, we don’t accommodate them anymore.”

One of the main services that the DRC supplies is test proctoring. Students who request these accommodations are given extra time to complete their tests, a quiet room where they can concentrate, or assistive technology, for example a computer that reads the test questions out loud for them.

Assistive technology is a major part of the services that the DRC offers. Andrew Luiz, the assistive technology specialist at the center, said that Kurzweil 3000, a software that reads electronic textbooks and assists with studying and test-taking, is probably one of the most frequently used assistive technologies at the DRC.

Kurzweil 3000 can also assist students who are learning English as a second language, or students who want to listen to their textbooks during a long commute.

“We have in the past had students who are online students from different states, and it just so happens that through licenses we manage here they were able to use it from whatever state they were in,” said Luiz.

The DRC also gives students access to video magnifiers – assistive technology that uses a camera and a monitor to provide a larger or magnified view of class materials for students who have vision issues. Another technology that aids visually-impaired students is a screen reading software that allows students to hear what is visually happening on their computer screen.

“We’re just kind of scratching the surface as far as what is possible with technology,” O’Neill said. “There are so many things that we could bring in and provide to students.”

O’Neill said that the DRC is only providing the “bare minimum” as far as services it provides. She said she wished the center could hire coaches and tutors for its students, and that it had more space to house technology, especially when web-based learning is on the rise.

“To go with the times, we would really love for our center to be on the cutting edge of that,” she said. “But it all costs money and space.”

Currently, the DRC has a budget of about $643,000, as well as an additional $100,000 provided by UNLV specifically for deaf and hard of hearing services. The $643,000 covers staff salaries as well as assistive technology and all of the expenses associated with providing aid and accommodations to students.

In comparison, the Academic Success Center, which also hires staff and student workers and provides services to students, has a budget of about $1 million.

The DRC’s budget also covers the salaries of federal work study and student employees, who serve as office assistants, couriers, test proctors, readers, scribes, lab assistants and note-takers.

Note-taking services are another resource that students frequently use. The DRC hires someone that is taking the same class as a disabled student who needs notes, and the student delivers the notes to the DRC so that they can be passed along as needed.

“It helps me a lot with my classes. It’s just really so helpful,” said Freshman Jovytha Nunez, who uses the note-taking service at the DRC.

19-year-old Nunez has had a learning disability since she was very young, and needs assistance from the DRC to have equal access to the same materials that her classmates have.

Note-takers for the DRC are required to send their notes, either typed or handwritten and photocopied, to the center 24 hours after each class ends. Students then have to go to the DRC where their copies of the notes are held in a filing cabinet to pick them up.

Nunez said that her notes are occasionally a little late, but never so much so that she falls behind.

Another student, who asked not to be named, has had a harder time getting the accommodations that they need. This senior accounting major has utilized the DRC at both UNLV and CSN, and had issues at both campuses. Because their classes fall on Tuesdays and Thursdays, about half of their notes arrive at the DRC on Friday, when they aren’t able to make it to campus.

To make up for this, the DRC sends the student their notes directly via e-mail, but the notes often come in late. The student also uses test-proctoring services at the center.

“The test return process is somewhat archaic,” they said.

When students take proctored tests at the DRC, professors must go to the center directly to take the completed exam, and if they refuse to do so the exam is brought to them in a sealed envelope.

The student said they had an issue with a professor that not only returned their test results late, but also asked the student to open the sealed envelope themselves.

“Some professors are short-sighted when it comes to academic accommodation requests,” they said.

“I think what a lot of students face is more attitudinal – it’s an attitude barrier that if you can’t learn the same way that everyone else learns there’s something wrong,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill said that some believe that disabled students who use accommodations through the DRC are getting an unfair advantage.

“They don’t understand that that person is coming in at a disadvantage, and what we’re providing is making it equal for them,” she said.

O’Neill said that some professors are skeptical of students with non-physical disabilities who request accommodations.

“Our students unfortunately have a stigma of getting more than what they deserve or getting the easy way out, you know, pulling a disability card,” she said. “Those kinds of attitudes and stigmas are still alive and well on our campus.”

Students are required to supply documented proof of their disability, such as a letter from a doctor or psychiatrist, before they can access services and accommodations at the DRC.

“I think we’re just like a little diamond in the rough,” she said. “This is a population of people that don’t really complain about anything. They just want to be seen as everybody else. They don’t want to be seen as someone who is less or someone who needs to be fixed.”

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