Ohio University student Rebecca Darling poses for a portrait with her digital magnifier, which she uses to help her read textbooks.

Photographer: Lauren Pond


A close up view of Darling's digital magnifier

Photographer: Lauren Pond

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Student Accessibility Services clears roadblocks on the path to academic success

Imagine walking in to your first class as a student at Ohio University. You’ve worked hard and are proud to be one of a very accomplished freshman class taking the first step on your chosen career path.

The professor circulates a printed syllabus then opens a slide deck on the projector with key points for the day’s lecture and details on the first big assignment. Everyone begins scribbling or typing notes, but because of a visual impairment, you can’t make out a single word. And this is just one class. You’re registered in five this semester.

Challenges like this could pose a much larger academic roadblock if not for Ohio University’s Student Accessibility Services (formerly the Office of Disability Services). SAS exists to assist students with a range of physical and chronic conditions, from blindness to fibromyalgia to diabetes. However, SAS’s scope includes an even broader spectrum of student needs than one might preconceive. For example, SAS has long provided a continually evolving range of accommodations to students who live with mental and chronic disabilities, including bipolar disorder and depression.

As historical stigmas ebb and available services increase, demand has grown. SAS registration (all students must register with SAS in order to receive services) has increased by over a third in the last five years, from around 700 SAS-registered students to now around 1,100 on the Athens campus alone. The number of exams coordinated by SAS each year has more than doubled in the last four years, to more than 2,500 per academic year. (As public attention to chronic and mental health issues has deepened in recent years, the numbers of SAS-registered students with these types of disabilities has been one of the largest growth sectors for the program.)

One of SAS’s strong suits is its ability to be adaptive and responsive to the ever-evolving landscape concerning accessibility services. There is no “one size fits all” package. Assistance and resources are based on each student’s needs.

For students dealing with chronic health issues (where sudden and unexpected changes in health can be frequent), the program may serve as a central point for resources and communications with faculty. Students with ADHD or a range of other relevant disabilities can be provided with assistive tech, including software that reads materials aloud. SAS has the technology to produce whatever books students may need in accessible formats; they currently produce a total of about 600 such books a year. Students with disabilities that impact the ability to take thorough notes can utilize note-taking assistance and resources such as the LiveScribe pen and dictation software (SAS also provides training on this software).

Carey L. Busch, assistant dean for student accessibility, explains that the move to become a part of University College (from the Office of Institutional Equity) four years ago also helped SAS grow and gain visibility.

“Becoming a part of University College allowed us to expand beyond the minimum of what we could do, and focus on retention and overall student success rates," Busch said. "Even though we do provide some support for student life, like coordinating some housing and transportation accommodations, the vast majority of what we do is related to academics, so University College was a natural and beneficial fit for us.”

Busch said the added visibility from the move contributed to the recent SAS registration swell, though those numbers have evened out somewhat. That growth hasn’t hampered the department’s efficacy, however.

In SAS’s most recent annual survey, an overwhelming 96 percent of students who responded agreed that accommodation and support through SAS had a positive impact on their academic progress; 94 percent of students agreed that they would refer another student to that office.

Still, stories speak louder than statistics. Rebecca Darling, an SAS-registered senior with self-described moderate/intensive educational needs (visual impairment) is set to graduate this spring from the Patton College of Education. She is the secretary of Kappa Delta Pi’s Omega Chapter, a Patton College of Education Student Ambassador, and a member of the Athens City Commission on Disabilities. Next spring, she plans to continue her education at The Ohio State University to earn a master's degree in visual impairments education.

Throughout her academic career, SAS connected her with multiple resources, including alternate format textbooks, audio recordings of lectures, test time limit extensions, enlarged fonts, and assistance finding a note taker.

“SAS has met and exceeded my needs," Darling said. "Without the accommodations and support through SAS, I would not have my high GPA or the skills necessary to complete rigorous curriculum.”

According to Darling, staff and students are generally accepting, though some can be quick to judge, or seem burdened when a student initially approaches with their SAS letter at the beginning of the semester.

“In my experience, discussions have reduced this stress and anxiety, especially in staff and faculty,” Darling said.

This leads her to her single biggest piece of advice for any Bobcat who may have questions when they learn an SAS student will be in their class, study group or dorm.

“Ask questions," Darling said. "I cannot stress this enough. If staff and students do not understand the services and accommodations of a student, ask! This also includes finding out information related to the student’s impairment. I have found my best professors have been those who have asked questions and done basic research to help students within the classroom.”

Busch commented on the support that SAS students receive on campus.

“I think it is important to know that about 40 percent of our students are referred by faculty, staff or students, which says a lot about the campus-wide support for students with disabilities," Busch said.

Darling explained why she chose to attend Ohio University.

“I chose OU because it felt like home," Darling said. "It felt as if I was a part of the community when I set foot on campus.”

SAS continues to work tirelessly with University College and campus partners to ensure students with disabilities have as wide and promising paths to success as their fellow Bobcats.