Equal accommodations for all

Kelly Skahan

It’s a warm spring day, and you’re just one philosophy test away from a Saturday and Sunday full of barbecues, intramural games and tanning on Sheehan Beach. You breeze through your exam in 20 minutes, sprint up the steps in Bartley toward the Quad and pick up your cleats in your room before heading out for a game of pickup soccer at the Stadium. It’s going to be a great weekend.

For many at Villanova, however, such an easy escape is typically unavailable and often impossible. Dozens of students representing every class and nearly every major have physical or learning disabilities, conditions that restrict their ability to participate in many activities typical Villanovans take for granted, from a quick trip up a flight of stairs to a speedy flight through an exam. Luckily, the University has made great strides toward accommodating students with disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a person with a disability as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits major life activities, a person who has record of such an impairment or a person who is considered to have such an impairment – three categories the government considers as separate manifestations of a disability. Under this definition, both learning disabilities, like attention deficit disorder, and physical disabilities, like paralysis, as well as combinations of the two, like Down’s syndrome, are considered disabilities.

Villanova’s Office of Disability Services is an area of the University that aims to help students with disabilities gain equal access to education opportunities at school, accommodating students with both learning and physical disabilities. Nancy Mott, who manages the office’s programs for students with learning disabilities, says the University works with students and their support systems at home to accommodate all students.

“All of the accommodations are based on an individual’s documentation for their disability,” Mott says. “[For students with a learning disability], the accommodations are focused on what takes place in the classroom, such as testing and accessing the material.”

Common adjustments made for these students include an extension of test-taking time, but Mott has also helped students obtain recorded textbooks, note-takers and areas that are less distracting than a classroom in which to take exams.

She is quick to point out, however, that the students she works with are held to the same standards as everyone else at the University.

“All students have the same admissions requirements,” Mott says.

Similarly, Stephen McWilliams, who manages accommodations for students with physical disabilities, makes similar adjustments for those he works with. There are few areas on campus that are completely inaccessible to these students, whose needs may be temporary, as wih a student recovering from surgery, or permanent, as with a student born with a disability.

Dr. Mary McGonigle, director of the Student Health Center, says the Office of Disability Services takes care of the majority of adjustments students make upon their arrival to Villanova.

“They are usually very plugged in with their doctors at home,” she says. “Most students have already been diagnosed at home, but we do our best to facilitate contact with students’ doctors. The Office of Disability [Services] takes care of most communication, so we’re very lucky that way.”

The Office of Disability Services also takes care of welcoming incoming freshmen with disabilities and helping them find their way on campus. Students involved with the Office of Disability Services also provide feedback to help future students adjust to campus life more easily. When a freshman arrives on campus, they are offered mentoring from an upperclassman, which they are free to accept or reject.

“We don’t have any clubs, only one-on-one connections,” Mott says. “A group of students were involved in developing the mentoring that we offer incoming freshmen. They met and determined what information would be helpful and then we formed a list of mentors.”

McGonigle, who attended Villanova for her undergraduate degree, says she is also impressed with the physical accommodations that have been made since her time in school.

“There are many more ramps and elevators,” she says. “The school is more structurally accommodating.”

There are a multitude of resources for students who think they may have an undiagnosed disability, she adds.

“College students are between 18 and 23 years old, usually – an age where many mental disorders present themselves,” McGonigle says. “Often, the more intelligent you are, the longer you can compensate for something like ADD or ADHD, so the pressure of a university atmosphere may force those disorders to manifest themselves.”

She also points out women often experience less of the hyperactivity related with ADHD and that their early 20s may be the point when the disorder begins to disrupt their studies. Students who think they may have a disability can visit the Office of Disability Services or the University Counseling Center for support.

Contemporary society has made defining “disability” much more difficult, as political-correctness makes labeling a student or a condition a potentially offensive task. In recent years, terms like “handicapped” have become taboo as people make a shift toward more neutral labels.

“The language associated with disabilities is a very personal thing,” Mott says. “Many individuals want to avoid the term ‘disability’ and focus on the ‘ability’ portion of the word.”

Mott recently attended a lecture by Judith Hermann, the director on Disability Studies for the District of Columbia and an internationally renowned authority on the subject. Hermann made the point that her disability is a part of her identity and prefers the term “disabled person” to “person with a disability.”

Dr. McGonigle says there are many terms she has heard related to disability, and that she tries to use the term with which a student is most comfortable.

“We’ve described students as physically or mentally challenged or disabled, depending on their preference,” she said. “When we use the term ‘handicapped,’ it’s in relation to something; a student is handicapped from climbing stairs, for example – not handicapped in general because they’re not.”

Overall, however, Mott says that Villanovans with disabilities are excellent at making the best of the situation they are presented with, usually working with the Office of Disability services to best take advantage of their time at Villanova.

“The students are very strong self-advocates,” she says. “They fully understand what they need to reach their potential here at Villanova.”

Terms Associated With Disability

The American Psychological Association Style Guide states that a person’s name or pronoun should come first in a description (i.e. “A man with a disability,” not “A disabled person”).

Many people, however, prefer the term “disabled person,” as they see their disability as part of their identity.

In recent years, calling a person “handicapped” has been deemed taboo. Instead, they are handicapped from something (i.e. “handicapped from climbing stairs”).

When in doubt, the best policy is usually to ask what a person prefers to be called.