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Reaching your potential

09/05/2013

Every day at Jacksonville State University, hundreds of disabled students rely on the assistance of the Office of Disability Support Services to excel in their studies.

From providing sign-language interpreters for the deaf to making sure students with ADHD get more time on tests, the DSS is an indispensible tool for those with disabilities.

The DSS at Jacksonville State University operates under the philosophy that “otherwise qualified individuals with documented disabilities have an equal right to access existing programs and services of the University.”

Worth noting is the phrase “otherwise qualified individuals.”

Katy Goodgame, a disability specialist at DSS, says that although many people think that having a disability gets you a free ride into college, nothing could be further from the truth.

“Not only do these students have a disability, but they go through the same enrollment process that students like you did,” she said. “They have to make the same grades on the ACT and SAT as you do in order to get in.”

Julie Nix, who directs both the Office of Counseling Services and Disability Support Services at JSU, says that accommodations in post-secondary education are not a guarantee of success, but “level the playing field.”

The DSS levels the playing field against a large range of chronic illnesses, but they can be broken down into three sections: learning disabilities, physical disabilities and sensory impairments.

Learning disabilities includes ailments like Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD and even schizophrenia.

A student with a physical disability could have cerebral palsy or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Sensory impairments would include being deaf or blind, as well as having epilepsy or cancer that is in remission.

When a student approaches DSS for assistance, the most basic form of help they can supply is a letter outlining the student’s needs to his or her professors.

 “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the professors work with the student to the best of their ability,” said Goodgame. “Every once in a while we have to step in to make sure there are no problems, though.”

The letter doesn’t specify what disability the student is afflicted with, just that they have special needs that must be met by the professor.

That’s because the DSS prefers that students “self-advocate” and become more comfortable with confronting their disability in the process.

“There are students that don’t approach us,” says Nix. “We have over 300 students registered in the program, but we have no idea of knowing how many of the students at JSU have disabilities.”

According to Nix, disability support systems at the post-secondary level are different than the K-12 system of identifying and serving those with disabilities.

“The individual has to come forward; the onus is on them to seek and utilize their accommodations,” she says.

Many deaf and blind students choose to come to JSU because of its proximity to the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind in Talladega, and because the disability support services in place help ensure success.

Heather Whitestone, who lost her hearing when she was 18 months old, is one success story: she graduated from JSU after being crowned Miss Alabama in 1994, and then Miss America in 1995.

By trying to reach as many students as possible with information about disability services at JSU, Goodgame hopes that more will take advantage of the DSS.

This will benefit JSU in two ways: one, the university’s mission statement to “provide for a diverse undergraduate and graduate student population” will be fulfilled.

Second and arguably more important, vital federal funding that JSU receives won’t be cut.

Statutes established in the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require JSU to offer assistance to students with documentable chronic illness and disability.

All federal funding received by the university would be cut if JSU were to fail to offer that assistance.

If you’re a student with a disability, Nix urges you not to “wait until you’re in academic trouble to seek us out.

“Be proactive and speak to us from the beginning,” she says.

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