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6 December 2007
Town & Gown:
We Must Prepare an Equal Playing Field

By Dr. William A. Meehan
President, Jacksonville State University
Weekly Column - Town and Gown

Reprinted here in its entirety.

Can you imagine being blind and taking a statistics class? What if you were deaf or hard of hearing and needed to sit through lecture classes in order to obtain a degree in education and become a teacher?

These questionable possibilities turned into realities in October 1985 when funding for Jacksonville State University’s Postsecondary Program for Sensory Impaired (PPSI) was approved.

The idea to create such a program began because a desire to earn a degree was presented, but obstacles were in place along the path.

In August of 1983, Dr. Susan R. Easterbrooks, a newly hired education professor, was approached by Mr. and Mrs. Sidney and Carol Sharp, two deaf adults from Gadsden wishing to become hearing impaired teachers. Willing to meet the needs presented, Dr. Easterbrooks took it upon herself to clear the path for the Sharps and agreed to assist them in completing their coursework.

A proposal for PPSI was written because more deaf and hard of hearing individuals came to Dr. Easterbrooks for assistance and she already had a full teaching load. When PPSI begin, it supported 17 students spanning all four academic years. More than 20 years later, the program, now called Disability Support Services (DSS), is located in Daugette Hall and is serving about 300 students with disabilities.

The stated philosophy of DSS is that each student with a disability should have the opportunity to achieve his or her academic potential through an individualized plan of accommodations tailored to his or her specific documented academic needs.

Federal mandates state a student with disabilities must achieve the same admission requirements as everyone to enter into postsecondary education and must also complete the same work to obtain a degree from an accredited institution. The eight staff members of DSS take on the responsibility of leveling the playing field so disabled students are not held back from reaching their goals.

The university’s mission statement gives equal rights to those with documented disabilities, stating “Jacksonville State University … a student-centered university … balance[s] academic challenges with a range of support services for students’ academic, career and personal goals. Jacksonville State University provides … for a diverse undergraduate and graduate student population.”

Therefore, one of the main objectives for DSS is to make sure Jacksonville State University can and will provide individuals with documented disabilities an equal opportunity to study, graduate and join the workforce. However, DSS Director Daniel Miller explains it is the student’s responsibility to request and then make use of the services provided, as instructors do not give grades; all students must earn them.

Miller says as the first DSS program in the state to be fully state-funded, they continue to be leaders in the area of sensory impairments, assisting many other two and four-year schools across the state.

The program also fields several phone calls a week from elementary, middle and high school parents, and community members. Miller and his staff work to answer questions and direct callers to the appropriate sources.

“Sometimes I feel like an air traffic controller at an airport, pointing them to different resources and agencies they may not be aware of,” Miller says.

If funding is available, DSS will create a new assisted technology lab this spring. “What we’re looking to do with the lab,” says Dr. Tim King, associate vice president for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs, “is be able to convert text books and other kinds of print materials into electronic format in a more expeditious manner for students with different types of disabilities.”

Disabled students who are blind currently have volunteers read a textbook or test to them. However, as the number of students served by DSS grows, so does the technology capable of helping these students progress academically. Dr. King says with the new lab and the technology it will bring, we will be capable of converting all texts, complex formulas, diagrams and even pictures into Braille format.

Dr. King has been involved with similar media labs at the University of Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of Arkansas and the University of Dayton and seen positive results in all scenarios.

“We have to be able to prepare sensory impaired students for the real world,” says Dr. King. “When they are done with JSU and out in a job, they won’t be able to hire a reader—they will need to be able to work with the system they are given in order to produce work in a timely way.”

Students with disabilities have a wide choice of career options available to them. DSS students from JSU are now teachers in public and residential schools, social workers, merchandising managers, physical therapists and more.

One specific profoundly deaf criminal justice graduate is the forensics photographer for the Jacksonville, Florida police department, where acute vision, rather than hearing, is an excellent quality for this niche job.

“Students can basically go anywhere they want once they have their training,” says Miller. Given the opportunity and the right support, any student can obtain a college degree.

Erin Chupp, a graduate assistant in the Office of Marketing and Communications, contributed to this article.

About William A. Meehan

Dr. William A. Meehan is president of Jacksonville State University. His column, "Town & Gown," appears in The Jacksonville News.

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