Advocating in academia

Pitt group promotes a disability perspective

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In the summer between her sophomore and junior years at the University of Notre Dame, McCandless native Kelly Beck sustained a brain injury in a car accident. Finishing her degree while coping with memory problems and migraines proved to be challenging, but Ms. Beck persisted and completed a bachelor's in psychology in 2009. Her experience as a student with a disability figured into her decision to pursue a master's in rehabilitation counseling at the University of Pittsburgh.

In 2007, Jonathan Duvall was a junior engineering student at Pitt when a sled riding accident left him with a spinal cord injury. The Salem, Ohio, native finished his degree and is now a doctoral student in rehabilitation science. His before-and-after experience at Pitt as a wheelchair user has shown him that the university can be more accommodating.

Pitt senior Jessica Kurs-Lasky has what is often characterized as an "invisible disability." The English writing/sociology double major deals with obsessive-compulsive disorder and knows what students go through when professors don't understand how such disabilities affect academic performance.

Nathan Hogaboom, a doctoral student from the Philadelphia area, doesn't have a disability but has become friends with students with various types of disabilities through his program at Pitt's School of Health and Rehabilitation Science. He's interested in helping Pitt become a more inclusive campus.

These four Pitt students are the cornerstone of a new organization dedicated to advocating for students with disabilities on the Oakland campus. The group, Students for Disability Advocacy, will sponsor a conference on the disability experience in higher education Thursday and Friday at the William Pitt Student Union.

"The Disability Experience: State of Scholarship, Research and the Arts" will present a wide range of research, practice and personal experience in the areas of education, health and wellness, assistive technology, policy, community inclusion, and the arts. Invited speakers include scholars in disability fields and students representing six universities. Kathleen Martinez, assistant U.S. Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment, will present the keynote address. Admission is free to the public.

The conference is designed to open a dialogue about disability in higher education in general and Pitt in particular -- not just in regard to removing physical barriers and making accommodations required by law, but in terms of recognizing a "disability perspective" on campus life and within academic disciplines. The conference also aims to bridge the gap of "town and gown," highlighting Pittsburgh's role as home to hundreds of post-secondary students with disabilities.

Students for Disability Advocacy is one of only a handful of such activist groups in universities across the nation, and this conference is the first of its kind at Pitt.

Students with disabilities are entering higher education in record numbers. About 700 students with disabilities are registered with the Disability Services Office on Pitt's main campus, among a population of about 28,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

Virtually all colleges and universities offer disability support services for eligible students. These offices guide students in obtaining the accommodations they need in their academic programs. In recent years, a growing number of colleges and universities have also begun to offer specialized supports for students with certain conditions, such as autism and physical disabilities.

"Pitt does a great job with academic accommodations, but on other issues, the university is not really great," said Mr. Duvall, who serves as president of the student group. "Our goal is to promote a more inclusive and accessible campus, a culture of respect and full participation."

With this goal in mind, the conference will close with an interactive round-table discussion for faculty, administrators and students, facilitated by Paula Davis of Pitt's Health Sciences Diversity Office. It will be an opportunity to explore issues that are rarely communicated, let alone resolved. "Discovery will definitely be part of that round table," said Ms. Beck, the secretary of the student advocacy group. "We want to hear what the issues are."

Housing for students with physical disabilities is likely to be discussed. Given the age of housing stock in the university area, accessible apartments are hard to come by. Even designated accessible rooms in dorms could use fine-tuning, Ms. Beck said. In one situation brought to her attention, an undergrad who is capable of living independently is stymied by the door of her accessible dorm room.

The decision to disclose one's disability to professors -- or not -- is a big topic in higher education across the nation. The challenges of students with invisible disabilities will be the subject of a presentation by Ms. Kurs-Lasky, the vice president of the student group.

Other conference speakers will cover topics such as adaptive sports, support services for non-academic needs and emergency evacuation plans. Several presentations will share new research in rehabilitation fields.

"[The student advocacy group] stands for everything I believe in," said Ms. Beck. "It's also a nice social support for all of us with disabilities, even though our disabilities are different."

The conference will be a good way to make students aware of the advocacy group as a resource, said Nathan Hogaboom, treasurer. "Pitt is pretty good about physical barriers, but attitude barriers toward students with disabilities could improve."

"The Disability Experience" will be held 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday in the William Pitt Student Union, University of Pittsburgh. Registration is encouraged but not required. For the conference schedule or to register: or 412-822-3710.

Tina Calabro:

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