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updated: 10/27/2011 1:17 PM

Providing college access to all

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By Dr. Christine Sobek, Waubonsee Community College

There are an estimated 35 to 43 million people with physical and mental disabilities in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

The U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics reports that nearly 11 percent of undergraduate students in postsecondary institutions have reported a disability. It is widely believed that there are many more who have undiagnosed or unreported disabilities.

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The transition from high school to college is a critical time. Elementary and secondary schools are subject to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), while colleges and universities fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Think College provides a nice overview at www.thinkcollege.net/hs-college.

Through high school, students are offered assistance and are typically minors, which provides their parents with rights to their information. College students must provide documentation and request assistance through the appropriate office often called Disability Services.

College students are typically over 18 and their rights transfer to them. College faculty and staff will communicate directly with the student and are restricted under the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act (FERPA) from providing personal information to anyone else, including family members, without the student's permission. This often frustrates parents who have been very involved up to this point.

While there are differences, support for students with disabilities is available at colleges or universities. There are many nontraditional students returning to college that may have developed or had a disability diagnosed. For those students entering college directly after high school, it is a transition from a focus on modification to one of accommodation and self-advocacy.

Community colleges are uniquely positioned to assist students and their families in this transition. Because community colleges are local, they are able to work closely with the schools in their districts and increase awareness of the college process and resources.

Waubonsee Community College's Access Center for Students with Disabilities provides academic support and appropriate accommodations to help students succeed in and out of the classroom. Often, the assistive technology used by the Access Center is among the most cutting edge on the market. Students gain from their education the ability to be more independent and self-sufficient in regards to their own educational accommodations and outcomes. While students with learning disabilities may be the most numerous seeking assistance, the Access Center also serves those with physical, mental, emotional and other disabilities, including students with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum.

Peer support is another key ingredient. Waubonsee has an organized chapter of the Delta Sigma Omicron student group that brings together students with disabilities and those interested in disability issues. With a motto of "People Helping People," this inspiring group aims to illustrate that people with disabilities can help others. Group members regularly volunteer in the community and raise funds for worthy causes. This is a positive social outlet for students that has the corollary benefits of building future leaders and raising awareness. All students at Waubonsee have the opportunity to learn more about disability in one of our Disability Studies classes.

Financial assistance is a requirement for most students in today's economy. College scholarships do exist that are meant for students with special needs. Due to the support and encouragement she received at Waubonsee, deaf alumna Dona O'Keefe Tucholski earned her Associate in Applied Science degree in Early Childhood Education. Her family recently donated $100,000 to Waubonsee's Foundation to endow a scholarship in her honor that benefits three students annually who receive Access Center services. The Dona O'Keefe Tucholski Endowed Scholarship provides a $1,000 credit for tuition, fees and books. Another scholarship, the Ashley R. Souba Memorial Scholarship, provides a $400 credit for tuition, fees or books and is also open to students receiving Access Center services. Other external resources exist to provide financial assistance to students with disabilities.

Waubonsee's commitment to serving students with disabilities began early in the college's history. Strong programs in sign language and sign language interpreter training drew students with a hearing-impairment from throughout the state and beyond. These students thrived in a mainstream environment before inclusion was the norm, and the programs continue today.

With October designated as National Disability Employment Month, it is a great time to recognize the many contributions those with disabilities make to our society and workforce. Whether it is the disabled veteran learning a new skill or a traditional-age student leaving Waubonsee with a degree and new sense of independence, serving students with disabilities is at the heart of what we do -- and pays incredible dividends.

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