Krystan Lenhart, a senior psychology and political science student, had a rough semester this fall. Born with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that permanently affects body movements and muscle coordination, Lenhart was able to control her disabilities for years through medication. Unfortunately, this past summer her condition drastically took a turn for the worse. Her body, not responding to the medication, started having a series of episodes where her muscles stretched painfully, leaving her momentarily incapacitated. Due to this she couldn’t walk anymore and started moving around in a wheelchair, at least until her situation can be corrected.
However, having a crucial semester to complete–she plans to graduate in May–Lenhart relied on Disability Support Services to help her when she had to miss class because of a medical complication, schedule exams at rooms more accessible to her or notify professors.
Like Lenhart, many students at Stony Brook University rely on DSS and will do even more next week, during final examinations. DSS has an important role accommodating students with disabilities, and small changes could mean the difference between failing and passing a course.
A student might ask for help from DSS for a variety of reasons. Some students with disabilities might need extra time on assignments and tests, others need a special computer, while others require scribes or a quiet area. Students that have temporary disabilities, like a hand injury or a hospitalization, can also get help from DSS.
But it’s not just the scheduling of rooms, equipment or people that has the DSS staff in busy mode at this time of year. It’s also the increase in their counseling services.
“Some students go into crisis during finals,” said Donna Molloy, the DSS assistant director. “Stress can adversely affect students with certain disabilities, or make it worse.”
Being this busy is a big change from 12 years ago, when Molloy first started working at DSS as a Learning Disability Specialist. There’s been a substantial increase in students who are registered. Today, 700 students are registered, about a third of them with psychological disabilities. When Molloy first started, only 25 students were registered in this category. Similar increases are found in other types of disabilities, too. While today they deal with about 2,000 exams a year and 300 in finals week alone, a decade ago they dealt with just 300 a year.
But although there are many more students registered now than there were in the past and the awareness of disabilities has increased throughout the campus, many issues remain.
The DSS office has eight employees, including the Director, Joanna Harris. Like many departments at Stony Brook, budget restrictions have affected them greatly. “We don’t get much money from the state now,” Molloy said. While they used to offer tutoring in the past, this is no longer possible. They also have a difficult time hiring sign-language interpreters, who according to Molloy are “wickedly expensive,” costing up to $125 per hour.
Outside of budget constraints, issues also remain when it comes to students. Some students have “hidden” disabilities, explained Kathy Paterno, senior staff and ADA coordinator assistant. Unlike physical or medical disabilities that are noticeable right away, many individuals have psychological or learning disabilities and “they just don’t know.” This is why DSS is continuously trying to raise awareness by being present at different places throughout campus, from the bulletin to syllabus to orientation pamphlets.
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“Stigma is a big problem,” said Peggy Perno, the supported education counselor. For example, Perno said that some students from Asia are especially careful that their peers don’t know about them. “Where they come from, psychological problems are hidden, and many times the country as a whole doesn’t address the issue,” she said. Also, many students from anywhere in the world have internalized the stigma of having a disability. This is why, she said, “having a place like DSS for them to come to is a very good thing.”
Students with disabilities “can be isolated,” said Perno. To make students feel welcome and safe, the DSS Lounge has computers, couches and other items and resources that are available any time of day. “We encourage them to go there, so they have a home base,” she said.
Perno, who is counselor to students with psychological disabilities, is a specialist in using different techniques to relax and calm students. She believes that the environment a person is in greatly affects their mental condition. “I keep the office soothing,” she said. “I incorporate a variety of methods, like meditation or aromatherapy.”
“Peggy helps me a lot, especially when I get anxious,” said Lenhart.
Patients who have anxiety problems can benefit from aromatherapy. “A student comes, we prepare a blend especially for him or her and put it into a tissue,” Perno said. Once the student leaves, she explained, if they find themselves in a situation where they feel vulnerable, they can always smell the tissue and feel better. “That can make a huge difference,” she said.
Confidentiality is of the utmost importance when dealing with students with disabilities. Students have to go to the DSS office and register themselves. Their disabilities are never disclosed. Even when a student requests a letter be sent to their professor, disabilities are not notified.
“Professors are not experts [at disabilities]. We don’t want them to make any comparisons,” Molloy said. However, she added that people in general are starting to understand more and more about disabilities. “As more people come out about having disabilities, the easier it will be,” she said.
20 years of the BUDDIE Experience
The BUDDIE experience, which stands for “Because U Don’t Do It Every day,” was started in 1989 with the purpose of connecting administrators, faculty and staff with students with disabilities so that they can learn firsthand what it’s like for these students on campus.
Founded by former Disability Support Services director Monica Roth, the BUDDIE program was first called BUDDIE Day and then BUDDIE Week. Today, the BUDDIE Experience is no longer limited to a certain day or week, but to the whole spring semester.
“It is a matter of availability,” said Kathy Paterno, senior staff assistant and American Disability Association coordinator. In the past, if an administrator had time or work constraints in meeting a student a certain day or week, it wasn’t possible to arrange a meeting, but now it is more flexible.
Another change that significantly improved the program is that DSS has tailored BUDDIE so students have their needs met.
“They tell us who they want to meet,” said Paterno. Many students like to meet with the president, vice-president, provost or dean of their departments, she said.
Former Stony Brook University President Shirley Strum Kenny and former SBU Vice-President George Meyer have both been a part of the BUDDIE Experience.
Students participating in this program can share their feelings and concerns with administrators, faculty or staff and share ideas of what can be, or what has been, improved.
When asked about the number of students that are a part of the BUDDIE Experience, Paterno said that there isn’t a fixed number. Because the program it is voluntary and up to the students, numbers can vary greatly from one year to the next.
Although the possibility of a BUDDIE program between students has been raised, many students with disabilities are opposed. “They want to keep things confidential,” Paterno said.
In any case, Paterno said that people are more aware of the BUDDIE Experience now. DSS is already preparing for this upcoming spring, when flyers will be distributed around campus. However, like many other things, “word-of-mouth is what works best,” she said.
Students Taking Aim at Challenges Club
Students Taking Aim at Challenges (STAC) is a club for students with and without disabilities. The Disability Support Services’ Web site states that “STAC’s goals are to increase accessibility, promote awareness of issues faced by individuals with disabilities and to provide socialization opportunities for club members.”
Peggy Perno, the supported education counselor at DSS, said that STAC is a place where students with disabilities can meet their peers and develop friendships in a “non-threatening way.” She also said that students can assume leadership roles through STAC and have practice in networking with others.
Every year the club focuses on a different subject, and this year they have a special interest on stress and time management. “These are life skills that will help them in any situation,” Perno said.
The club meets every Wednesday at 1 p.m. at the Disability Support Services Lounge.
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