Receiving emails from Canvas for note takers is nothing unusual for Penn students. For some, sign language translators at lectures are not surprising either. While Student Disabilities Services is more than willing to provide necessary assistance, some students feel it hasn’t been able to reach aspects of college life outside the classroom.
SDS assists students with every University-sponsored program, which includes not only classes but also student clubs and events organized by the University. Last year 906 students identified with the SDS office as having disabilities, including temporary conditions such as broken limbs. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder was the largest category with 325 students, followed by learning disabilities, psychological disorders, chronic medical conditions and mobility and sensory impairments.
“It seems like for academic or general university services, SDS will be able to take care of it,” Wharton senior Bart Stawicki said.
Stawicki, who has a physical disability, starts his day with help from Nursing freshman Laura Ng, the personal care assistant he personally employs.
“They don’t provide or pay for anything [customized], that was very clear when I was applying,” he said. He added that while he is generally satisfied with SDS assistance, “there are times when I wish there were more services offered.”
Ng’s day begins with the daily challenge of navigating Stawicki’s wheelchair through his dorm room.
“[The room] is meant for students with disabilities, but oftentimes I’m doing a million turns to make the lift work,” she said
Susan Shapiro, the director of SDS, said the office provides various resources to accommodate each student’s needs in campus life. For students with physical disabilities, SDS provides transportation or ways to access classes. For students with sensory disabilities, it offers different accessible formats for class materials such as auditory text, real-time captioning and sign language interpreters. Electronic texts are also available for students with reading disorders, and there is even a musical scale in Braille for blind music students.
“It is really critical that we provide access to academic and non-academic University-sponsored programs,” Shapiro said.
She added that SDS also uses technological devices as assistance tools. For example, under professor’s permission, students with learning disabilities can use Smartpen, which will record a lecture and afterward play back the parts of the recording that correspond to a particular section in a student’s notes.
While Stawicki agreed that SDS has a lot of resources for academic support, it may not be the case for other aspects of campus life.
“There would be a sheet of ice, and no one would do anything about it for two or three days,” he said.
Because he can go out of his residential building only through its ramp, Stawicki said he had to miss classes for the days that the ramp was not cleared. He said he was also unaware that SDS is supposed to provide assistance for all University-sponsored events.
“One of the main reasons why I didn’t rush was because there are only three accessible fraternities on campus,” he said.
Engineering senior Camille Davis, Stawicki’s close friend and a former note taker for SDS, said that while SDS was strict about protecting students’ personal information through the anonymous system, assistance outside of academics was lacking.
She said for Feb Club, a series of events for seniors organized by the Class Board, Stawicki was unable to attend some of the events because the venues were not accessible for him.
“Even though it is open to all seniors, he can’t come to the event,” Davis said.
Out of many non-academic assistance that students might want, SDS is working to provide more career opportunities. It introduces students to Lime Connect, a nonprofit organization that sponsors talented students with disabilities for job positions in many corporations. Companies partnering with Lime Connect include IBM, Google, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan.
Wharton senior Alexa Ellman found her job through Lime Connect. As a Lime fellow, one of a handful of students selected to be sponsored by the program, she was able to go to a Super Day for an interview.
“To my experience, there really isn’t a really tight partnership with somebody at SDS and Career Services,” Ellman said.
She said although it is a “two-way street,” where students will have to put in effort toward getting job opportunities, she would like to see more integration with Career Services or clubs for students who don’t know where to go for help.
“A lot of students don’t even realize how nuanced disability is in their recruitment,” Ellman said.
Stawicki added that while he understands that confidentiality is important for students with disabilities, he would like to see more community fostered within this group of students.
“There is every single ethnic community on campus, but there’s nothing like that for students with disabilities,” he said.
Shapiro said SDS is deeply committed to providing active assistance for students with disabilities to make sure their needs are met.
“We want to hear from students,” she said.
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.