DSS changes name to emphasize accessibility

By Grace Hebron

Accessibility and Disability Support Services (ADS) was introduced by Towson University as the new title for its Disability Support Services this month. The department currently assists more than 2,000 students with disabilities or temporary impairments.

The name change, due, in part, to President Kim Schatzel’s priority to make TU a diverse and inclusive campus, also sees ADS’ move from within TU’s Division of Student Affairs to the Office of Inclusion and Institutional Equity.

“We wanted to emphasize accessibility as well as disability,” said ADS Director Susan Willemin, who noted that in addition to accommodating the needs of students with disabilities, ADS hopes to collaborate with TU to remove educational accessibility barriers on campus by implementing Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework for teaching and learning that helps give all students an equal opportunity to succeed.

“Universal Design for Learning is a way of developing flexible learning environments to accommodate a broad range of learners,” said Willemin. 

Willemin noted that the strategy will help reduce the need to retrofit parts of a student’s learning environment with accommodations after their course is underway.

“This will foster more learning environments that can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by a diversity of learners,” she said.

Students can expect to receive the same services, but with an added focus on accessibility, which Willemin hopes will make the ADS seem more approachable. 

“I think using only the word ‘disability’ in our name may have led some people to believe that our services are only for those with visible and/or more severe conditions,” Willemin said. “However, we serve far more students who have less serious and invisible conditions.” 

This includes students with auditory, visual and learning disabilities, who Willemin said, in recent years, have come to ADS with electronic accessibility concerns. Many of these involved adapting online text for students with low vision and providing video captions for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Senior Electronic Media and Film major, Ryan Permison has Asperger’s syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum. He began receiving services from ADS when he came to Towson in 2012.

“I need extra time on exams and it’s nice to have that as a safety net during each semester,” said Permison.

Permison added that taking exams can be very stressful for him, and knowing he has extended time takes off some of the pressure.

Permison also uses a smart pen provided by ADS, a device that allows him to record audio from lectures and revisit them later.

“The special notebook has ways of you going back to certain parts of the lectures and you can hear specific parts of it when you have trouble understanding something the professor talked about,” he said.

In her time teaching at Towson, mass communication professor and author Beth Haller has seen the important role of ADS in helping students like Permison make the most of their education.

The author of “Representing Disability in an Ableist World: Essays on Mass Media,” Haller hopes to see increased accessibility beyond the classroom setting.

“Better access means more interaction and communication across the campus because disabled students (and faculty and staff) can get to any place everyone else is,” said Haller, who noted that accessibility can pose a problem when there are physical barriers making it difficult to navigate a public space. 

Willemin said that physical accessibility concerns over the years have involved providing classrooms with wheelchair ramps and ensuring that buildings on campus have automatic door openers. Haller noted, in addition to this, the challenges that TU’s geography can pose in terms of physical access.

“Towson’s campus is more than 300 acres and very hilly so it can be a problem for students with mobility disabilities or chronic illnesses that make it difficult to walk long distances,” she said.

Willemin hopes that with it’s new name and location, that ADS will continue to be a place where all students come to thrive.

“We strive to create a fully accessible environment where students of all abilities have an opportunity to develop their full potential, here at Towson,” she said.

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