Administration responds to demands for disability services

By JAE CHOI | September 6, 2018

Since April, the student group Advocates for Disability Awareness (ADA) has demanded improvements to Student Disability Services (SDS) on campus. In July, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger and Vice Provost for Institutional Equity Kimberly Hewitt announced in a campus-wide email that the University would take measures to address these demands. 

Some of the demands that ADA called for in April include improvements to disability education for students and faculty; the reinstatement of Brent Mosser as SDS director; improvements to the Counseling Center; improved staffing and a more accessible location for the SDS Office; and more accessible forms of transportation. 

In addition to the email sent by Shollenberger, administrators released a full-length progress report to ADA student leaders that described the changes to SDS in depth.

According to the progress report, changes to SDS in the coming school year include both a new Homewood SDS director and an executive SDS director position; trainings for new students, faculty and staff; optional education programming for existing faculty and staff; incorporating disability into the University’s definition of diversity; and relocating the SDS Office to the first floor of Mattin Center. 

Coordinating University services

Students with disabilities have reported that obtaining accommodations varies across the nine different campuses of the University. This creates further challenges for some students with disabilities who commute frequently to other campuses.

Senior ADA member Chris Reinhardt discussed some of the challenges he faces in obtaining accomodations.

“The way that Hopkins works, we’re very spread out over Baltimore,” he said. “Let’s say you have someone who’s an undergrad here at Hopkins, and maybe they do research at the med campus — there’s no real way for them to get any accommodations at the med campus.” 

According to Hewitt, hiring an executive SDS director would improve disability accommodation coordination across campuses. The search for this position, Hewitt said, is already in progress.

“Part of the [reason to create] an executive director position was one, to coordinate all the services across the University,” she said.

When OIE investigates, for instance, a case of sexual violence, the Office may also end up handling disability accommodations related to the case. An example could be accommodations that need to be made because of the impact of the investigation on the survivor. 

Hewitt believes the strain on OIE could be eased by transferring the Office’s responsibility to ensure Americans with Disabilities Act compliance onto the new executive director.

Disability awareness and education

Senior Beatrice Lunsford-Poe, who uses SDS for disability accommodations, has also faced issues with the Office. She recalled that when she needed to verify her disability accommodations with SDS before taking the GRE, the Office could not locate the documentation that she had provided years prior. 

She explained that she had also faced difficulty gaining the trust of her professors when bringing her disability accommodations to them. 

“Faculty should know how to deal with this stuff,” Lunsford-Poe said. “I have had multiple professors who have asked me how I’m disabled, which they shouldn’t be asking. They should just see that I have accommodations and take that as okay, instead of asking me what disability I have and how I’m trying to fix it.”

She added that these questions seemed like an invasion of privacy. 

“That’s my information to volunteer, and it’s not their place to ask,” she said.

Though the progress report institutes information on disability awareness and education as a part of new faculty and staff orientation, no mandatory training for current faculty exists. 

OIE and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) are, however, working on creating an online course on disability awareness by fall 2019. Hewitt discussed the possibility of future trainings for faculty and staff focused on supporting students with disabilities and a newly-announced diversity leadership conference.

“We’re thinking generally about inclusive pedagogy with faculty across the board — so speaking broadly about all forms of diversity, including disability and how to be more supportive in the classroom and integrate these different perspectives into teaching,” she said.

Changes to the Counseling Center

Changes to the Counseling Center were announced following concerns from ADA members and other students about long wait times between counseling sessions due to a lack of available therapists and lack of ADD/ADHD treatment. Students also reported that they were turned away from the Center after exceeding the number of visits deemed reasonable by therapists or because their cases were too complex to treat. 

Junior ADA Member Madelynn Wellons spoke about the restriction placed by some therapists on the number of counseling sessions.

“Therapists aren’t supposed to say, ‘you can only come this amount of times,’” she said. “It’s always been the rule, but that has not 100 percent been followed all the time.”

Due to these student demands and recommendations from the JHU Task Force on Student Mental Health and Well-Being, the University began implementing several changes earlier in the year and is also rolling out new plans for the fall semester, according to Vice Provost for Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger. 

The University grew its psychiatric staff to include six part-time psychiatrists and also announced that it would be conducting a search for an ADHD/ADD specialist. 

Shollenberger added that the Counseling Center’s new model would provide same-day, walk-in initial consultations, which will be piloted for the following year. He also discussed future plans to hire a satellite counselor, who would be present for drop-in consultation outside of normal Counseling Center hours at an easily accessible location like Brody or the Milton S Eisenhower Library.

In response to student concerns, Shollenberger clarified the Counseling Center’s policy on the number of counseling sessions students can attend, adding that there is no strict limit on counseling sessions unless students want or need longer-term or more intensive services that could be better met by outside specialists or facilities.

“We actually don’t have limits to the number of sessions — that said, we are a short-term ongoing counseling center, really focused on working with students around problem-solving and solutions, and so there are times where, in talking with students, that they may need some additional therapy or treatment that we don’t have in house,” he said. 

“We really want to show campus that we are here, that we are present, that we are students with disabilities.”

Student-administration collaboration

For many students, this update from the University represented an important step toward addressing the needs of students with disabilities. 

Wellons explained that the administration worked closely with ADA in their efforts to improve SDS. 

“It took about three meetings to go through the entirety of the demands and start fleshing out a few plans for each one, talking about them. So we’d meet every other week for a while,” she said. “There was a lot of back-and-forth correspondence.”

Shollenberger said that he worked with ADA members to improve disability services in response to the ADA list of demands but added that the University had already been searching for ways in which they could improve their services. He reported that during the summer and fall of 2017, OIE and Student Affairs had recruited consultants who provided recommendations for improving student disability services at Hopkins, which aligned well with ADA’s suggestions. 

“We have been regularly meeting with the leaders of ADA,” he said. “I’ve really valued the interaction and relationship. It’s been a very collaborative process.”

Americans with Disabilities Act Compliance Officer Aaron Hodukavich appreciated the non-confrontational environment of their meetings.

“The conversations with the ADA have gone very well. You hear the word ‘demand,’ and you think this will be a very adversarial conversation, but it really wasn’t,” he said. 

Although not all the original ADA demands were met, Wellons, as well as other ADA members, were generally pleased with the announcement of these new changes.

“I honestly am really excited. I think they’re pretty receptive to the changes we want to make,” she said. 

The future of Advocates for Disability Awareness

The University administration is hoping to continue its relationship with ADA. 

Shollenberger particularly emphasized the role SDS Director Terri Massie-Burrell will play in this relationship.

“I’m hoping with any student issues like this, that there’s going to be ongoing communication and collaboration now that Terri’s on board,” he said. “She’s going to be their main point person, and there’s still a number of things on that list that need additional attention and work.”

ADA members said that they would continue to follow up with and collaborate with the administration. 

Members also said that they are looking into hosting events promoting disability awareness in collaboration with different student groups and University offices. 

Some of those events include a panel for students of color with disabilities, a panel discussing the experiences of persons with disabilities at medical institutions, and an event featuring public speaker and comedian Christina Irene, who will be giving talks about the stigma surrounding disability and invisible disabilities, one oriented toward students and another oriented toward faculty. ADA will also be hosting a social and a movie screening.

Wellons is hoping that the momentum from the recent progress in disability awareness at Hopkins will be maintained.

“We really want to show campus that we are here, we are present, we are students with disabilities, it wasn’t just a one-semester, one-and-done thing — we’re not going away. It’s not like we just spoke up once and we’re going to simmer down now,” she said. “It’s time for students with disabilities at Hopkins to have a real voice, and I’m really excited to see that continue.”

Diva Parekh and Meagan Peoples contributed reporting. 

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