By Katharine Webster
Janelle Diaz ’12, ’14 remembers it as a turning point in the university’s expansion.
Several years ago, then-Chancellor Marty Meehan was laying out all his building plans at a forum for students when Diaz, who uses a wheelchair, asked, “Are you getting input from students with disabilities?”
The answer was no. But Diaz, founder of the student club Disable the Label, was quickly invited to serve on an advisory committee headed by Peter Brigham, assistant director of campus planning and development. She accepted, and now the campus planning office goes beyond ADA requirements, embracing universal design principles in every new building and renovation. Coburn Hall, the oldest building on campus and the last to become physically accessible, is now under renovation.
“When I first got here, a lot of buildings were not accessible,” says Diaz, who earned degrees in psychology and community social psychology before going to work as a support counselor in the university’s Disability Services office. “Now, practically every building is. That’s a huge testimony to the commitment the university has to ensuring access for every student.”
Access to buildings is just one way the campus supports students with disabilities. Whether through assistive technology or mental health counseling, UMass Lowell is committed to helping all students get the most out of their education, says Jody Goldstein, director of Disability Services.
“People think of us as the push-button people,” she says, referring to the buttons that open automatic doors. “But we do so much more.”
Disability Services currently helps about 900 students, or 6 percent of the student body, Goldstein says. The majority have invisible disabilities such as anxiety and depression or other conditions that can lead to anxiety, she says.
“Anxiety and depression is the No. 1 challenge that college campuses are facing nationwide,” she says. “Almost everyone with learning disabilities, ADHD and autism spectrum disorder also has anxiety – and it’s often more disabling than their primary diagnosis.”
The most important thing for students to know as they transition from high school to college is that it’s now their responsibility to ask for help, Goldstein says. Students who need accommodation can register with Disability Services before they arrive on campus and then meet with a staff member to work out a plan.
“No matter what someone’s paperwork says, we just talk to them, figure out how they’re impaired, figure out what accommodations they need and provide support services,” she says.
Once they’ve signed up with Disability Services, students get priority course registration. They also can attend a transition seminar: They move in two days early and attend workshops on how to access services and assistive technology, navigate UMass Lowell’s three campuses and get academic help.
For the first semester, they meet weekly with a member of the Disability Services staff, then continue as needed. Students who at first thought they wouldn’t need accommodation or those with a new diagnosis are also welcome, Goldstein says.
“Many of our students have learned some great compensatory techniques for high school, but when they get here, all of that falls apart,” she says. “The first year is a big transition for any student, and it’s even more difficult for the students we work with in our office. When they get overwhelmed, they want to shut down, and we help them to push through that.”
For students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Assoc. Prof. of Psychology Ashleigh Hillier and Lauren Tornatore in Disability Services offer a peer-to-peer program that partners them with returning students. There’s an online version, too. New students with ASD can also join Connections, a group run by Goldstein that meets weekly. Diaz runs Reconnections for those who want support after their first semester.
For students with learning disabilities, Disability Services offers all kinds of assistive technology, including the loan of a Livescribe Smartpen. The pen simultaneously records a lecture and captures the student’s written notes; then, when it comes time to review, the student simply taps on a word or diagram in her notebook and the pen plays back that portion of the lecture.
Some professors also use lecture capture technology to record class sessions, which students can then view online. Brandon Drake in Disability Services works with faculty to make their courses more accessible and is constantly looking for better technology that supports all students, Goldstein says.
For example, the university makes a wide range of software available to all students through VLabs, including Read&Write Gold, which features screen-reading and allows users to interact verbally with a text. That’s helpful for English language learners as well as students with dyslexia and processing disorders, Goldstein says.
“We’re keeping the available learning software up to date for the whole university,” she says. “We want to be helpful even for students not registered with our office.”
New testing centers that opened on both South Campus and North Campus last year accommodate students who need a low-distraction environment or extra time during exams. Students can also take a reduced course load: While it may take them longer to graduate and therefore cost more, a reduced course load can mean the difference between success and failure, Goldstein says.
Disability Services is doing something right. Students who are registered with the office average a higher GPA than the student body as a whole, and many are in the Honors College, Goldstein says.
Tyler Lagasse, a student with ASD who is majoring in environmental, earth and atmospheric sciences, says he has taken advantage of Connections and Reconnections, testing accommodations and more. He says Goldstein has been incredibly helpful, and he’s also gotten lots of support from faculty and other staff, especially in the Athletics Department.
A Special Olympian who has won three national silver medals in golf, Lagasse likes to hit the links with Cam Ellsworth, former associate men’s hockey coach. He’s made friends with players on the women’s soccer team through their annual “Playing for Inclusion” event, and he speaks every year to students taking Introduction to Politics and Sports.
“The faculty and staff have done a tremendous job with helping me succeed at UMass Lowell. I feel more independent; I've worked so hard in my four years at this university, and I have really shown that I belong,” Lagasse says.
“I am more experienced and more comfortable with my surroundings, thanks to those fine people, and I can't thank them enough.”