Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A glimpse into UMass Disability Services

The strengths and setbacks of UMass’s accommodation of students with disabilities
Judith Gibson-Okunieff

Michal Applebaum has a disability that makes academics difficult for her. So, during her first semester at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the fall of 2022, she sought help from Disability Services, which assigned her a learning specialist.

Applebaum said her learning specialist and accommodations contributed to her academic success. But, when she applied for a learning specialist her second semester, Disability Services told her they could not accommodate that request.

“It’s a struggle to get the resources I need from them,” Applebaum said. “Letting yourself take the accommodations is hard as it is.”

Disability Services at UMass is determined to assist students in need of accommodations. However, not all students feel accommodated on campus.

In 2020, the Center for Student Success Research asked UMass Amherst students, “Do you  think of yourself as a person with a disability?” 7 percent of students answered “yes” and 9 percent answered “unsure.” According  to the Center for Student Success Research at the University of  Massachusetts Amherst, finding statistics for disabilities can be challenging, though many students are affected by disabilities at UMass.

For the past 11 years, Trisha Link has held the position of exam accommodation coordinator at Disability Services. Link maintains the two testing centers and oversees over 30 exam proctors who observe students when completing an exam and help with exam transcription in the Whitmore Building.

“It’s a complicated position but I do love it, I’ve always worked with students,” Link said. “I wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for the students on this campus so I try to give 100 plus percent and not take stuff too personally.”

Many eligible students use Disability Services, although some do not reach out to them for resources, Link said.

“I would just want students to learn more about it and if they are eligible and just get the help that they need so that they can get their degree,” she said. “But we need students to speak up to help us.”

She added that students can transfer their 504 Plan from high school to college. A 504 Plan guarantees that a student with an identified disability receives specialized support.

Some students’ hesitation to reach out to Disability Services is because they say not all students are provided with the accommodations they need, including Applebaum.

In fall 2022, Applebaum completed a form for a learning specialist to accommodate her specific needs — a process she compared to choosing a therapist. Applebaum said her specialist was understanding and easy to work with. The Learning Specialist program at UMass has a budget of $161,013.80 annually  , according to Associate Chancellor for Compliance Christine Wilda. Applebaum’s academic accommodations include extended time for assignments and exams and she is provided a notetaker.

“I have to be in contact with the professors daily,” Link said. “They are always willing to help but some of the professors proctor their own exams with accommodations.”

“My class last spring would book a room when we had exams and my professor would have us start an hour early and we had to be there for like, at least until the normal exam started. So it was really nice because when it was evening exams, we could start early instead of going late,” Applebaum said.

Applebaum asked Disability Services for a learning specialist for her spring 2022 semester and Disability Services did not provide one for her. Although she still received academic accommodations, she said that a learning specialist was vital for her. So, she hired one privately, although it was a financial burden. Link acknowledged that Disability Services does need more help and Applebaum’s experience is an example of this.

“Our staff, we work very hard for the students on this campus,” Link said. “We need more rooms, we need more resources.”

For the fall 2023 semester, Applebaum said she expressed her need for a learning specialist to Disability Services via email twice.

“This semester they were really slow at responding; I filled out the survey and I didn’t hear anything,” Applebaum said.

She said that not having a learning specialist this semester makes her classes difficult.

Disability Services still provides notetakers for her; there is typically a notetaker for every class offered at UMass.

“I get a notetaker but it’s frustrating because they don’t get them immediately and like nobody  wants to do it,” Applebaum said.

“It gives me the freedom to pay more attention to the lecture,” she added. “I have trouble figuring out what I should write.”

Applebaum accesses her notetaker’s work through Clockwork, a UMass Amherst website created by Disability Services. She said Clockwork was “outdated and confusing.”  Ilgaz Hakioglu started working as a notetaker in the fall semester of 2022 and also described Clockwork as “outdated.”

Hakioglu is a notetaker for three classes that she is not enrolled in, meaning she is required to take notes for them to post to Clockwork.

“At the end of the day… I collapse,” she said. “It’s physically tiring because I’m running around all day trying to go to five classes.”

Despite this, she enjoys doing it. “I just like helping people, it makes me feel better about myself contributing to someone and making their life easier,” she said. “I think it’s just important to acknowledge the disabled people are on campus because I don’t think a lot of people actually realize how hard their life [is] compared to ours.”

She said that Disability Services needs many more notetakers.

“Maybe they can make the job more appealing so that more people can take it,” Hakioglu said.

Zoe Kopec, the assistant director for information access for Disability Services at UMass, expressed the need for more notetakers and resources too. Disability Services spends $18,570 annually to support notetaking, according to Wilda.

Kopec oversees multiple programs that Disability Services offers including the notetaking program. She was formerly the notetaking coordinator from 2019 to 2021.

“The note-taking staff gets like hundreds of emails a day for the first few weeks so there is a little bit of a delay. There’s just so much information,” she said.

Link said that Disability Services needs more resources and students should speak up about which resources would help them the most. She hopes that Disability Services has the budget for more resources in the future to better assist students.

Zoe Rakarich can be reached @[email protected]

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    Ed Cutting -- EdD 2012Dec 2, 2023 at 2:55 pm

    While there’s a whole new staff there now, i don’t think the attitude has changed — the primary purpose of Disability DisServices is to deny ADA accommodations, particularly for students with learning disabilities.
    UMass once had an Office of Learning Disability Support Services that was headed by a woman who not only had a DOCTORATE in Special Education, but was a professor of it. It was eliminated for political reasons and folded into Disability DisServices.
    I look at the staff there now and notice that no one has anything more than a Master’s degree — not even a CAGS, let alone a doctorate, let alone a *relevant* doctorate….
    As to note taking, let me offer UMass a suggestion from someone who has an *earned* doctorate in CURRICULUM — hire a bunch of graduate students to take notes in *all* of the large lecture classes, graduate students who actually took these classes as undergrads (at UM or elsewhere) and got good grades in them, and then have the professors sign off on the notes, attesting to the fact that they are what the professor wanted to teach (and that nothing is missing) and then give them to *all* the students….
    This would help the students identified with disabilities, the students with disabilities they don’t know about, and those who are lousy stenographers. And as most high schools don’t teach stenography (shorthand) anymore, that winds up being EVERYONE….
    The Learning Assistants are psychology grad students because everyone knows that anyone with a learning disability is inherently mentally ill and hence this gives them experience working with the mentally ill. Amongst other things, why this isn’t a violation of the Human Subjects rule is beyond me….
    Above and beyond all of this, the advice I give to parents — who pay me for advice — is not to even register with Disability DisServices if at all possible. While students with disabilities are legally entitled to accommodations (much like the rights of female students under Title IX), the costs of requesting it vastly exceed the benefit.
    Even the most basic of costs — the time spent jumping through theI e hoops of Disability DisServices could be better spent on the actual academics.
    I could go on, but articles like this make my blood boil….
    I earned my doctorate in spite of Disability DisServices….