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Big Univ., Little Support

In several earlier posts I have noted systemic failures at the University of Minnesota. In August, 2006, my misadventures began. By the end of September, my position in the Writing Center ended in disaster and a complaint to the university relating to the experience. The university has been less and less welcoming with each new semester.

The university is nothing like my experiences at Fresno State or my initial studies at USC. My classroom studies in English and journalism at USC were relatively uneventful. (Problems at USC were limited to one person in the School of Education, after I completed my undergraduate studies.) Fresno State went relatively well, too, with a 4.0 GPA and my only issues involving paperwork nonsense that occurs everywhere.

I was never “disabled” at USC. I was only listed as disabled at Fresno State after having issues walking across the campus in a timely fashion. I am slow, especially when my back and legs hurt. Still, this was a minor issue and the university made sure my teaching locations were convenient. People were quite helpful.

The Univ. of Minnesota has reminded me that there are people unwilling to understand difference. Until coming here, I had assumed things would be even better than in the past. After all, I had clearly demonstrated my mental abilities.

Unfortunately, once I realized I needed additional advocacy here, I learned another reality about the university: though one of the most expensive state universities in the nation, it’s funding priorities make absolutely no sense.

The failures of the Univ. of Minnesota are the result of funding and resource choices made well beyond the control of the Disability Services office. The staff of DS is too small to deal with the needs of a campus with more than 50,000 students. The DS office should have no more than 50 cases per specialist, but it seems some disability specialists are expected to assist more than 140 students. This low staffing ratio prevents DS from experimenting with more innovative programs. Staff struggling to maintain workloads have no time to innovate, much less the time to adequately serve students.

With a larger staff and more resources, Disability Services could implement some great changes. Some of these changes might include a customized service database, which could automatically e-mail students with appropriate reminders. Students could request “accommodations letters” automatically, via a secure online site.

Everything from the minimal transit offered to the disabled to classroom tours could be improved with more funding for personnel and resources. The campus is not “mobility friendly” any time of year, but it is particularly bad in the winter. Touring classrooms, essential for some disabled students, is further complicated because rooms are sometimes (rightfully) locked. I walked across campus, in pain, only to reach a locked multimedia classroom.

I wish there were a way to explain to administrators that we need more services. We are receiving more disabled students than ever, including veterans with unique needs, an expanding population of autistic students, and record numbers with mental health needs.

Someone mentioned to me that some students require more assistance by nature of the disabilities. I cannot imagine using a wheelchair on this campus, having found a cane and crutches difficult. Blind students require tours to learn where rooms are, as well as to plot the safest routes in this urban setting. Veterans with serious injuries are also adapting to life out of service.

Now, add to the “expected” disabilities autism. It is nothing like the physical disabilities professors cannot ignore. Abusing someone with a clear physical disability would never be tolerated. Very little “educating” is necessary; professors know they need to be respectful.

Anyone with an “invisible” disability is easy to ignore, and mistreatment is too often tolerated. Disability Services lacks the mandate to require that professors attend training sessions. DS has too little support to be proactive, even for a population that must be served before problems occur with professors.

Things here need to change. For a university supposedly dedicated to improving its standing, it certainly is failing a large segment of students with special gifts, as well as special needs. What an absolute travesty.

Note: I outlined this post early in the morning, using the “quicktype” feature of an iPod Touch. As I shake sometimes, I wasn’t sure how the device would work, but it did surprisingly well.

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