Getting to Know: Office of Disability Services Director Paula Possenti-Perez
Office of Disability Services (ODS) Director Paula Possenti-Perez looks at the realm of disability in terms of social justice as well as diversity.
“It’s creating a new context around disability as being a positive asset and empowering and engaging students to see disability as a source of where additional strength and skills have been developed and enhanced—literally because they have a disability,” Possenti-Perez says. “In terms of disability services, we focus on empowering our students and target the design of our environment as problematic, and accommodations stem from there.”
It was important to her that this way of thinking aligned with the University’s values when she first came to campus early last year to meet with administrators about the director’s position.
“I was very open about, not only my skill set, but also my philosophy and vision,” Possenti-Perez says. “It needed to match because that would be the direction I would want to take the office and it was exactly in line with what the University was looking for.”
Possenti-Perez, who started in August, directs and oversees all disability-related accommodations and services for students, including counseling, alternative exam administration, Psycho-Educational Testing Clinic, alternative format and note-taking services.
Within the first month, she implemented changes to the mandatory testing services and forged connections with disability advocates and offices and colleges across campus. She is also continuing to engage with more students.
“There’s so much opportunity to engage and collaborate across the University. I want us to sort of reinvent ourselves in terms of ODS being seen as a resource area,” Possenti-Perez says.
Possenti-Perez’s work is similar to her prior position at Dutchess Community College, where she was coordinator of the Office of Accommodative Services for over 10 years.
While on campus during the interview process, Possenti-Perez met with many on campus who interact and collaborate with the Office of Disability Services. One of the first people she met was Diane Wiener, director of the Disability Cultural Center (DCC).
“The DCC’s focus on the coordination of campus-wide social, educational and cultural activities on disability issues for students, faculty, staff and community members with and without disabilities is a standout in higher education,” Possenti-Perez says. “Not only because this generally comes from the disability services office on most college campus, but because I see it as the University’s commitment to our students and community. The idea that we have a whole other area devoted to disability culture, rights and pride and that we can work in tandem is a beautiful union.”
Possenti-Perez is looking to bridge some gaps between the different points of access for students.
“There are a lot of students who go to the Disability Cultural Center who don’t affiliate with ODS, and vice versa,” she says. “We’re looking to really change the culture of ODS in terms of becoming a more empowering space and one that embodies that cultural aspect of diversity in a very positive way.”
In ODS, one of her first challenges was revamping the work of the testing center. Mandatory testing accommodations are the largest service the office offers. During finals, the testing staff managed the administration of over 1,000 exams in a little over a week.
Sign-ups for testing are now automated for both students and faculty and now allow for faculty input.
“I’ve been working with the new staff, and Kala Rounds, who is the new coordinator of exam administration, and they have done a phenomenal job,” she says. “The goal is to improve the experience for everybody.”
Students who disclose they have a disability initially meet with an ODS counselor to review what accommodations and services they may require for the semester.
With a newly developed student assessment survey that helps structure the conversation, counselors gain insight from the student’s perspective as to how they learn and the challenges they encounter in the learning environment.
The counselor then develops an accommodation plan, a fluid plan that details accommodations and services that focuses on the student’s strengths and targets the environmental barriers. The plan might include allowing for extended time for testing, textbooks in alternative format, note taking strategies (such as using the “Live Scribe Pen”) and tutoring.
ODS counselors may also meet with students on a regular basis on a variety of matters, such as time management and organizational assistance, problem solving, liaison with faculty and advocacy.
“They really serve as more of an access and learning specialist,” Possenti-Perez says.
Another role that is equally important to her is to support faculty in their frontline engagement with students, whether in classroom access, effective pedagogy or testing accommodations. In addition, she looks to engage in training across departments or collaborative work with such offices as the Tutoring Center and Athletics.
Possenti-Perez, who is a co-chair on the search committee for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator position, has a close working relationship with other disability advocates on campus and is a member of the newly created Staff for the Disability Community. The group, led by Cynthia Maxwell Curtin, associate vice president, chief officer for Equal Opportunity, Inclusion, and Resolution Services and interim 503/504 and ADA coordinator, brings together key staff people to address broad disability-related issues on campus.
In the broader statewide community, she is the incoming president of the New York State Disability Services Council and a newly appointed member of the New York State Advisory Council, which was recently established within the New York Department of Education.
As one of her goals in ODS, Possenti-Perez plans to assess student learning and development outcomes, which she implemented at her previous institution and has trained others in implementing. “We need to be able to assess our services for efficacy and not only say what we are doing and how we do it, but also prove we are doing what we are saying,” she says.
With the various plans for ODS underway, Possenti-Perez appreciates the work of the ODS staff to make them happen. “They are responsive, proactive and I really believe in collaboration in terms of how we create these goals and look for ideas from the staff to achieve them,” she says. “The opportunity to make positive changes is really empowering for me.”
Possenti-Perez is also looking forward to settling in to the new home she recently purchased in the University neighborhood, with her two daughters—Beth, a graduate of SUNY New Paltz, and Gabrielle, who will be graduating from Dutchess Community College. Her son, Matthew, lives in Florida. “That’s really exciting. I’m putting down roots in Syracuse,” she says.