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Center for Disability Resources Empowers Students, Changing Perceptions
Miguel Pica ’22 knows the important work the Center for Disability Resources (CDR) does to help students with disabilities meet their academic goals. He has been working with an access counselor at the center since he came to campus in 2019—and has found his personal success with their efforts.
Pica, who was medically retired from the U.S. Army after being injured on active duty, was concerned about completing his coursework on time, having enough time on exams and possibly being penalized or forced to drop a class for too many medically related absences.
Working with access counselor Michael Mazzaroppi, “we were able to develop a plan where I would have extended time for exams, quizzes and tests; use of a recording device in class; advance access to PowerPoints and negotiate an attendance modification plan between the professor, counselor and myself,” says Pica, a dual major in biology and history in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Maxwell School.
“Whatever concern or need I had, my access counselor would investigate and figure out what options we could pursue to better acclimate me to the classroom environment,” says Pica. “The work of the Center for Disability Resources has been very important to me and finding my success at Syracuse by providing the assistance I need to perform well in the classroom.”
In its mission, the Center for Disability Resources, formerly known as the Office of Disability Services (ODS), empowers students, enhances equity and provides a platform for innovation and inclusion. The staff works to take away the environmental barriers that impact student learning, support faculty as they create inclusive classrooms and assist colleagues across campus to move toward universal design.
Along with the hands-on work, the Center for Disability Resources is committed to a larger purpose, changing the way people think about disability.
“We embrace the concept in our mission of disability as diversity,” says Paula Possenti-Perez, the center’s director. “Our work is both transactional and transformative, qualitative and quantitative in nature.”
For example, CDR offers Exam Services, which provides test proctoring for students who need certain testing accommodations. It’s a resource for faculty (as opposed to a service for students) to ensure every students’ needs are met and permits them to flourish in an inclusive, universally accessible environment—a standard that recognizes each person’s abilities and embraces diversity. “It’s not the student’s issue to resolve that the exam environment is problematic,” Possenti-Perez says.
The work of the staff—and the philosophy and mission behind their work—was the impetus behind its name change earlier this year. The change also reflects the center’s core values of social justice. “Our name has changed but our mission has not changed,” Possenti-Perez says.
The change follows a recommendation by the Disability External Review Committee, formed at the request of Chancellor Kent Syverud in 2018. The committee conducted an audit of disability services across the University and received approval to change the name as part of Phase One of the committee’s recommendations. Phase One recommendations were fully endorsed by Chancellor Syverud.
“Syracuse University has a history around disability and inclusion, and I was hired in 2014 because of my perspective and philosophy around social justice and to help continue that work,” Possenti-Perez says.
Possenti-Perez has advanced the mission of the center through collaboration with colleagues across campus. These collaborations include her roles as co-chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Council through the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and as co-chair of the Disability Community Group. These two groups address disability access for students, faculty and staff across campus. She and her team work closely with the Office of Equal Opportunity, Inclusion and Resolution Services’ staff members William Myhill, interim ADA coordinator, and Melanie Domanico, EEO and accommodation specialist, and collaborate on such workshops as “Rethinking the Disability Paradigm,” which are designed to recognize and address ableism in higher education. The center also partners with such colleagues as Jenny Gluck, associate chief information officer, and Pam Thomas, accessibility analyst, who are outstanding allies in the work and in mitigating barriers related to technology in the learning environment, Possenti-Perez says.
“Our work extends to this level of collaboration specifically when working and advancing disability as diversity, recognizing the intersectionality of disability with other oppressed groups and moving forward to address how different students experience disability,” says Possenti-Perez.
Possenti-Perez also works with the Division of Enrollment and the Student Experience and such units as Admissions, the Dean of Students Office, the Center for Learning and Student Success, the Housing Office and the Office of First-Year and Transfer Programs to ensure new students are aware of how to access disability-related accommodations. Working with the University Senate, she provided an updated syllabus statement that invites students to engage with their faculty to discuss strategies and/or accommodations essential to their success. The statement centers the focus on instruction and course design rather than on a student’s impairment and is designed to invite dialogue.
The outreach work of the center and its staff has increased the number of students seeking access and disability-related support resources from 1,200 registered students to over 2,700, since Possenti-Perez began.
“We provide individual academic adjustments when environmental barriers cannot be eliminated and assistive technology that fosters independent, self-determined learners,” Possenti-Perez says. “Because of the commitment of the University, our office can provide a range of resources—we go beyond compliance.”
The center, in addition to federally mandated accommodations, provides advocacy, general support, academic assistance, some content tutoring, screenings for learning disabilities, psychoeducational evaluations, assistive technology training, note taking assistance and more.
For his first visit, Pica was accompanied by fellow student-veteran and then-president of the Student Veteran Organization Adam LeGrand, who took him to what is now the Center for Disability Resources to speak about how the center could help. “From being able to relate with someone with a TBI [traumatic brain injury] in service, he knew the challenges I may face regarding education,” says Pica, an advisor with the Peer Advisors for Veteran Education and secretary of the Student Veteran Organization.
The staff is genuine and empathetic—helping students acquire accommodations from scheduling an exam to finding a tutor or note taker or just needing a chat, Pica says. Most importantly, they let you know that you are not alone.
“Because of Adam connecting me to the Center for Disability Resources, I can still obtain an outstanding education, regardless of the challenges I face,” Pica says. “The CDR cares about your success and would do whatever they can, in their power, to assist you in being included in the classroom and obtaining your dreams.”
As part of the center’s goal to make their work seamless with student needs, its systems have gone entirely online over the past six years. A disability resource portal is available for students to begin the process of seeking accommodations. Being online has been especially helpful during the pandemic as students register online and can meet with their access counselors for their welcome meetings virtually.
Even with being online, the office still needs to consider any potential barriers in this time of the pandemic. “It changes how we are intentional with outreach,” Possenti-Perez says.
In recognition of potential barriers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the University has established the Access and Inclusion Working Committee, which Possenti-Perez co-chairs with the interim ADA coordinator, to provide a way for students, faculty and staff to report concerns or access issues related to the pandemic.
Even in this year of the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the work continues to ensure access and push to break through barriers.
What is success for the CDR? “The day we don’t we have to be here—that’s aspirational,” says Possenti-Perez, but it’s the little successes that are powerful every day in the work for students.
“It’s when faculty reach out to us and ask, ‘How do I create an inclusive classroom?’ That’s success when a faculty member is thinking about an inclusive educational environment and creating a learning space that provides a sense of belonging and is accessible from the start,” she says.
She also appreciates hearing from students.
“When students share their positive experiences in the learning and living environment—those are signs of success,” Possenti-Perez says. “When a student feels like they belong, that is success.”