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Access Counselor Ensures Students with Disabilities Have Proper Accommodations for Academic Success
As someone born with significant hearing loss, Michael Mazzaroppi G’14 says it was inevitable that he would become an advocate for others with disabilities.
After working abroad at a school for the Deaf and an agency for the Deaf, and later at a nonprofit connecting people with disabilities to resources, Mazzaroppi joined the University last October as an access counselor with the Center for Disability Resources.
In his role, Mazzaroppi ensures students have the necessary accommodations for academic success. His work is also about reframing how people think about disability.
“I want to level the playing field for students and empower them in achieving their academic goals, and I also want to help them see their disability from a social justice model and be proud of what their disability may be,” says Mazzaroppi, who is also an American Sign Language instructor and teaches two courses through the School of Education. “It’s really important, especially in this day and age, that people do not think about disability in terms of what someone can’t do or as a deficit. I want them to think more about what they can do and see themselves as a whole person.”
It also means changing society’s perception of people with disabilities. “It’s about reframing the language that we use to talk about disability,” he says.
The Center for Disability Resources embraces the concept of disability as diversity and is committed to creating a new context for disability by redefining the term and the culture that surrounds it.
From his office in the Center for Disability Resources, formerly known as the Office of Disability Services, Mazzaroppi, who uses a speech-to-text app while meeting online, speaks about his professional background, his work with students and what he enjoys most about the people at the University.
How did you become interested in assisting and advocating for students?
Without a choice, I had to advocate, because I was born with significant hearing loss. Throughout K-12, I had accommodations and support in school. I was always embarrassed about my disability.
When I went to Gallaudet University, a liberal arts university for the Deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C., that’s where I learned to take pride in being hard of hearing. That’s where I learned American Sign Language. Then I traveled and lived in other countries. I worked at a school for the Deaf in Japan, and I worked for an agency for the Deaf in Paraguay. Living in New York City for a few years, I worked as a teacher for the Deaf. Then I came back to Syracuse where I was born and raised, and where my family lives.
While I was working for ARISE, a nonprofit independent living center in Syracuse, that’s where I really grew as a person, trying to understand the needs of people with disabilities. I created PowerPoints and training, traveling throughout Onondaga, Cortland, Madison and Tompkins counties to teach about resources and college programs for students with disabilities. I talked about the different agencies and supports that students could use in preparing them to transition to employment or college.
Why were you interested in the role at the University?
I saw the job posting at Syracuse University, and I felt like I was ready to apply everything that I’ve learned in a college setting. I had provided information to teachers and parents but not to actual students. I thought this would be a great fit.
While at ARISE, I went to school full-time and graduated from Syracuse with a master’s degree in early intervention. Initially when I started, that’s what I thought I wanted to do, but then when I started taking classes I realized I wanted to work at the high school or college level working with students with disabilities. I really enjoyed it because I could apply what I learned in graduate school with my work at ARISE and now at Syracuse University.
Growing up, if you told me I would be working at SU, I would have said I would be working at another university in a different country. Moving back here and being close to family and attending as a graduate student, I’ve come to appreciate how progressive Syracuse University is in working with people with disabilities. We still have a lot of work to do, but we are one of the more progressive schools.
What is the role of the accessibility counselor with the Center for Disability Resources?
All access counselors are assigned as a liaison to certain schools. My schools are the Newhouse School and the College of Engineering and Computer Science. When a student is referred, I connect with them and have a welcome meeting. I learn about who they are and what accommodations may be necessary for access.
The number one need is testing accommodations, but also as the access counselor who signs in ASL, I also work with most of the deaf and hard-of-hearing students who come in, so I coordinate interpreters, Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) services, or any other software that might help students access their classes better. Now that professors are wearing masks, I’ve been getting requests for them to wear clear masks so students can see their mouth when they lecture.
Can you share a story about a time or two you were able to connect students with services that made a difference in their learning environment and success?
With the pandemic, there are a few hard of hearing students who were having a hard time following the Zoom platform for their courses, so I recommended CART. Two students had never heard of CART, and they really like it, and it’s a made a difference in their work. Another example is a student who is also deaf but didn’t grow up signing. He has been impressed with all of the accommodations that we have for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Another aspect is connecting a student who may be struggling academically to CDR’s Academic Support (AS) for additional educational resources. AS provides them the assistance that can be critical for many students.
What is the best part of your job?
My colleagues and supervisor here are great and supportive. I remember saying after being here for one month that I feel like I’ve been here for six months, which was a good thing because I immediately fit in.
And it’s the students. There are some students who we might meet once and establish their access plans, and they are set. And there are others, with whom we meet regularly, who want and need a connection with us in order to feel supported and heard.
I was lucky I started in October with in-person meetings, but then we transitioned online and students needed that extra support with weekly check-ins—just to help them get through whatever they were feeling: loneliness, sadness, self-doubt. We’re here for them.
The Center for Disability Resources, 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.