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Disability Access Initiative expands programming for University students

University Park, Pennsylvania – As part of Penn State’s effort to make education accessible and enjoyable for all individuals, teams across the university are working to implement new programs for students with disabilities.

The Accessibility Initiative is co-chaired by Leah Zimmerman, Executive Director of Student Disability Resources (SDR), along with Michael Biroby, Professor of Literature at Edwin Earl Sparks. The Accessibility Initiative is tasked with creating evidence-backed recommendations that take into account benchmarking, best practices, research, and impact data, to address organizational or structural barriers to inclusion and promote a welcoming atmosphere.

Zimmerman said her office currently serves 5.1% of students at University Park and 5.6% of students on the Commonwealth campus. Among the assisted University Park students, 33% had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), 29% had mental disorders, 14% had learning disorders, 12% had physical disorders, and 5% had neurological disorders , and 3% had an autism spectrum disorder.

Deaf and hard of hearing, blind and visually impaired, auditory processing disorders, TBI and movement disabilities all make up 1% of the disability demographic of University Park students.

Moving forward in 2022, the Accessibility Initiative and the Penn State SDR Initiative are working together to expand peer programming and develop cross-unit collaboration for students with disabilities in an effort to increase engagement and engagement with the university community. Research has shown that students who remain engaged and feel part of the community are more likely to graduate from college and feel good about their experience.

Student Disability Resources

SDR at Penn State helps students explore individual reasonable accommodations for equal access and full participation in academic pursuits; seeking interaction with peers or finding places to study; Communication with resources on and off campus; and promoting disability as an important aspect of diversity.

As part of its efforts, Student Disability Resources at Penn State has begun offering affinity groups and support groups for students to meet like-minded individuals across campus.

“The traditional SDR configuration did not provide these things and focused more on physical access needs,” Zimmerman said. “While this remains one of our primary focus, we are also trying to get the word out that we are here to help students and help them socialize across campus. However, we are asking people to be at risk by facing their disability – it is difficult Part of the equation is “Does it feel real to our students,” and ultimately, we want to build a supportive and inclusive environment.”

Project Spoonies, founded by Bio Behavioral Health graduate Maya Eicher, supports Penn State students facing chronic illnesses. “Spoonies” is a term adopted by the chronic disease community to help others understand what everyday life is like to them. The idea, envisioned by blogger Christine Miserandino in her blog “The Spoon Theory,” uses spoons to represent finite units of energy.

People with chronic diseases often have limited energy that depends on many factors including stress levels, the quality of their sleep, and their daily pain level. Every day, they may have a different number of spoons. For example, someone might get ten spoons to start their day. Every task, like brushing their teeth, getting dressed, or fetching their mail, takes a spoonful. Sometimes someone may not have spoons to carry on with their daily tasks, and it is a daily struggle for many chronically ill individuals.

Project Spoonies is dedicated to educating the Pennsylvania community about living with chronic diseases and disabilities to create a supportive environment and provide students with peer connection opportunities. Olivia Philandro, a fourth-year student studying Vital Behavioral Health, runs the group.

“Chronic illness is often not talked about, so we shine a light on this community and provide support while educating others around us,” Villadro said. “It helps to have other people with a chronic illness that you can talk to, because having someone who is going through the same suffering makes you feel less alone.”

Similar to Project Spoonies, another effort supported by SDR includes Finding a Community, a collaboration with ACRES (Adults Creating Residential and Employment Solutions).

The Finding Community Support Group provides students and students on the autism spectrum a way to feel more integrated into the Pennsylvania community and connect with their peers as they transition into college life.

The Student Group is designed to be a safe, welcoming and casual peer group where diverse students of nerve can come and meet other people, share tips, talk about common interests, and gain a sense of community on campus.

ACRES Project Staff Marie Krupa and 2016 alumnus of Pennsylvania State University explained that the transition from high school to college and beyond is often a major challenge for students with diverse neurosciences.

“Unlike most other disabilities, any support students might receive ends up in high school, and they are on their own for the first time,” Krupa said. “We don’t want students to ‘fall through the cracks.’ I’m on the autism spectrum myself and the easiest community to find alongside a current student on the autism spectrum. We’re trying to make it the group we’d like to attend.”

Krupa explained that the group currently includes students on the autism spectrum, those who suspect they are but don’t have a formal diagnosis and those who are considered neurodiversity in other ways.

Attendees come from a variety of gender backgrounds and identities, which Krupa expressed add to the group’s value. She noted that female students, in particular, have found the group very valuable, as many girls and women on the autism spectrum have not been diagnosed or have less support or understanding of the challenges they face.

Going forward, the group aims to expand its reach to new students, either through word of mouth or promotion by SDR.

“We know there will likely be hundreds of students in University Park who could benefit from Finding Community, and we hope it becomes an integral part of the Penn State experience for diverse students in the nerves far into the future,” Krupa said.

Looking ahead, Zimmerman expressed that the various groups and programs offered through the SDR will continue to grow as campus-wide collaboration increases and local collaborations increase. More information about the SDR and its programming is available via the Education Equality Office.


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