From September 2015
By Madison Lands
Photo by Robert Kozloff
Student Disability Services was once a low-profile office at UChicago, focused on serving students quickly and effectively. Awareness is changing now, thanks in part to the work of the Student Advisory Board, which is helping to draw attention to the valuable and essential services that Student Disability Services (SDS) offers.
Last year, when a member of the Student Advisory Board at SDS mentioned in passing that the office was rarely highlighted as a resource to prospective students during Admissions tours, the Board knew that needed to change. They saw an opportunity to improve the visibility of students with disabilities on campus and raise awareness of the services that SDS offers.
Steph Ban, a rising second year who sits on the Board, was passionate about this project because of her own experience when she applied two years ago.
“I found almost no information about disability services. I had no idea how wheelchair accessible the campus was, or what kinds of accommodations I was entitled to,” Ban says. “No student should have to experience that level of anxiety.”
Now, tour guides are prepared to answer the questions of prospective students and to give fully accessible tours. The SDS informational pamphlet sits on the tables in the Admissions office and is included in tour guide materials. These two seemingly small changes go far to ensure that all prospective students know that SDS exists and can help them navigate the UChicago campus.
SDS is a service based department, which was established in 2012 to ensure that all students get the accommodations they need. While they are a small office, they are seeing more students than ever before. As the Associate Director of SDS, Karyn LaTurner works with all College students seeking accommodations and Gregory Moorehead, the director of SDS, does the same for all Graduate students. LaTurner’s work includes meeting with students, reviewing their requests for accommodations, ensuring they receive them, and training and supporting faculty and staff in providing those accommodations. Over the summer, she has been communicating with incoming first years, ensuring that they start their first college classes with the appropriate academic accommodations, move into accessible dorms, and can find food in the dining hall that is safe from allergens.
LaTurner says that the office’s next effort will further expansion into programming. SDS has been able to co-sponsor talks with and work alongside other Campus and Student Life departments, like the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA), LGBTQ Student Life, Student Health and Counseling Services, Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP), the College Advisors and Housing, and would like to do more in the future.
In talking to students, LaTurner often finds that a staff member in another campus department could support the student in addition to the accommodations that SDS offers, and LaTurner helps make those connections. For example, after meeting with a student with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, she recognized that staff from RSVP or Student Counseling could offer help and support too.
The Student Advisory Board is made up of undergraduate and graduate students, and meets with LaTurner regularly to discuss issues that students with disabilities face on campus and how SDS might help resolve them. They serve as liaisons between the student body and the administration, work toward greater campus awareness of the services and advocacy that SDS can offer students with disabilities, and increase visibility of disability issues. As Ban explains, the Board members have different experiences with disability; some of its members also work with disability rights RSOs, and some have first-hand experience with disabilities, and all bring these experiences to Board meetings.
While the Student Advisory Board works on many initiatives communally, they also work individually with LaTurner on specific issues or events. For example, in February, Ban realized that no one in the city of Chicago had begun to organize the vigil for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s annual Day of Mourning. As a supporter of the organization and its cause, Ban knew that volunteering to organize would give her the opportunity both to commemorate the event and to bring visibility to the cause on campus.
However, the event is more than one person can organize alone, so the Student Advisory Board was quick to step up and assist Ban in her preparation. Members of the board offered to organize the food delivery and make posters, and LaTurner offered space to host a pre-vigil dinner, and stayed late to help clean up.
“I don’t have words to convey how much that outpouring of support meant and how much I appreciated it,” Ban says. “The board and Karyn has no obligation to participate in what started out as my pet project, yet all of them showed up and pitched in, making it a true community effort.”
In line with LaTurner’s goals to expand SDS’s impact to include programming, Ban and LaTurner now hope to host this event annually. Between this experience and the board’s success in working with UChicago admissions, Ban feels a sense of efficacy regarding the work of the Board and their ability to work with the administration to improve the experiences that students with disabilities have at the University.
“I always feel really supported,” she says. “If anyone’s reading this and debating whether to contact SDS for any reason, don’t be afraid or intimidated. SDS does care.”