20190923 ATS - LKenneally

The accessibility office ensures accessibility in technology. From left to right: Kristina Li, Vicki Weaver, Jason Varnado, and Alissa Adams

The second floor of the Foley Library has been referred to in the past as Gonzaga’s equivalent to the second page of Google. Meaning although it is easy to access, very few students actually find their way up there, similar to how one rarely finds themselves perusing that next page of information on the internet.

However, tucked in the back left corner of the enigmatic second floor is the office primarily responsible for all the ramps used on campus, all of the functioning elevators in the buildings and the live captioning of every speech given at GU.

The Disability Access Office consists of some of the unsung heroes who contribute to GU’s day-to-day inner workings, as they play a significant role in working with 11% of the student population who seek accommodation either inside or outside the classroom.

The team of four is committed to their goal of making this campus a more accommodating place for everyone. 

Jason Varnardo is the office’s associate director and has been working in the office at GU for 13 years.

“The university has to ensure that an individual with a disability can enjoy all of the programs, classes, services, etc. that the university offers to all students,” Varnado said. “Our office removes barriers, so the students can go in and enjoy whatever that thing is.”

GU follows the national guidelines set by the Association for Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD). AHEAD advocates for universities to take a proactive approach to issues that may be faced in all facets of campus life, finding a solution that will work for the many rather than adjust only after a problem arises.

“The emphasis has changed from one of reactive accommodations and retrofits to one of systematic design and inclusion in all areas of the campus from the physical environment to program and course development to student life,” the Disability Access Office said on its open statement for faculty members to read.

Varnado explained the real crux of his office’s work lies in the difference between access and accommodation, and attempting to mend that gap to reach a point of equal access for all. 

“Access is when a student shows up, they can use it without asking for a modification. A good example of access are ramps,” Varnado said.  “They’re accessible to everybody; whether you need to carry a large package up, there’s parents with strollers or a student who uses a wheelchair. An accommodation is where we need to modify something. Maybe a scan of a text isn’t accessible to a blind student’s screen reader, so we make it so it is.”

In K-12 special education systems, classroom accommodations could assist in curbing the academic rigor of a course that a student is taking. At the university level, however, programs such as the Disability Access Office serve to remove barriers that may be present in the environment that could be disabling a student. 

If a student suffers from attention difficulties, reading difficulties or a type of physical mobility limitation that could potentially slow them down on a test, Varnado and his peers work alongside the professor to grant the student more time on the exam, or give them a secure testing location that provides less distractions than the conventional classroom environment.

For students who often have trouble concentrating in class or are limited in their physical capacity to take notes, the Disability Access Office serves to either ensure that the course has printable outlines, or that another student in the class can volunteer to be a notetaker. 

 “We can’t fundamentally alter courses or programs, but part of our job is to figure out what is fundamental, and beyond that, modify as needed,” Varnado said.  

The office doesn’t solely assist students who have a learning disorder or physical mobility difficulties either. They serve to be a great aid for students suffering from psychiatric conditions as well, and Varnado says that this office has seen the largest upward shift in cases of this kind during his time at GU.

“I was a mental health counselor before coming to Gonzaga, and I ended up here because as we get more students who have disabilities related to mental health, it’s important to have members on staff with a background in mental health,” said Kristina Li, an accommodation specialist for the Disability Access Office. 

To obtain assistance from the Disability Access Office, applications are available online at the office’s page.

The application asks for a student’s major, medical documentation and for the student to describe their functional limitations, among other things, to help the office decide if a student is eligible to receive assistance and what kind of assistance that may necessitate.

The application also asks for what they call a student’s “narrative,” which is a particular students’ description of how they experience their conditions, due to the fact that an individual can experience a condition very differently than another individual with the same diagnosis. 

“It is an individualized process,” Varnado said. “Sometimes parents call us and ask, ‘What will my child’s accommodation plan look like?’ and the honest answer is we don’t know because the process is so unique.”

The final step of applying for assistance from the Disability Access Office is what’s known as the interactive process. This is where once a student is found eligible, Varnado and his team sit down with the student to learn more about their narrative and begin to discuss possible accommodations that can be made for the student.

The accommodating ideas that the group settles on results in a plan for that student which will hopefully last for the entirety of that student’s time at GU. If a student grows unhappy with the plan or doesn’t think that certain aspects of it are working well, they can reconvene with the office to rework the areas that need adjustment.

This entire process requires a full amount of work for everyone in the office. It’s a job that all involved have to be passionate about doing to do it well and fulfill their commitment to the university to ensure equal access for the student body.

As a collective, the entire staff is as passionate as it gets. A common theme among them is they love to see the growth and development that the students they work with achieve during their four years, and that progress would’ve been extremely hindered if it weren’t for the people in the Disability Access Office making the proper accommodations to open the door for these students to succeed.

“The thing that I have seen with these students has more to do with how education can change a person, which is one of the reasons that I like higher education,” Li said. “Disabilities are only part of someone’s identity and this office is only one part of somebody’s college experience.”  

Although being only one aspect of the whole story for a student with a disability, the Disability Access Office plays a large role in contributing to all other facets of students’ lives while at GU. They provide every student with equal access to all of the amenities GU has to offer so everyone can enjoy the university to the same capacity.

“Students don’t have to thank us for what we do, it is their right,” Varnado said. “But when students come in and thank us, especially when it wasn’t a student that you saw day-to-day, you get that kind of ‘wow, this really mattered to you for four years, this impacted your life for four years,’ that always reminds us why we do this work.”

Asher Ali is a staff writer.

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