Empowering Students: SNHU's Disability Resource Center

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Demita Furnner, the director of the Disability Resource Center at Southern New Hampshire University

Students who are visually or hearing impaired enjoy the same opportunity to succeed in SNHU's online college courses as their peers. Military students who serve in remote locations also enjoy the same level of access to their online courses.

As part of SNHU's mission to make education accessible, the Disability Resource Center at SNHU stands ready to work with each student to ensure he or she receives the services and accommodations necessary to pursue individual academic, personal and professional goals. Whether students need videos captioned or textbooks converted to e-documents because they cannot receive textbooks at a military location, the DRC's assistive technology specialists and accommodations specialists work in tandem with instructors, learning resource managers and advisors to meet each student's needs.

Facilitating Goals

For Darlene Laibl-Crowe, currently pursuing her master's degree in human resource management at SNHU, the DRC served as a vital resource when she began her graduate work in 2015.

"When I completed my bachelor's degree in 2007, although I was legally blind, I could still see enough to read, print and write. When I began my master's degree, the reality of not being able to read the textbooks and materials overwhelmed me," she says.

"Danielle Pelletier (a DRC accommodations specialist) was very helpful by being open to suggestions and knowledgeable about the possible resources I didn't know about. Since I was already hard of hearing from birth and then lost more hearing after I completed my bachelor's degree, I was challenged in actually being able to listen to the resources. That meant finding ways to get material that allowed me to read and listen at the same time."

Laibl-Crowe has Usher Syndrome Type 2, which causes vision and hearing loss. Her official diagnosis at age 28 caused her to give up driving and to start using a cane. Although for 22 years she read lips to accommodate for what she couldn't hear, at age 50 her central vision became foggy, forcing her to rely more on assistive technology software to hear and see. Today, she uses special software that includes a Braille display and screen readers.

"I will do anything to continue to be independent and self-sufficient," she says. "I am very grateful to the people around me who are willing to work with me and learn as I do."

Ricardo Scarello, 42, a graduate information technology student, is blind. He also uses screen reading software to access content and complete his SNHU Online coursework. He credits the DRC for helping him maintain his perfect 4.0 GPA - and land a job in his field at CRSA in Bossier City, Louisiana.

The staff have given him the tools to help him better communicate with instructors and maximize his use of the online learning environment and the SNHU web portal, he says, and they've broken down barriers and provided him with career guidance. It was through an SNHU disability job fair that he connected with a staffing agency and ultimately scored his new job.

"I strongly believe that the support of the DRC and Southern New Hampshire University as a whole are the reasons for my success. As I understand, I am the first blind graduate student in this particular program," Scarello says. "I enjoy consulting with the DRC to further help any other students in their dreams of achieving a graduate degree with success. Without this support, my studies would have been nearly impossible."

Creating Access, Removing Barriers

Demita Furnner, director of the DRC and Assistive Technology, explains that her staff of nine currently works with more than 1,000 registered students to develop appropriate accommodations and materials in an alternate format to support students with disabilities. The DRC opened in 2014 to help support the growing number of students taking online classes. Since then the team has received more than 3,000 requests for materials, such as textbooks, to be converted into pdfs that can be read by software programs for students with visual impairments. In addition, members of the Assistive Technology team have worked with vendors to caption more than 10,000 videos.

Furnner has worked at SNHU since 2012 in roles that give her a unique insight into the needs of students the DRC serves. First as a new student advisor, then as a military academic advisor, and then in roles as an assistive technology specialist and manager, Furnner has listened to the needs of many students and has developed best practices, disability awareness and accessibility training, and next-generation learning resources for students with disabilities. She also spent 10 years on active duty in the United States Air Force prior to SNHU and understands the exceptional challenges military students face.

"SNHU is a place that gives students a chance, where perhaps that student wouldn't have a chance elsewhere. Some of our students will be the first generation in their family to graduate. Others were told that due to their disability, they could not do this," Furnner says. "These are the stories that keep me engaged and passionate about the work."

Working as a Team

Accommodations specialists and assistive technology specialists together form the backbone of the DRC and work collaboratively to identify and support students on the front end, and adapt materials and test software on the back end.

Accommodations specialists communicate with students in need of additional support due to diagnosed disabilities. They determine what each student needs for accommodations and develop strategies for time management, organization and communication, with the focus on ability rather than disability.

Assistive technology specialists work behind the scenes to research, develop and implement accessible solutions to promote equal opportunity for all students, regardless of disability or location. This includes providing alternative format options for course materials, making sure the audio and video materials are captioned, and working with accommodations specialists to appropriately respond to student needs.

Samantha Bacon has worked as an accommodations specialist at the DRC for just under two years. With a background in social work, Bacon says she is passionate about providing all individuals with equal access to the world so that they can be full participants. She works daily with students to determine exactly what combination of learning support they need to succeed, such as an IT student who began to lose his vision.

"By the time he neared the end of his program, he had almost no vision. We worked to provide alternative formatting of his materials and assisted him in finding the right screen reader software that worked best with his material," Bacon says. "Now, he only has two terms left until he completes a degree he started in 1990. He has an almost perfect GPA and we were honored to be able to work and remove barriers to his education to ensure his success."

Hayley Grenier, an assistive technology specialist at the DRC, has a background in academic advising and enjoys the hands-on interaction she has with students in her role.

"Every experience feels like we are making a difference in a student's life, because we are ensuring that they have full access to the required information. I recently worked with a military advisor who had a student working overseas and could not have the material delivered on time for a course. We were able to obtain a digital file from the vendor and get it to that student so they could successfully continue in the course," she says.

Together, the department works to keep accessibility and the empowerment of students with disabilities at the fore as SNHU evolves, maintaining the university's reputation as one of the most inclusive institutions in the world.

"We increase the likelihood of student success by removing barriers - if that barrier happens to be a video without captions, we will ensure the video has good, quality captions and that the student has access to the material," Furnner says. "Access to education changes students' lives."

The DRC's office hours are Monday to Thursday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern Time and Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Eastern Time. The DRC responds to all inquiries and referrals within one business day.

Krysten Godfrey Maddocks '11 is a writer and marketing/communication professional. Connect with her on LinkedIn.