Disability and Diversity

July 21, 2014

Jen Brooks ’15 sits in a yoga-like pose on a blue gymnastics mat on the floor of her bedroom in Lazier Hall. She faces a wide-screen Mac on a table about 4 inches off the floor. Flowers and 21st birthday cards decorate the nearby windowsill.

Using a joystick and a separate switch that works like a mouse button, Brooks opens a reading assignment for a sociology class. A male computer voice reads quickly — Brooks could slow it down, but she likes it fast. As the voice reads, the text is highlighted in yellow on the screen.

Brooks started using Kurzweil, the software program performing these functions, after she came to Grinnell. “Grinnell really embraced me and figured out what I needed to thrive in this environment,” says the sociology major from Atlanta, Georgia.

Brooks chose Grinnell because of its accessibility. She praises the college for its services and the technologies available for class work.

Still, Brooks has been vocal in calling for better accessibility and acknowledgment of diversity.

“Grinnell can be the most accessible college in the country,” Brooks says, “but we need to develop a culture of diversity to go with it. Disability is a natural part of diversity.”

Physical Accessibility of Campus

Brooks credits Jennifer Krohn, who coordinates physical accessibility services, with excellent responsiveness.

When Krohn heard that automatic doors were closing on Brooks’ chair during her campus visit in 2011, she asked Brooks how long the doors should remain open. Brooks told her 12 to 15 seconds. “It wasn’t something we thought about before that,” Krohn says.

In summer 2011, Krohn hired Patrick Comparin ’12, also a power chair user, to evaluate campus facilities. He assessed the timing of doors, the positions of card readers for entering locked facilities, and the locations of door openers.

With Brooks’ form of cerebral palsy, she’s able to move her arm to the side to push a door opener.

Brooks has been impressed by the College’s quick action in addressing some concerns. “It’s remarkable how much thought has been put into the physical accessibility,” Brooks says. “I tell Jennifer Krohn about a problem, like a broken door opener, in the morning and she often gets it fixed by the afternoon.”

Brooks lives in an apartment that was converted from a computer room and little-used student lounge in Lazier Hall on East Campus. The apartment has three bedrooms, one for Brooks, one for a live-in aide, and one for a roommate. “I am now living independently on campus,” Brooks says.

Technology and Internet Accessibility for Learning

The College has made significant progress over the years in terms of physical accessibility of the campus, Krohn says. She and the Accessibility Committee would like to see the same progress in terms of technology and Internet access.

“Assistive technology provides access to learning,” Krohn says.

Joyce Stern, dean for student success and academic advising, approves accommodations for a student with a disability. Stern says that accommodations for Jen Brooks were different from any the College had approved before.

The Office of Academic Advising hired a classroom aide, Lucy Chang, to attend classes with Brooks and facilitate her speech, repeating what Brooks says. Brooks is an active participant in classroom discussions. In addition, Chang scribes her exams and helps with a laptop when Brooks needs to use a digital book in class.

Brooks accesses all her class materials in alternative formats. Using Kurzweil, she takes in content by hearing it and viewing it in large print on a screen.

“Before I got Kurzweil, I needed assistants to scribe my homework for me,” Brooks says. “Now with Kurzweil and other assistive technology, I’m able to do my own work, which is a big improvement in my life.”

Grinnell continues to work on improvements. This spring, a higher education consultant with significant expertise in disability services spent time on campus conducting interviews and reviewed Grinnell’s policies across the offices that handle accommodations, accessibility, and disability services. The report is pending.

“At Grinnell, we need to promote a culture of disability diversity,” Brooks says, “where people with disabilities are not only accepted into a community, but included in every aspect of the community.”