Thinking Differently About Disability and Diversity
Jennifer 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 widescreen 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.
Brooks chose Grinnell because of its accessibility. She praises the College for its services and the technologies available for classwork.
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.”
Brooks is the third student in recent years to use a power wheelchair on campus.
She credits Jennifer Krohn, senior research associate in the Office of College Services, with excellent responsiveness.
Krohn, who acts as coordinator of accessibility services, took on her role in the summer of 2008, before Patrick Comparin ’12, Grinnell’s first power chair user, came to campus. Krohn established the accessibility committee that includes staff from across campus, including facilities management, dining services, information technology services, and communications, to name a few.
The committee developed and prioritized a list of projects based on Comparin’s needs. The College bought an accessible van, which is also used by the student health center. Across campus, steps were removed, ramps were added, and sidewalks smoothed out. Door openers were installed on doors to classroom buildings.
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. The answer: 12 to 15 seconds. “It wasn’t something we thought about before that,” Krohn says.
She hired Comparin, who was still a student then, for the summer. 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.
“I always learn a lot from each student,” Krohn says, “just tons from each one.”
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.”
The campus is by no means perfect in terms of physical accessibility, as Brooks mentioned in a town hall meeting this year. Brooks had wanted to take astronomy, but the Grant O. Gale Observatory isn’t accessible. Neither are some other offices, such as the Reading Lab and the Center for Careers, Life, and Service, which are in houses on Park Street. Some residence halls are accessible, but not all.
“I know it’s not realistic for all dorms to be accessible,” Brooks says, “but I get frustrated sometimes that I can’t just hang out with my friends in their dorms.”
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.
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. “We need to help students with disabilities so they’re on a level playing field with everyone else.”
Brooks says the College needs to improve how accommodations for students with disabilities are provided. Faculty members need to learn about their legal and ethical responsibilities for students with disabilities, she says.
If Joyce Stern ’91, dean for student success and academic advising, approves accommodations for a student with a disability, then the faculty member must implement them in the classroom. If a student needs large print, then the student gets large print. “That’s the law,” Krohn says.
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 to attend classes with Brooks and facilitate her speech, repeating what Brooks says. Brooks is an active participant in classroom discussions. In addition, the aide 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.”
Brooks says that Angie Story, coordinator of academic support and assistive technology, has been very responsive to her needs. Story meets with students individually to find out how they like to learn and what assistive technologies they’ve used.
Brooks praises the staff members who support her various accessibility needs on campus. The staff members in those disparate offices work well together. Still, it’s a challenge to go to three different offices across campus for services. “I strongly believe that we need a disability coordinator,” Brooks says.
This spring, Tom Thompson, a higher education consultant with significant expertise in disability services, visited campus and reviewed Grinnell’s policies across the offices that handle accommodations, accessibility, and disability services. He also met with faculty and staff. His report is pending.
Brooks is an active member of the Council on Diversity and Inclusion, which includes accessibility under its broad umbrella, and she’s an ex-officio member of the Accessibility Committee. With Lexy Greenwell ’15, Brooks is co-founding the Student Accessibility Committee, which will organize events and act as a resource to students.
“At Grinnell, we need to promote a culture of disability diversity,” Brooks says, “where people with disabilities are not only accepted into the community, but included in every aspect of the community.”
Disability Services at Grinnell College
Services for students with documented learning and/or physical disabilities are provided according to the individual’s unique needs, although disclosure of a disability is voluntary. Joyce Stern, dean for student success and academic advising, works with students who disclose their disability to determine the accommodations they need to fully access their Grinnell education.
Academic accommodations vary considerably. Examples include extra time for test-taking; note takers; smart pens; special software that facilitates reading and writing on a computer; and a classroom aide, as in the case of Jennifer Brooks ’15, a student with cerebral palsy.
Students who need assistive technology such as computer software and smart pens work with Angie Story, coordinator of academic support and assistive technology.
Students with mobility-related disabilities work with Jennifer Krohn, senior research associate in college services, who facilitates the physical access to campus buildings and coordinates with Rick Whitney, director of facilities management, and Andrea Conner, director of residence life and orientation and associate dean of students.