Equal access for all students is goal of Disability Services

By University Communications
January 5, 2015
Kara James, director of Disability Services at UW-Stout, shares a laugh with student Abby Salber.

Photo: Kara James shares a laugh with Abby Salber.

Kara James isn’t a professor at University of Wisconsin-Stout, yet her goal everyday is professorlike — to ensure that students succeed in the classroom and beyond.

Take Abby Salber, for example, a junior in the hotel, restaurant and tourism management program. Salber is blind, making it challenging to find her way around the 124-acre campus and to have classroom access like any other student.

How does Salber read textbooks? What about professors’ handouts and emails? How does she take tests? How does she navigate around campus, including when there’s bad weather or construction?

James and co-workers in Disability Services provide the answers. They are dedicated to ensuring that students with disabilities have equal access throughout campus.

It’s a complex job, one that requires working closely with about 800 students annually and virtually all aspects of campus so the barriers fade or disappear and students with disabilities are able to fully engage.

“We can be the piece of the puzzle that helps students blossom and helps them become self-confident individuals. It’s a really good feeling when that happens,” said James, who is director of Disability Services.

In the fall James received the Chancellor’s Academic Staff Award, the highest honor for an academic staff member.

“It was very surprising and humbling. This is a reflection on our whole staff, who put in the long hours required to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access,” James said of the office, which has four employees and is in Bowman Hall.

Disability Services, which exists at every UW System campus, works with students with a variety of disabilities, including physical, learning, sensory, mental health diagnosis and students diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

“When students connect with us, we identify the barriers that are present in the learning environment and develop a plan for access. Each plan is individualized,” James said. “Our focus is on the learning environment because that’s where the barriers exist. We are trying to make the learning environment accessible to all students.”

James’ belief, which she said is shared campuswide, is that “disability is an important part of diversity. Students with disabilities shouldn’t have to be doing more or consistently work harder because their environment is not accessible.”

Working with Abby

Salber, from Mosinee, has been at UW-Stout for more than three years. “The professors are awesome. The program director is awesome. Kara is awesome,” Salber said.

Salber and her family met with James before enrolling at UW-Stout. “I was very impressed. Kara had a solution to all of my concerns,” she said.

Salber uses a screen-reading program named Jaws on her laptop computer; all material, including emails, that she scrolls through is gobbled up by Jaws and converted to audio.

The screen reader also is valuable in real time. If a professor, for example, is discussing printed material and Abby has an electronic copy, she can hear the printed material via Jaws with an earbud; she keeps the other ear open to the professor.

Salber also uses some Braille textbooks. Thanks to priority class registration, the books are ordered months in advance, with the goal that they will arrive when classes begin. Things get complicated when a textbook is changed leading up to the start of class. Then, individual arrangements are made so Salber and other students can access them.

Disability Services helps students with issues both in and outside of the classroom. For example, when a sidewalk is closed for construction Salber needs to know. Some menu options in the cafeterias have been added in Braille. Disability Services is working with housing to make the washers and dryers accessible.

Salber is her own advocate. “One thing I’ve learned about college is to never be afraid to ask for help,” she said.

Focusing on students’ success

James enjoys her job, working with students and getting to know them, such as Abby. “Anyone who has spent time with Abby is a better person. She is such a positive person — friendly, outgoing, determined and she has a very good work ethic. UW-Stout is a better place because of Abby,” James said.

James recalled a student who had grown tired of being labeled with a disability and referred to as “different” while in high school. Consequently, the student chose not to work with Disability Services as a freshman.

He struggled academically, was dismissed and appealed to get a second chance. At that point he decided to connect with the Disability Services. With access to special resources, the student went on to earn his bachelor’s degree and graduated with honors.

“I’m very proud of him. Over time the student began to accept his disability as a piece of his self-identity; he was no longer embarrassed to have a disability. When this happens, it’s a beautiful thing,” James said.

Providing services to students with disabilities is part of a movement on campus toward universal design for learning, which is a set of principles for curriculum development that gives all individuals equal opportunity to learn.

“There are some pretty amazing things going on in the classroom across campus,” James said. “We have committed faculty who are passionate about what they’re teaching and who are doing great things.”

James received $5,000 for her award. The money must be used for professional development, according to UW-Stout guidelines.

James plans to attend a national conference and explore best practices when determining the presence of a disability while working with international students. “Many cultures don’t recognize disability in the same way that the United States does. We need to make sure that all of our students have equal access.”

James earned a master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation from UW-Stout in 2002.