Disabled students on the rise at Iowa's universities

BY SAM LANE | NOVEMBER 10, 2010 7:20 AM

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Ryan Bruner hasn't suffered a seizure since he came to the University of Iowa.

Throughout high school, his epilepsy caused more than 20. Now, he says, his seventh- and eighth-grade years are simply a blur.

"Back in the olden days, I would have been killed because people would have thought I was possessed by a demon," he said as he sat with his fleece sleeves rolled up and his hair spiked.

The condition makes Bruner, now a UI senior who serves as an open-seat senator on the UI Student Government, one of 658 students at the university who reported a disability, a number that has increased significantly over the past four years.

According to a report given to the state Board of Regents at its most recent meeting in Iowa City, 513 students with disabilities were enrolled at the UI in 2006, 28 percent fewer than today. In the same time frame, total enrollment has increased less than 3 percent at the UI, according to data from the Registrar's Office.

The spike isn't just in Iowa City. A total of 1,561 students with disabilities are enrolled at the three regent universities. That number is up from 1,285 in 2006.

Bruner and UI senior Taylor Peterson, who deals with inflammatory bowel disease, agreed faculty and staff are generally accommodating to their disabilities, but more knowledge on the part of professors and TAs would ease some of the burden in acquiring accommodations for testing. Bruner said the process is "more than you'd ever want to go through."

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Both said they wished teachers would pay more attention to the disabilities section of every class syllabus.

Peterson said she thinks some other students feel those who use Student Disability Services get special privileges.

"I really hope that's not the case, that students are taking advantage of the system," she said.

The increase at the UI means more students are going through the doors of the office for Student Disability Services in the basement of Burge.

Mark Harris, the director of Student Disability Services, sat behind his desk on Monday, the top of his blue plaid shirt unbuttoned.

"Business is brisk," Harris said, flashing a smile. His dimly lit office is simple; he has little decoration on the beige walls. But over his shoulder, a lonely frame of four photographs spelled out "Iowa."

He pointed to greater awareness and identification in high school as the "foundation" for the increase in students with disabilities at the UI. Harris said people in his office able to work with students to identify areas in which they need help. In the office, students with disabilities can receive alternative exam services as well as services that allow them to view class handouts in more accessible formats.

For the past nine fall semesters, the UI has provided testing accommodations to an average of more than 1,700 students.

Harris said his current goal is to have all UI students with a disability register with the office. He said he knows many students across campus who have a disability are reluctant to seek their assistance because of stigmas associated with disabilities.

Down the hall, Carly Armour, an adviser for the Student Disability Organization, which formed last spring, explained her theories on the increase.

"All people have some sort of challenges in their lives," said the UI's coordinator for deaf and hard of hearing services who is profoundly deaf in both ears and has cochlear implants. "Some people need more resources than others."

Before she came to the UI, Armour, a graduate of the University of Georgia, said she experienced discrimination in all aspects of her life: sports, school, and her job.

"The discrimination I've faced has really inspired me to fight to educate the community so that the likelihood of others getting discriminated against is reduced," she said.

Unlike many departments across the campus, the state, and the country, Harris said the office is largely unaffected by economic struggles. Run by money from the UI's general education fund, the office has been spared cuts, something Harris points to in its ability to continue seeking students who need its assistance.

Across the country, federal data also show an increase in the number of students with disabilities. In 2008, the most recent year for which figures are available, students with disabilities made up 11 percent of all postsecondary students, according to a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

But work still needs to be done, according to one expert. Richard Allegra, the director of professional development for the Association on Higher Education and Disability, said some stigma still exists regarding students with disabilities.

"In a larger, bigger picture, in a historic picture, things are better," he said. "On the ground, day-to-day, unfortunately, I'm less optimistic."

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