Interview With Joan House, Disability Director At Carlow University In Pittsburgh

Among the many colleges and colleagues that I’ve worked with, there are some that I feel that students and families should know more about.  With more and more students going to college with a disability, there are many questions that students have.  To help answer some of these, I’ve invited Joan House, Director of Disability Services at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, to be interviewed for College Strategy Blog.  Joan is not only in charge of the Disability Department, she is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a background in rehabilitation counseling.  Joan fully understands the needs of students with physical, cognitive, and emotional disabilities, and how to help them adapt to college life.  She and I have collaborated successfully to help both students with disabilities and bright students get re-started who might have done poorly at other colleges.  My questions are below as well as Joan’s answers (under “JH”).

After working with a number of colleges, I’ve noticed that Carlow is particularly skilled at helping students with disabilities.  Why do you think this is true?

JH:  I think that there are a number of reasons.  We are a small Catholic university whose mission embodies the heritage and values of the Sisters of Mercy- “to respond reverently to God and others, and to embrace an ethic of service for a just and merciful world.”  In other words, our mission as a college is to be compassionate and to educate.  Also, I’ve been at Carlow for ten years and have found that the faculty and staff have great kindness and dedication to both the students and to our mission.  While it is my responsibility to make sure that students with disabilities receive the accommodations they require under the law, I certainly cannot do my job alone.  The faculty and staff on this campus are supportive of all students and truly want them to succeed.  Furthermore, our small class size allows faculty to get to know their students, and as a result they are able to foster a student’s strengths and assist them with getting the help they need when they are struggling.

What are the most common types of student disabilities you encounter at your college?

JH:  Students with many types of disabilities seek accommodation via the Disability Services office.  There is usually a mixture of students with physical disabilities, learning disabilities and mental health disorders. Many of the students with physical disabilities have mobility issues. They may have spinal cord injuries, arthritis, lupus, or MS, just to name a few. Some of these students may use wheelchairs, crutches, braces or canes. Other students may have learning disabilities and encounter difficulty in math, reading and/or writing.  Still others may have ADHD which causes them to have difficulty with focusing, concentrating and managing their time. Other students may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, or even schizophrenia, and they can manifest learning issues similar to those faced by students with learning disabilities. However, the largest growing population of students requesting educational accommodations at our school, or any other campus really, is students with metal health conditions.

Can you describe the documentation requirements for students with disabilities at Carlow, as well as what type of accommodations can they request?

JH:  Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) every college and university has the right to establish its own documentation guidelines.  At Carlow we require that the information includes the student’s diagnosis, their functional limitations (i.e. how their condition affects their ability to function), any medications, as well as their side effects. The treating professional is welcome to make any recommendations that he or she chooses, and I consider these when granting accommodations.  The types of accommodations provided will depend on the student’s condition and documentation. Some examples of accommodations that might be provided include extended testing time (including in a quiet location), audio books, leniency for attendance issues, note taking, permission to audio tape lectures, the use of assistive technology, classroom relocation, and temporary handicapped parking.

We’ve collaborated to help students who might have done poorly at other colleges get re-started through Carlow, with good results.  Do you see any key factors or reasons for this?

JH:  In those particular cases, I think coordination and communication were very important.  You made sure that the student had clear and current documentation if they had a disability, even before classes started, so I could review it and arrange for accommodations.  Also, the open communication we have as a result of the student signing a FERPA release allows us to work together as a team to form a sort of safety net for the student.  The fact that I know the student will be meeting with you regularly helps me know where to turn when I see them struggling.  Finally, the direct and open communication with the student’s professors affords you the opportunity to monitor the student’s progress directly.  Our faculty is very willing to participate in these efforts.

Some students feel that disclosing a disability will hurt their chances of admission to a college.  What would you recommend to students with disabilities that wish to attend college?

JH:  I often hear this concern from students. Under the ADA, students are not required to disclose their disability at the time of application or admission.  However, they are expected to meet the same admission criteria as other students, with our without accommodations.  It is their prerogative to disclose their disability at the time of application or admission, or any other time as well. When a student does disclose his or her disability to an admission counselor at Carlow, they are referred to my office to discuss their accommodation needs.  I’ll then meet with the student to discuss our policies and procedures regarding disabilities.  I also encourage them to provide me with their documentation before the semester begins so that they can benefit from the accommodations during the entire semester.  Accommodations cannot be granted retroactively.  What this means is that if a student with a disability does not ask for accommodations, then does poorly, they cannot re-take tests or re-submit assignments with accommodations later in an effort to do better.

It was my pleasure to interview Joan about these issues.  I’m hoping that her answers will help students and families better understand how to prepare if a student plans on attending college with a disability.

For more information about disability services at Carlow University, please feel free to contact Joan House at:  Joan A. House, M.Ed., CRC, LPC,  Director of Disability Services.  Carlow University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  You can also call Joan at 412. 578.6257, or visit carlow.edu for more information.

Jeff Ludovici works with students and families across the U.S. about issues pertaining to college planning, preventing college problems, as well as getting students re-started if they have had problems in college.  He is based in Pittsburgh, but has clients in New York, Illinois, Indiana, Florida, and other states.  If you have questions, comments, or a student that needs help, feel free to write him at jeffludovici@studentstrategy101.com.