Student with Intellectual Needs: Southern Experience


Haroon ChaudhryContributor

Millions of people around the world have intellectual disabilities, many of whom are born with it, while others become disabled intellectually during their lifetimes due to accident, infirmity, age and disease. Nobody wishes to be born with the disability, everybody wants to be born healthy. But humans have little control over this even with advances in diagnostic technologies such as amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling to help detect disabilities in utero, but we, as the responsible citizens of the society, certainly have the authority over how these people are taken care of, are educated, helped to be useful contributing members of their communities and society at large.

Intellectual disability is a disability that is characterized by meaningful limitation both in intellectual functions that involves reasoning, learning and problem solving and it is further characterized by some kinds of limitations in adaptive behavior which covers a range of social and practical skills. These millions of people with this disability are not universally getting the same levels of services and treatment as people with other disabilities. Too many people with intellectual disabilities don’t get same opportunities for achievement that other able-bodied people get. Due to this, many talented individuals go unnoticed and never get full access to opportunities for achievement they would wish for themselves and which would make it possible for them to contribute any way they can.

Growing up, I have always watched intellectual disabilities being depicted on TV shows, movies and in songs in a negative manner. However, I have never known what it really was, neither have I ever tried to learn much about it. Taking a college course with a disabilities emphasis and a required advocacy project allowed me to explore and address issues people with intellectual needs are facing in their daily life at Southern Connecticut State University and helped me to formulate some recommendations for Disability Resource Center.

Many students with these types disabilities have hard time concentrating, are unable to get the accommodations they might need for fear of asking or from the failure of systems at Southern Connecticut State University to have available enough adaptive equipment, devices and other forms of equipment to meet all the needs across the campus. These shortcomings can result in students struggling for academic success and are often reflected in their grades.

I never knew what intellectual disability was until I started taking leaderships roles on campus such as Orientation Ambassador, Peer Mentor, Student Ambassador for School of Business and a course entitled Disabilities in Society offered by the Department of Recreation, Tourism & Sport Management. Now I am thinking about it and I believe that if I were not a leader on campus, I would have never learned about these disabilities and never knew what students are going through in their daily lives. Throughout my leadership experience, I have had several training/learning experiences about various types of disabilities, but this was something I never fully appreciated until I saw the disability symptoms in a friend that was described during my leadership training.

My friend who is a freshman at Southern Connecticut State University, had a rough semester during his first semester but never reached out to anyone for help because of his presumption that people would make fun of him. Upon seeing his final grades for the first semester, I had a conversation with him for about three hours trying to understand why his academic performance was so poor as a freshman. I blamed myself for his bad performance because he was always with me from Monday through Friday and I was never able to observe that he was struggling. He was always smiling, always portrayed himself in a positive way so that a person would never imagine what was going on in his mind. From the start, I knew he was a smart young man because he was able to solve junior level math problems as a freshman, but he needed some time to grasp everything. After having a conversation with him, I have come to the realization that he has a form of intellectual disability. I asked him to reach out to DRC office, but he was too shy, too uncomfortable, too scared to reach out to them.

As Southern is a most diverse university and with the core values of social justice, I always thought that Southern does pretty good job at helping the people with these needs, but the DRC don’t do good job of promoting the DRC itself, it seems; neither are they completely successful in reaching all students with disabilities on campus. During this month of March 2019, I tried to locate as many people as I possibly could who had some sort of disability and asked them to participate in my research. I identified 20 students who felt comfortable sharing their Southern experience with me. Below are the two questions I asked them.

  • Do you feel comfortable walking into DRC through main door?
  • How can Southern provide a better accommodation for people who don’t feel comfortable walking into DRC office through front door?

Based on the student responses, 95% of students stated that they don’t feel comfortable walking into DRC office because they believe some students give them looks which make them feel stupid. Based on my interview analysis, I think some students are also afraid to use DRC help because they don’t want to be “labelled.” As a matter of fact, one of my friends who has intellectual needs told me that he is hesitant to reach out to DRC office for help because of the presumption he will be called stupid and looked down upon, not by the DRC staff, but on campus. Only one out of 20 students said that he would walk into DRC office because he doesn’t care about what other people think about him. He said if he needs help, he will reach out to get any support without worrying about people’s opinions. I really admired him for that but, unfortunately, not everyone has the courage and self-esteem to speak for himself in these situations. Therefore, we need some advocates who would become the voice of voiceless people. Aside

After talking to the DRC office, I have come to realization that DRC does a great job helping students with disabilities, but that doesn’t mean they are perfect. They can certainly do a better job of promoting their office and building an environment where everyone feels comfortable walking in. DRC has a great network with lot of high schools and various organizations on campus and does a decent job of promoting its services through orientation sessions, club fairs, etc. But this department can certainly increase its outreach level by reaching out to larger audience through utilizing clubs and organizations on campus, attending transfer orientation, admissions day, social media, classroom workshops, etc.

We have 126 clubs and organizations on campus, and I am sure not everyone is aware of the types of services this department offers. If the DRC office tried to host a meeting with all the clubs and organizations, and students-leaders on campus on a regular basis asking them to promote the office through these weekly meetings, events, etc., then I am sure it will not only increase awareness of the department but also encourage some individuals to step out of their discomfort zone to reach out to the DRC. Every month, DRC can host a meeting or event with the student-leaders and seek feedback from them. The purpose of this would be to try to improve the outreach and identity of the DRC across the campus.

As part of the survey, 95% of the students indicated that they would feel comfortable walking into DRC office if there were an entrance that was off the main hallway where fewer people might see them entering. I would recommend possibly providing services to people who don’t feel comfortable walking into office or finding alternatives to allow them the opportunity to visit the office without being noticed, or perhaps going to the student rather than the student coming to the office. Moreover, most of the participants that took part in the interview stated their disability “makes learning harder for them.” Therefore, learning new information and skills can be challenging for these people. Many, including my friend, need to be surrounded by an atmosphere in which learning proceeds more individually and perhaps more slowly if need be. These students should not be subjected to learning in the same manner as the typical students because, for most of these students, it takes them time to digest information based on their most effective learning strategies. It is critically important for professors to break down the information into small steps to make student learning easier for students with different learning styles. Not all professors are open to helping students in this way, but the DRC can help both professors and students to be more open to each other. Aside from that, students who need tutors or who need use visual aids such as charts, graphs and pictures to help them understand the concept of the subject, would be helped by such measures. This way, these students can feel more comfortable opening up and sharing their ideas about how they are learning and how their classroom experiences are helping or not.

In conclusion, people with intellectual disabilities can live meaningful, productive and satisfying lives within their own communities, especially at Southern Connecticut State University when provided adequate and individualized supports. I really admire the parents, DRC office, families, and other advocates who have diligently worked to improve the lives of these students. Perhaps DRC office can consider alternate ways to access their facilities allowing more students the opportunity to utilize the resources or change the DRC name to Education or Learning Resource Center. This might bring more students into the office.  As much as we advocate for social justice, human rights, cultures, and religious tolerance, we should also provide as much attention and build the same level of support systems for these students, so they can be seen as equal as everyone else on campus at Southern Connecticut State University.

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