Equal opportunity for learning

by Gabrielle Corrigan

Horizon Reporter

When Whatcom Community College alumni Lauren Owens looked at words on a page, they jumped around in chaotic order. But after struggling through years of school, a red see-through plastic card cured her dyslexia and made the words stand still.

Her cure was made possible by Whatcom’s Disability Support Services, which provide all students with an equal opportunity at learning.

From Braille textbooks to scribe services for testing, every quarter students can talk with Disability Support to discover what they can do to make learning more accessible.

In order to receive help, “the disability needs to be documented from a doctor,” said Kerri Holferty, associate director of access and disability services. “If they have a mental health disorder, they need to show me something from a psychologist or neurologist.” Then she decides, case-by-case, on what the student needs to achieve a quality education.

“The process was easy,” said Owens in an email interview. “I just walked in and started talking.” After Disability Support office gave her the red plastic reading card, she stopped dreading education. “I continue to use it to this day,” she wrote.

Holferty knows that disabilities affect individuals differently. That is why she takes great care in analyzing each situation, making sure they receive the right support.

To be able to do this, the office has a large variety of materials such as note taking services and the Adaptive Technology room, which is a testing room with specialized computers for students who use scribes or sign language interpreters, for those who need to orally dictate their test into computers, or simply, for those, such as ADHD students, who need a quiet testing environment.

“I know it has helped them,” said Holferty. “I have seen students who didn’t use DSS for a couple of quarters and really struggled. Then we talked, and they said it made a world of difference. It levels the playing field for disabled students.”

And it is surprising what qualifies as a disability. “Students who have worked through my office have learning disabilities such as dyslexia, physical disabilities like carpal tunnel syndrome, vision and hearing loss, and emotional or psychological disabilities,” said Holferty. Even a pregnant woman with morning sickness can get services.

“I always emphasize that if there is a documented illness, students should always investigate their opportunities,” said Heidi Ypma, a Whatcom math instructor. “I am a very strong advocate for” Whatcom’s Disability Support.

If a condition impairs a student’s ability to learn and can be documented by a doctor as an illness, then the Disability Support office is required, under federal and state laws, to offer them complimentary services.

“I have had students who have been deaf or blind, bipolar, paraplegic, quadriplegic, or amputees,” said Holferty

One of the most unusual cases Holferty has seen in her 18 years at Whatcom was a blind student taking an American Sign Language class. She said she gave the student a deaf ASL interpreter who was paired with a hearing ASL interpreter by which the blind student used touch to feel the signs. “It was pretty slick,” she said.

After a quarter at Whatcom, Owens started working toward her major in environmental photojournalism at Western Washington University.

“For the first time, I am succeeding at school,” she wrote. “I couldn’t have done it without my time at Whatcom and the wonderful people that work there.”

Disability Support is not the only program at Whatcom dedicated to finding unique solutions for each student’s needs. The faculty and staff also “work very well with our students,” Holferty said. “They go above and beyond to accommodate them.”

Anywhere on campus, students will find that the community is supportive of their needs whether it is as little as disabled parking or a large type textbook or as important as having two interpreters. Disability Support is there even if students don’t think they need services.

The services “improved my learning experience,” said Owens. “It gave me a feeling of comfort, support and encouragement to continue with my higher education.”

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