Facilitating accommodations so all students have equal access to the Notre Dame academic experience is the core mission of Sara Bea Disability Services.
A formal process to provide accommodations for students with impairments began in 1995 when Scott Howland was hired to create a centralized office of disability services. The first offices were housed in Badin Hall.
A generous gift from Javon and Vita Bea in 2006, in memory of their daughter, Sara, made it possible to renovate the building where the Sara Bea Learning Center for Students with Disabilities is today, just north of the Main Building. “We went from just a couple of offices in Badin Hall to a facility that could accommodate all our needs,” says Howland.
Over the years, the need for accommodations has grown. Today, the center serves 8 percent of the Notre Dame undergraduate and graduate student population. “We are serving a lot more students who have mental health and chronic medical conditions,” says Howland. “In turn, we have developed strong relationships with key campus partners.”
In addition to Howland, the Sara Bea Center is staffed by Mandie Waling, associate coordinator, who oversees testing accommodations and ancillary aids such as providing note-takers or converting textbooks into electronic formats that sync with special adaptive software.
Also, the center’s staff facilitates academic adjustments for students who may need an accommodation, such as short extensions for completing coursework or a modification of an attendance policy. They also work with physically disabled students to provide housing accommodations when needed.
Students seeking accommodations must provide medical documentation that the center’s staff uses in the determination process. In addition, the staff meets with each student to discuss the academic or physical accommodations they believe they need. “We collaborate closely with the Counseling Center and Health Services to determine the impact the diagnosis has on the student’s ability to perform a task or skill that will qualify him or her for an accommodation,” says Howland.
The next step in the process is for Howland or Waling to talk with the course instructor to gather information about the standards and requirements of the course to determine if the accommodation a student is requesting is reasonable.
Howland works closely with his campus partners. “I collaborate with dean’s offices across campus to provide accommodations for students,” he says. Howland emphasizes that the accommodations cannot interfere with the essential nature of the class.
or example, if a student’s impairment makes it difficult to satisfy a participation requirement, Howland works with the faculty member to determine if there is alternate way to satisfy the requirement. “If it’s a seminar class, where in-class discussion and participation is an essential component, there may not be a reasonable accommodation we can provide,” he says. “We have to balance the need for an accommodation with the purpose of the class.”
Howland is proud of the way the center’s services have evolved and become better over the course of his tenure. For example, in the early 2000s the University used a remote captioning service in California to provide a real-time transcript of class discussions for hearing-impaired students.
“We had problems with the microphones not picking up all the discussion going on in class,” he says. “When we hired local court reporters to come to the class and provide real-time transcripts, the students were able to fully participate in class discussions.”
The center also has arranged accommodations so students can participate in study abroad experiences in locations such as London, Jerusalem and Rome.
The center recently developed a new strategic plan to improve how it serves students. “One of the goals was to be fully inclusive for all students on campus,” says Howland. “We want to provide more formal educational programming regarding the accommodation process across campus.”
Howland and Waling get a lot of personal satisfaction from watching the students they serve gain the ability to take full advantage of their Notre Dame academic experience. “It’s great to see their progress in their day-to-day academic lives,” says Howland, “and see them go on to their future careers.”