Faculty educated on invisible disabilities

By Kevin Graham

The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning sponsored a workshop on facilitating better communication between disabled students and faculty in the academic setting on Oct. 14.

Students with disabilities comprised three percent of Oakland University’s student population last year. The workshop, entitled “Working with Students with Disabilities,” was held in order to address faculty questions and concerns in an environment where the presence of a disability isn’t always obvious.

One major theme according to Linda Sisson, director of Disability Support Services at OU was “invisible disabilities.”

According to Sisson, it’s always been easy to identify the person in the wheelchair. There is a chance this person does not even require an adjustment in order to properly access the curriculum. In contrast, if someone has a learning disability such as dyslexia, they could act normal, but in reality struggle with the material.

Despite the continuing evolution of disabilities Sisson said the answer to these invisible disabilities is simple.

“It’s all about communication,” she said.

To get the necessary accommodations for a course, students must present a copy of the notification letter from the DSS to the professor before or after the first class session. After presenting the letter, the students must talk to them regarding the accommodations he or she needs in order to learn efficiently.

Much of the discussion focused on students that professors thought might qualify for services through DSS, but hadn’t come to them. Sisson said this problem might be rooted in previous experiences.

“All throughout school — secondary and below — they’ve had a label, a stigma,” she said. “‘I’m going to do this on my own and I’m going to start out fresh. I’m going to try to do it on my own and I think I know all about this.’ But sometimes they don’t.”

This results in students coming to the DSS later in the semester, after falling behind or experiencing trouble. Sometimes they don’t come in at all.

Sisson said that if a faculty member notices a student struggling that they list DSS among OU’s other support services.

Even if a student discloses their disability, the problems don’t necessarily stop there.

“One of the most challenging questions involves how to best accommodate the special needs of students while at the same time not compromising the essential educational expectations of the professor,” David Lau, interim director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, said.

One example given at the discussion involved professors that lecture and administer exams in the same class period. In this scenario, if a student goes to the DSS office to take a test, they could easily miss part of the lecture.

Sisson said instructors should contact them to see if they can modify the class plan in a way that wouldn’t cause too much inconvenience for the professor or the other students.

Some accommodations offered through DSS include extended testing time, access to assistive technology, scribes for exams and note takers.

The DSS office is located in 121 North Foundation Hall. For more information about DSS and their services, visit