A More Accessible Aggieland
Texas A&M University Disability Resources’ dedicated staff works hard to make campus welcoming for Aggies with disabilities.
- By Jeannie Ralston
- Illustration by Keith Negley
- Oct. 19, 20224 min read
Final exams can be a stressful time for students, faculty and staff. But Disability Resources, a department in the Division of Student Affairs, is a heavyweight contender for the most challenging finals stretch each semester. Its 17 staff members work 12-hour days for four days, administering and proctoring more than 2,000 exams.
The dedicated staff ensure students with disability accommodations have their proper exams, passwords, links, enough space and any other necessary test-taking tools. Some students receive accommodations such as more time or a reduced-distraction environment. Others need someone to read or write for them, or assistive technology such as a computer program that reads the exam aloud, a video magnifier or an adaptive mouse. Quickly delivering these accommodations is a monumental task.
“Whatever the student needs, we have to be able to provide it,” said Dr. Kristie Orr ’91 ’03, director of Disability Resources. “We want to make sure students with disabilities can participate equally without barriers.” That mandate applies not just during finals but all year long. Each semester starts with staff members meeting with students to determine what type of accommodations they’ll need for their classes, which might include exam accommodations and textbooks in a specific format, among many others. Then the staff coordinates with instructors to ensure they understand how to facilitate equitable access for their students.
Educating the university community on welcoming people with disabilities is another part of the department’s mission. “We develop relationships to remove environmental barriers,” said Jessica Harp ’07, communications access manager. “Because the student isn’t the issue; the environmental barriers are.” Harp, who advises the College of Engineering, the School of Architecture and the Bush School of Government and Public Service, reported that she recently notified colleges that any video or prerecorded material should have captions for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
We want our campus to be welcoming. We don’t want students to feel that they’ll have to fight for what they need.”
Disability Resources produces regular webinars where speakers share how to make facilities and programs more accessible. “We want our campus to be welcoming,” Orr added. “We don’t want students to feel that they’ll have to fight for what they need.” To stay effective, Disability Resources must keep up with technological advances. Orr would like to establish a Director’s Excellence Fund that will provide such flexibility. “In two years, there may be some technology we need that doesn’t even exist right now. Our field changes all the time, so it’s hard to predict what will be necessary.”
One clear need is for continued support of the testing center, where many of the staff members conduct their work. The testing center is part of the Disability Resources offices in the Student Services Building, which opened in 2020. An increasing number of students and staff rely on this space for administering exams, communicating with professors and observing tests. Disability Resources, and the testing center specifically, has several naming opportunities at various levels for former students and friends to support the work of this department.
Even though finals are the busiest time of year for Disability Resources, Orr sees a silver lining. “Finals can be really stressful,” she said. “But at the same time, I love how our whole staff comes together as a team, helping so many students.” Student feedback is another bright spot. This past May, the department received numerous thumbs-up.
“Last fall was a rough final exam period,” Orr recalled. “It was the first semester back after the pandemic, and we were in a new facility with more students than ever. This spring was so much better, and it was great to see how we adapted to make it work for the students and faculty.” Orr reported that many students commented on how smooth the experience was. “That, to me, is the point of what we do.”
Accessibility by the Numbers:
4,472 students currently affiliated with Disability Resources
12,535 accommodation letters sent to instructors in spring 2022
2,158 instructors had classes with students who required accommodations in spring 2022
10,403 exams administered during the spring 2022 semester