By SHANNON O. WELLS
Back in the relatively “normal” pre-COVID days of 2016, 845 students registered with Pitt’s Disability Resources and Services (DRS) department. This was followed by waves of small increases in services requests until 2021, when post-pandemic demands coincided with the University’s largest first-year class.
Now, as of Jan. 23, the number of students registered with the department stands at 2,538 — a 200 percent increase from 2016, almost doubling numbers from academic year 2020.
Of the documented conditions students report, mental health conditions — at 39 percent — constitute the largest “piece of the pie,” followed by ADHD, at 27 percent. More than 75 percent of registered students document two or more medical conditions.
These were among the findings Leigh Culley, director of Disability Resources, shared with the Student Aid, Admissions and Affairs Committee at its Jan. 25 meeting. Culley spelled out the dramatic spike in students requesting services — notably regarding exam-related accommodations — and how DRS and other University departments are responding and adapting, to varying levels of success.
“The requests are becoming more complex, that require more engagement with University offices outside of the DRS office,” she said. “We’re consulting more often with campus partners to determine if the request is appropriate for the student given the circumstances and the environment.
“This largest pie here is psychiatric mental health conditions,” she said. “Sixty-one percent of these are secondary conditions — anxiety and depression are by far the leaders if you look at specific diagnoses within the category.” She noted that chronic health conditions and mental health conditions often go hand in hand. “We’re seeing that trend, certainly.”
Sybill Streeter, co-chair of the committee and director of undergraduate advising, said Culley was invited to address the committee after several members expressed concerns “about what we perceive as an increase in requests for accommodations. And I think we know that that leaves offices doing more with less. as many of the offices on campuses are doing.”
Requests related to policy-modification accommodations, such as course exemptions and face-covering exemptions, have increased, along with remote-attendance accommodation requests that spiked during the initial COVID pandemic and still come in periodically, Culley noted. Housing and dining accommodation requests have more than doubled in the past three years as Disability Resources considers frequent requests for single rooms, rooms with integrated bathrooms, apartment-style housing and meal-plan modifications.
“And, of course, an ever-increasing number of requests for support animals,” she added. “We’re also seeing many requests that go beyond access, really, that focus more on individual support for success.”
The upticks in and greater complexity of requested services, such as understanding the difference between a preference and a need, have become a larger part of Disability Resources considerations.
“And truly owning the work that we do sometimes means having to say ‘no’,” Culley said. “We do have a responsibility to deny some requests. But before we do that, we often explore other options: alternative accommodations, (asking) what is the barrier again, what is the impact of the disability, what might accommodate that in an alternative way.”
The office seeks to identify ways to facilitate access through existing processes and procedures within the University environment, she said.
A key goal is to consider all available information from a request, which, more often recently, leads to conversations with students and parents. “And certainly we try to navigate those conversations with a good faith effort, transparency, fairness and really focusing on our consistency,” Culley said.
New requests, new resources
Disability Resources also is experiencing an unprecedented number of referrals from across campus for things such as broken bones and surgery recovery that don’t necessarily rise to the level of a disability.
“We encourage students to work with their faculty, but they’re often referred to DRS to make final determinations, which is fine. We can assist with that,” Culley said. “But what that means is that students will have to go through a process, just like all the other students do.”
In response to the increase, DRS hired an additional disability specialist who came on board last fall, creating a total of five student-related disability specialists. Recognizing that more employees isn’t the complete answer, Culley said the office’s processes are regularly evaluated to enhance efficiency.
“I meet monthly with my counterparts from the ACC schools, which is terrific,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for us to share best practices, to consult with one another about issues that may be coming up. Sometimes just simple commiseration is helpful.”
One concept that came from such conversations is an “expedited intake process” where DRS essentially fast-tracks certain requests for accommodation in cases where needs can be more easily determined based on information students provide in applications.
“What we learned is that with all of the information provided in certain circumstances, it’s not necessary to have a student that’s scheduled an appointment wait for that appointment and meet the specialist to simply voice the same information that they’ve already just provided,” she explained. “This is a procedural barrier that exists within our office. So let’s do something about that.”
Last fall, DRS launched a monthly newsletter to students to highlight the office’s role and offer additional resources support. Next summer, staff plans to evaluate its website and promotional materials language to “more clearly articulate our role and mission in setting clear expectations and educating those with whom we engage,” Culley said.
The department continues its mission to “amplify the voices of students with disabilities” and support their work as student leaders through its peer-mentoring program. The program was first introduced the fall of 2019 “before the world shut down” because of COVID, “so that took a little bit of a turn,” Culley said. “We are getting that back on track.”
The program has 65 peer connections where DRS connects first-year and transfer students with upper-class students with disabilities to assist them in navigating the University and offering a sense of connection. DRS also coordinates monthly events for students to connect as a group.
“We’ve seen a lot of success in that,” Culley said, noting the reestablishment of the Delta Alpha Pi, an international honor society for students with disabilities. “And we inducted over 70 students this past fall.”
Following her overview, Culley addressed several questions from committee members. Here are some of the topics raised and her responses:
Hiring additional DRS specialists: “We continue to evaluate and share information to leadership with regard to the trends that we’re experiencing, the impact that has in terms of operations, providing services, evaluating the scope of our role,” she said. For students who require ongoing weekly or bi-weekly support, the office has used some referral sources in the community.
Accommodating students with food allergies: “We actually have a bi-weekly dining meeting. Myself, the director of dining, the dietician in Compass Food Services, and a dietitian within Student Health meet every other week to evaluate specific requests (related to) accessing safe and healthy food. Ultimately, that’s the goal of (Pitt Dining Services).”
Accommodating students with hidden disabilities: “I think it’s about 92 percent of the students registered with (DRS) have what would be considered a hidden disability (where) you can’t tell there’s an impairment or some type of impact. So that is definitely challenging,” Culley said. “One thing to be very cautious about is to not inquire into the nature of somebody’s condition. If they choose to share that information with you … that’s fine. They’re allowed to do that, but that’s their determination. And so, just being cautious about that. If you do receive a disability notification letter from our office, know that we’ve determined that this person is eligible to receive services … That’s the role that we play.
“Ultimately, the student is responsible for communicating with you as a faculty member what (are) those accommodations, how to implement them for the class, what needs to happen, how to coordinate some of the logistics around that. It doesn’t hurt to reach out, certainly. I know some faculty are very much like, ‘Hey, I received this letter. Can we talk about this?’ But ultimately, it’s the student’s responsibility to initiate that dialogue with you.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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