Students with different needs rely on resources from Student Accessibility Services

Belinda Xian / The Tufts Daily

Student Accessibility Services (SAS) is hard to find unless you’re looking for it. Tucked into the Academic Resource Center (ARC), SAS helps students who have physical or learning disabilities and mental health needs, handle the arrangement of living accommodations, course accommodations, assistive technologies and service animals for them.

According to its website, SAS aims to “create accessible curricular and co-curricular environments for students with disabilities.” The university services have assisted students like junior Emma DiFrancesco by providing a designated academic counselor. DiFrancescoan autistic student who is also diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety and depression, said the counselor helps makes things accessible for her on campus.

“Executive dysfunction is a real thing that real people have, and it’s something that needs to be kept in mind when doing accessibility stuff,” she said. “I’m lucky I have an academic counselor to make sure I’m on track, but things [like forms] need to be done … in as few steps as possible, or need to be really easy to do and easy to use and easy to find [to make them more accessible].”

DiFrancesco, who is also a member of the Coalition of Autistic Students at Tufts (CAST), said that for many students, such as those who are differently abled, college is not an inherently welcoming space.

“College is very reliant on your executive function: your ability to plan, your ability to organize, your working memory … schools aren’t built for a lot of people,” she said.

SAS’s current co-directorCarmen Lowe, said that SAS frequently collaborates with other departments, ranging from Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS) to Facilities Services to Tufts Dining.

“We … interact very frequently with ARC and the Associate Deans of Undergraduate Advising for classroom and academic issues, and [the] Dean of Student Affairs for accommodation needs surrounding campus life,” Lowe told the Daily in an email. “[We’re] in regular contact with CMHS and Health Services for students who co-use those services. SAS collaborates closely with ResLife on student housing needs. We also rely on Facilities and Public Safety to keep the campus safe and accessible for students with mobility impairments and visual impairments. And we refer students with severe food allergies and other dietary needs to specialists in Dining Services.” 

Lowe, who is also the dean of Academic Advising and Undergraduate Studies, recently took over from the previous director of SAS, Linda Sullivan, after Sullivan took a job as the manager of Accessibility Services at Harvard Extension School. This change has not yet been announced on the website, which still only lists Kimberly Doan as the assistant director of SAS.

Individuals who utilize services from SAS provide clinical documentation to demonstrate that they qualify to receive accommodations as students with disabilities, according to LoweSome of those forms and documentation come from SAS itself, which requires “psycho-educational evaluations” among other documentation to decide how best to accommodate a student’s learning disability. Ultimately, this is all done with an eye toward keeping students in school and helping them meet Tufts’ stringent academic requirements, Lowe said.

SAS works very creatively with students and faculty to find a lot of ways to make classrooms and class assignments accessible for students with a variety of disabilities, but we cannot lower standards or waive the essential educational requirements of a program,” Lowe said.

Nationally there has been an increased number of students who report having learning disabilities, pushing SAS to make changes to accommodate increased need. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, their 2011 study found that among children aged 3-17, “prevalence of any developmental disability increased from 12.84 percent to 15.04 percent over 12 years,” and that “autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other developmental delays increased [as well].”

“Overall, we are seeing more and more Tufts students (at the graduate level and undergraduate level) who register with our office,” Lowe said. “This reflects a national trend.” 

Lowe said that SAS has been addressing the increase in a holistic manner, by pooling the resources of other university departments and simplifying paperwork in order to make things easier for students, as well as hiring more staff and working more closely with other parts of the administration. It is also more common today for students to have multiple diagnoses, she said.

“We are seeing growth in all forms of disability, but we are seeing a steeper increase in chronic health conditions, including mental health conditions, and we are seeing learning disabilities complicated by mental health conditions,” Lowe said.

Justin Robbins, president of the CAST, said he doesn’t believe that the increase in certain diagnoses necessarily reflects a new trend so much as an unveiling of a previously hidden presence.

“Because the methodology and awareness keep improving, you get a steady increase in the autism rate so every couple of years you get a steady panic [among the general public]” Robbins, a junior, said. “There’s a large statistical increase starting in the mid-1990s but we’ve been here the whole time.” 

Robbins also noted that, while SAS is maintained under the auspices of the Americans with Disabilities Act, other branches of the administration — which are meant to be resources for those with disabilities — can be more difficult to access.

“It’s rather difficult to get an appointment [at CMHS] — that’s a pretty big deal. Anxiety is probably gonna be [pretty prevalent] on a college campus, especially for autistic students,” Robbins said.SAS has a mandate from the Americans with Disabilities Act, so it’s more likely [Tufts has] insufficient resources for [CMHS] than SAS.”

Still, DiFrancesco said that students have to know what resources they need to make Tufts more accessible for themselves.

“The first step to getting accommodations is knowing what you need and being able to advocate for it, and knowing that you deserve to advocate for yourself,” she said.