Courtesy of Gavilan College:
Deep in the library building, a windowless high tech lab holds the tools of success for college students with physical and intellectual disabilities. The Accessible Education Center (AEC) has state of the art work stations, software and tools to help students complete their assignments and achieve their academic goals.
Ask Jane Maringer, director of the center, and she offers an open invitation to see the amazing technology supporting Gavilan students. “The college provides these services free of charge,” she said. “All students should determine their eligibility and take advantage of them.”
The evaluation, in two parts, reflects the student’s abilities and learning styles. An AEC counselor determines eligibility and creates a plan to help each student complete their class assignments and achieve their academic goals.
Student assessments include learning skills and academic accommodation. The counselor works with the student to help them decide. Some students, previously identified in high school as learners with special needs, will try to go it alone once they arrive at college. Staff are sensitive to past stigma and guide the students to seek the best resources for themselves. The AEC offers tools to support students with a range of disabilities: vision, hearing, physical, stroke, intellectual. Students can even a class, Brain Train, similar to a memory gym.
One program, Dragon, offers text to speech voice recognition. The software trains the computer to recognize the user’s voice, then types out the information. Equipped with a microphone and a headset at the computer, in 30 minutes the student can dictate their thoughts, writing their academic papers hands-free.
Another program, Kurzweil 3000, is a text to speech program that helps students improve their reading levels as they work through their class materials. The program assists with notes and highlighting, plus the ability to just listen, reread highlights, brainstorming, get help with word prediction and look up definitions. Students can scan web pages, pdf’s and Word documents.
“With their ed classes and AEC services,” said Maringer, “we teach to their strengths.” AEC counselors and staff work one-on-one with students to assure the computers and software are meeting students’ needs.
Marina Lares worked in the AEC as a student before transferring to San Jose State University to study business management. She stayed in touch with people in the department and was asked to return as a staff member.
“We don’t ask about the disability,” Lares said. “We ask about how we can accommodate you, the student.” As Lares works with students, she shares her own story, quietly letting them know if she can do it, so can they.
Students whose schedules are too impacted to work in the high tech lab can check out laptops loaded with the specific software they need to complete their work.
“The Read and Write toolbar helps a lot with reading,” said Melinda Hernandez. “Before, it would take days to read, follow and understand. The program also helps me take notes.”
Nursing student Ray Lopez, a US veteran, uses Dragon and Kurzweil to study and comprehend materials.
“It’s okay to acknowledge a disability,” he said. “The extra time on tests is also helpful.”
He heads to the AEC after class, puts on headphones in the quiet environment, and dives into homework and research. “AEC sets students up for success,” he said.
Lopez is a class leader in the nursing program and president of Veterans Resource Center on campus. “Some vets didn’t like the word ‘disability’ in the name,” he said, referring to the program’s previous name of Disability Resource Center.
“Not me,” he said. “It’s better to put pride aside and watch doors open up.” Lopez praised the staff and counselors at AEC for their responsiveness and overall help.
Maringer, who has worked in the Center for more than 30 years, stays close to student needs. She researches new solutions, finds available funding and works with staff and with students to ensure their needs are met.
Faculty can gain insights about procedures for accommodating students and AEC recommended guidelines. Faculty can review the online handbook.
“Let your instructors know how you need help,” said Maringer. “We encourage students to self-advocate.”