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Students with disabilities navigate return to school

UW-Whitewater’s Center for Students with Disabilities works to provide accommodations and resources
One piece of advice from Tracy Tittelbach, who interns at UW-Whitewater's Center for Students with Disabilities, is for students to create a routine and study space.
One piece of advice from Tracy Tittelbach, who interns at UW-Whitewater's Center for Students with Disabilities, is for students to create a routine and study space.(NBC15)
Published: Sep. 4, 2020 at 9:00 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Whether virtually or back in the classroom, the return to school this year comes with changes. For students with disabilities, this new year could pose some challenges, and hopefully, some opportunities.

Tracy Tittelbach, a graduate student studying clinical rehabilitation counseling at UW-Madison, has been navigating her educational experience with a disability since her years in undergrad.

“As a graduate student, and with other graduate students that I met who had disabilities, it’s really hard to admit that you need assistance, accommodations or support because as a graduate student you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve got this, I’m a grad student, I don’t need to have accommodations in the classroom because I should be at that level,’” Tittelbach, who has anxiety and PTSD, said.

Tittelbach said she is open and proud of her disability, so last fall she ran a peer support group for graduate and professional students at UW-Madison. She said the aim of the group was for students to have a place to talk and share. Tittelbach then expanded this idea during her time interning at UW-Whitewater’s Center for Students with Disabilities.

“With the pandemic, with everyone being so disconnected, we really need to have support for students with disabilities that’s not just, here’s a specific support group for bipolar, here’s a specific group for this disability,” Tittelbach said of the group. “It’s kind of more of a broad sense and just a space for students to vent.”

Tittelbach said students shared concerns about fall and the school year, including worries about distractions, establishing routine, and what their classes will look like. Tittelbach also said that social interaction can be beneficial for students with disabilities, and the lack of that interaction was also a concern mentioned.

“Distractibility is a huge thing, especially with students with ADHD who have an already difficult time paying attention and dealing with distractions, and now everything’s a distraction because you’re not in that environment,” she said.

UW-Whitewater’s Center for Students with Disabilities provides accommodations for students with disabilities who need access, according to the center’s interim director Debbie Reuter. According to their website, the center serves “students with physical, learning, sensory, psychological, health-related, or other disabilities substantially affecting a major life activity (i.e. walking, hearing, seeing, breathing, or learning).”

Reuter said while there may be challenges with the return to school, there are also opportunities to raise awareness.

“For those students who have already in the past been fighting for accommodations that might involve remote learning or a little more flexibility, individuals who may have other physical conditions or mental health disabilities, it’s really in some ways bringing to light more opportunities to have a little bit more flexibility in their learning,” Reuter said.

Reuter also said she hopes this sparks more conversations and reduces stigma, and that more doors for employment opportunities will open for students with disabilities as well.

“It’s an awareness that we’re all gaining that people with disabilities and people who have provided services to those with disabilities are able to talk a little bit more freely about some of the stigma and some of the challenges that people will be facing, whether that’s someone who’s deaf and hard of hearing and not having captioning services always included in things,” she said. “It’s another opportunity to reduce stigma.”

Reuter said their faculty has been working hard to prepare, learning new ways of reaching students in more accessible formats, as well as working on increasing captioning to improve communication across campus.

Reuter suggested UW-Whitewater students reach out for support and utilize services available on campus if they need the help, rather than trying to do everything alone.

“Even if it feels a little uncomfortable, put yourself out there and reach out for the assistance you might need, because we’re just here to provide access, look for the other people who can help you,” Reuter said. “Definitely not trying to do everything by yourself - looking for those people who are on campus to help support you.”

Tittelbach said another thing students can do to prepare is establish a routine as well as a set study space.

“For a lot of students, having a schedule, and having a set place to go, especially with certain disabilities, is helpful in maintaining focus or even with mental health, knowing that you have a place to go, something to do in the day.”

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