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Jean Fairbairn, director of Services for Students with Disabilities, recently spoke with Inside BU about her office and its role on campus.

How do you define your office’s mission?
Our office works with students and other offices to ensure the University’s equal access for people with disabilities and to support students in their educational goals and activities.

Our direct services range from supportive counseling, the provision of academic access services and the authorization of specific reasonable accommodations, to consultations and coordination of University responses to students’ individual disability-related needs. We provide advocacy for individual students and for overall physical and program accessibility. We also try to increase the University community’s awareness of the abilities, challenges, needs and individuality of people with disabilities.

Our philosophy is primarily that students with disabilities are much more similar to than different from students without disabilities.

How has your work changed over the years?
When I arrived in 1977, the office worked with 18 students, and most of them had mobility issues or visual impairments. Now, we work with more than 300 students who have a variety of disabilities, ranging from physical disabilities and chronic health conditions to learning disabilities, autism and psychiatric disabilities. We’re also seeing more students who have more than one disability.

Many people know that we arrange the disability parking permits on campus, but that’s a small part of what we do. For instance, last semester we provided students with 3,400 hours of note taking.

What role does new technology play in your work?
An increasing number of students are benefiting from adaptive technology, but it’s a challenge to keep up with it. There’s a bigger need for alternate-format reading materials, for example, but it takes a long time for our staff to convert a book into an accessible audio file. To support students with note-taking, I’m a big fan of Blackboard, especially when professors use it to post their lecture notes. That’s enormously helpful to many students, both with disabilities and without.

The director of academic computing and I have been working together for several years, trying to find funding for an additional programmer/analyst to help ensure access to computing services and adaptive technology.

What new initiatives are on the horizon for you?
We’re developing an alumni career network to complement the one set up by the Alumni Association since we believe students may find it helpful to talk with graduates who faced similar challenges in terms of disabilities. Students with disabilities often need more individual support with career exploration, and I think this will be a good way to supplement the Career Development Center’s services.

I also have high hopes for the development of a new database on campus physical accessibility. Valerie Hampton, the Affirmative Action officer, and I are campus compliance officers for laws regarding disability access. The development of a dynamic database and the support of a recently formed upper-level administration committee on disability access and inclusion should help us address some of these issues more strategically.

Overall, I believe the University and society as a whole need to move toward partnerships with people who have disabilities. People need to take time to examine their feelings about disabilities. Instead of doing for, we need to walk with one another.

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Last Updated: 10/14/08