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Nov. 4, 2010 Volume 32, No. 11

Advocates renew commitment to improving ‘disability culture’ at MU


SUPPORT SYSTEM Barbara Willis, with her medical alert dog Sydney, is coordinator of the civic leaders internship program in the Office of Service Learning. Rob Hill photo


Reducing barriers by changing attitudes

Editor's Note: This story has been modified since it was originally published to clarify that the Office of Service Learning has done everything necessary to accommodate staff and students with disabilities.

Barbara Willis has experienced the University of Missouri from two perspectives — as a student and as a staff member. 

As a student, Willis, who has a closed-head injury that causes migraines so severe they can cause temporary blindness, had “remarkable” support from MU’s Office of Disability Services. As a MU staff member, Willis, coordinator of the civic leaders internship program in the Office of Service Learning, stressed that she enjoys the full support of her department and her supervisors, whom she says have "gone above and beyond in supporting my employment." But she said that, as an institution, MU can do more to offer the same level of support to employees that it does to students.

“I never had to prove my disability to the professors who controlled my grade,” says Willis, who relies on a specially trained service dog named Sydney to sniff out oncoming migraines. “But now I have to prove my disability and ask for accommodations from the same people that write my performance reviews.

“Jobs are hard enough to come by,” she continues. “And when you have a disability, it just feels like another obstacle to overcome.”

In a 2009 survey of faculty and staff by the Chancellor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities, 15 percent of 1,144 respondents reported having a disability. The survey’s results suggested that, for people with disabilities, the “experience of acceptance and accessibility on campus is not as positive as their peers without disability.” Moreover, only 20 percent of those who took the survey said they felt the university effectively responded to complaints about discrimination or problems on the job. 

Disability advocates at MU want to change that by creating a centralized office that would offer direct support and assistance to employees with disabilities. That effort, led by the 21-member chancellor’s committee, has not yet led to a formal proposal to campus administrators. But Barbara Hammer, director of the Office of Disability Services, said the support model that’s worked so well for students should be extended to MU employees. 

“As it stands right now,” Hammer says, “if a student comes to my office and needs assistance with completing coursework while managing a disability, I have a staff and a budget to help them.”

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities who need those accommodations to perform their duties. Lee Henson, MU’s ADA coordinator, says the university has made significant improvements to building accessibility and in supporting disability services for students. 

When it comes to employees, however, Henson says the current system puts the responsibility for accommodating people with disabilities on individual departments, colleges and divisions. He says a centralized office that took on that role would reduce the burden on individual departments and lower the resistance to hiring people who need accommodation. 

“In some cases, the costs are evenly split between the department, the major college or administrative unit and the Office of the Provost,” Henson says.

Cheryl Shigaki, chair of the chancellor’s committee and associate professor of health psychology, wants MU to adopt what’s known as the social model of disability, which is based on the idea that accommodating people with disabilities can benefit everyone. For example, automatic doors at the post office help people with spinal injuries, as well as customers carrying multiple packages. Captioning on the Memorial Stadium scoreboard helps both the deaf and those who simply can’t hear over the roar of the crowd.

“The social model is about creating an environment that allows everyone to coexist without highlighting differences,” Shigaki says.

Shigaki and other advocates are hoping to change “disability culture” through Access Mizzou, which was created in 2004 to make the campus more hospitable for people with disabilities. One of the major goals of the initiative is to increase recruitment and retention of students and employees with disabilities by enhancing MU’s image as an institution committed to integrating people with disabilities into all facets of campus life. The initiative includes a review of campus buildings, programs and activities with an eye toward making them more equitable and usable for everyone. It calls for adopting policies that ensure accessibility not only to campus buildings but also in communications and course design.  

Willis says some MU employees with disabilities might be reluctant to discuss accommodations with their supervisors. She says making them feel more comfortable on the job would be a big step in making MU a better, more inclusive place to work.

“When your place of employment goes above and beyond to make you feel welcome — to give you and your boss resources to overcome challenges — it makes you feel like real member of the team,” she says.


 — David Wietlispach