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Thursday, May 12, 2011 03:20 pm

More than able to succeed

Students with disabilities overcome obstacles to graduate from UIS


Hard work has paid off for liberal studies major Alex Carrano, who will graduate from UIS May 14.

They told her she shouldn’t even be in college.

That’s the advice Alex Carrano, 24, received from staff to deal with her learning disability and test anxiety at a former university before she transferred to University of Illinois Springfield. But Carrano, originally from LaGrange, a Chicago suburb, will prove them wrong May 14 when she walks across the stage at the Prairie Capital Convention Center to receive her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies.

“I think about that and it brings me down a little,” says Carrano. “But since UIS, I haven’t had any problems. They’ve definitely been willing to help.”

With help from the Office of Disability Services at UIS, she is one of 40 students with a diagnosed disability who will graduate with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The number of graduates with disabilities is up at UIS by 33 percent from 2010, when 30 students with disabilities graduated from UIS. Twelve students with disabilities graduated in 2009, according to ODS staff. The numbers show that more students are willing to step forward to get help than in years past.

“What we have to remember is that students who get accepted at UIS get accepted in the way everyone else is accepted,” says Suzanne Woods, visiting director at ODS. “So if they didn’t have the wherewithal to be a student here, they wouldn’t be accepted.”    

Several days a week, Carrano comes into the office to work on papers or take exams. It is where she completed her finals the week before graduation. The computer lab is quiet and copies are free to registered ODS students. During the semester, learning specialist Kim Rutherford devised a plan to keep Carrano on track for graduation and she is now earning all B’s.

“You’ve just got to believe in yourself and continue on and not really care what other people think,” Carrano says. She plans to intern for a funeral home after graduation.

Learning disabilities like test anxiety are often hard to diagnose.

Hilary Holmes is hearing impaired and follows along as Lyn Grooms transcribes the lecture on a CART machine.

“Invisible disabilities are disabilities that are not apparent to the eye, so many times people don’t realize a student has a disability,” says Woods.

Woods says invisible disabilities like test anxiety and dyslexia have become much more common at ODS since 2007 when she came to UIS. There were 54 students registered as having a disability in 2007 and 270 students in the spring of 2011. More than 80 of those have a psychological disability.

The office’s budget of $139,000 includes $117,000 for salaries for three paid staff, which leaves approximately $22,000 for office programs and materials. The Department of Rehabilitation, an arm of the Department of Human Services, used to pay for note-takers and interpreters for ODS, until money ran out.

The staff requests money from student government each school year to supplement costs, but is not funded by student fees like many other student organizations because services must be made available to students by federal law.    

“All of our accommodations are based on what the student needs to help them be the most successful in class,” says Woods.

Even when she is wearing bright purple hearing aids, it’s often hard for people to realize that Hilary Holmes, 23, is hearing impaired. The biology student has 80 percent hearing loss in her left ear and 40 percent hearing loss in her right ear, but says how she hears is her form of normal.

“You learn to do things different ways. Not everybody ties their shoes the same way and not everybody learns the same way and not everybody hears the same way,” says Holmes.

Many students hit the snooze button on their alarm clock in the morning, while her townhouse bed acts as the wakeup call, making a vibration instead of a buzzing noise. Like many college students, that isn’t enough to wake her some days.

“Every college student gets discouraged at some point,” she says. “There are days when you don’t want to get up. But if you don’t, then there’s no one at school who’s going to make you, so you have to make yourself.”

Jonathan Vongkorad once struggled in school because of dyslexia. He will become the first in his family to graduate from college May 14.

 Her determination has kept her on track to graduate as a “Capital Scholar” honors student. While she can read lips fairly well, it’s difficult to pay attention to lectures when she can’t hear the words.

“It sort of sounds like you’re under water sometimes,” says Holmes. “I’ve just given up on watching the teacher. It’s too difficult to try to read lips and pay attention to her.”

Through an ODS service, she can see the words to the lecture on a laptop computer in front of her desk, through a machine called Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART). The machine is operated by Lyn Grooms, 64, a former court reporter who sits near Holmes during class and transcribes each lecture. She studies the syllabus and types out lectures on genetics and biology courses that are mandatory for Holmes, a pre-nursing student.

Although Holmes has taken American Sign Language classes, she doesn’t feel proficient enough to have an interpreter.

At times when the professor writes on the white board, Grooms will type out SEE BOARD, as Holmes follows along. “So I’m not completely oblivious to what’s going on,” she says.

 She is not deaf but says that eventually she will lose her hearing completely.

“I was really worried if I ever had kids that I wouldn’t be able to hear the baby cry,” says Holmes. But she adds that she will find a “niche” as a nurse in a hospital or clinic where interpreters are needed. She sees a doctorate in nursing in her future as well.

“She’s very bright,” says Woods, who has known Holmes for four years. “She’s always been able to overcome anything that comes her way.”

Holmes spent weeks in the hospital for severe fibromyalgia earlier in the semester, making it a struggle to catch up on schoolwork. She’s grateful for the office of disability services that helps those who have chronic health problems as well as physical impairments like hearing and vision. The office can also help students receive an extension from their professor for an assignment and provide a quiet and welcoming atmosphere to take an exam or finish assignments. The staff at ODS focus on the individual needs of students and while no student has the same needs, the office tries to meet each student where they are and work to achieve individual goals. But Woods attributes the success of students to their determination.

Hilary Holmes and Carol Miller showing off a poster for the Journey2Jobs grant program.

 Some students are hesitant to register with ODS because of fear that having a disability has a negative connotation.

For Jonathan Vongkorad, it took time but he has come to terms with a once debilitating learning disability that still makes reading in front of others uncomfortable. Growing up, he says he loved to learn but struggled with reading because of dyslexia. Even the first two years at UIS were a struggle, but he didn’t seek help.

“Eventually you just get so good at finding other ways around the problem that you never solve the actual problem,” he says. “It’s a problem that you can go about the right way. And I was going about it the wrong way.”

Instead of reading more and reading out loud, he tried to avoid it as much as possible, even though he says he likes reading.

“Nobody wants to be seen as disabled or different. Everybody wants to belong,” Vongkorad says. He thought, “I’ve been able to get to college…and I came to a point where I came to terms with myself and I was like, I can’t do this alone.”

When he registered with ODS, he found a supportive, stress-free and judgment-free environment where they accommodated his needs for classes, exams and homework. Staff at ODS formatted his textbooks to audio, which he says makes it easier to understand the textbook when he hears it, rather than just reading the material.

Vongkorad is also a first generation college graduate and the oldest son of Vietnamese and Laotian immigrants who came to the United States to flee the Vietnam War. His parents now work full time so that he and his two younger brothers can go to college.

He will find out in June whether he gets a graduate assistant position for the fall at UIS. He would like to pursue financial analysis or investment banking.

“It’s always been a fear of mine that I would be seen or labeled as dumb or stupid and nobody wants to hear those words,” he says. “And when you have a disability, you’re afraid that’s going to happen. And then I learned that I’m not the only one and I’m not dumb, I’m really smart.”

“For some of our students, it’s absolutely amazing that they’ve been able to get through all the classes they had to take and they’re graduating,” says Woods. “I don’t think it’s hit them how special it’s going to be for them to walk.”

Contact Holly Dillemuth at hdillemuth@illinoistimes.com.


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