Facilitating Access for Students with Disabilities
Dr. Kristie Orr is the director for Disability Resources at Texas A&M University. We interviewed Dr. Orr about her role with Disability Resources, how she became interested in the field, and strategies to help become better allies. This year marks 30 years since the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). We hope you will join us in marking this important anniversary.
How did you become interested in facilitating access for students with disabilities? Did you start off in disability resources?
In August it will be twenty-two years that I have been at Texas A&M and in Disability Resources. I’ve seen a great deal of change. I have my PhD in school psychology. When I finished my internship, I was looking for a job and the coordinator of the Disability Office at that time, Dr. Anne Reber (current Dean of Student Life), was hiring. I took the job part-time in the office while I finished my dissertation before going to be a school psychologist
. I fell in love with college students and found my niche and never left.
[Working in Disability Resources] is all about civil rights and students having the same rights as every other student. We make sure that we're not putting up barriers for students to get their education for no reason other than maybe we have to do something a little differently than we've done it in the past.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in facilitating access for students with disabilities?
Our world of disability is constantly changing. When I started we mostly worked with students with physical, hearing, visual impairments, and learning disabilities. In the last couple of years, mental health disabilities have surpassed the number of students with learning disabilities and most likely in the next couple of years that will be the biggest category of disabilities we see on our campus. We have also seen more students with health conditions. In the past students may have thought that they needed to stay close to home or couldn’t go to this big university but now they are seeing they can have access to go wherever they want to go for their educational aspirations. There shouldn’t be a reason related to disability that they are not coming to any campus.
Do you have any suggestions to help others become better allies? If so, what would you suggest?
One thing is getting the right mindset. A student with a disability gets into Texas A&M under the same conditions as everyone else. When barriers are removed, disabled students have the same access as non-disabled students and are able to achieve.
In addition, disabled students are very diverse. It’s important to find out from each student what they need and how you can be an ally to them. The issue isn’t with the student, the issue is with the barrier in an educational setting. So if we can work with faculty to have their classes more accessible and using universal design that’s a way we can help the student not need accommodations because the accommodation is built in. An example would be of videos. When instructors caption all their videos then they are accessible for a student who is deaf but they also help a student where English is their second language, or if the sound is not great. We all benefit from using captions and universal design.
We try to emphasize that throughout the educational setting, so if faculty members put their notes online that helps a student not need a notetaker in their class and they don’t need an accommodation but it also helps all the other students that may struggle to get the notes down, or maybe they got distracted with something in their house in this online environment. It’s ways we can do things that will provide that built in accommodation but also are supporting all the students.
What would you like our readers to know about Disability Resources that may be less known or you want to highlight?
We like to make sure people know that disabled students get admitted to Texas A&M under the same requirements as every other student. So when we are providing accommodations they are qualified to be here and they can do the work but we just need to be a little more flexible in how we get there. Our goal is for students to learn. So as long as students are learning and understand the material, that’s most important.
What do you like to do when you're not working?
In enjoy exercising, reading, spending time outdoors, and spending time with my family.
Crystal S. Carter