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Ray Grott, MA, ATP
San Francisco State University
The START Project at San Francisco State University, a federally-funded model retention program for students with disabilities, has confirmed that assistive technology can be a powerful tool for success in college. As implied in the name, "Solutions Through Advocacy and Resource Teams," teams of disabled students meet to problem-solve around their academic and off-campus issues of living with a disability. The projects' accomplishments stem from an integration of the search for technology solutions with a group process, peer mentors, and a growing appreciation of the non-technical and personal issues threatening students' retention and academic achievement. We are learning that these "soft" issues are often more significant obstacles than technological ones and that the student team approach is a good vehicle for addressing them.
Nationally, the college graduation rate of students with disabilities is low. Students with disabilities often have great difficulty transitioning from a home/high school environment to that of a university, with its accompanying expectation that the students live and function independently. It often takes students with disabilities months to resolve many of their disability-related environmental, social, personal, and academic problemsÑif they resolve them at all. As a result, they tend to suffer academically and have lower retention and graduation rates than their non-disabled peers. Even older students who transfer from other schools or re-enter college as independent adults often have trouble negotiating the unfamiliar terrain of the university.
While most campuses have programs offering supports to students with disabilities, they overwhelmingly focus on classroom-related issues. In recent years, increased attention has been directed towards assistive technology services such as access to computers, but these have also been oriented toward academic activities. There are very few programs which comprehensively address the range of non-academic needsÑfrom managing personal assistants to locating devices for self-care to making a living space more accessible. The START Project, based on a collaboration between SFSU's Rehabilitation Engineering Technology (RET) Training Project and Disability Resource Center, and with support from the Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education (FIPSE), is designed to help students address their non-academic (as well as academically-related) obstacles to success.
We believe that many disabled students can begin to find understanding and support and break through the isolation inherent on a large urban commuter campus by coming together with other students with disabilities in a joint effort at learning and discussion. Central to our model is a for-credit course, Problem Solving and Disability, which is aimed at freshmen and transfer students, but is open to any student with a disability. A formal academic class structure promotes consistency, responsibility, and accountability. The course meets twice a week and is divided into two segments. One day the class meets as a whole for lectures and discussion on a number of topics such as time management, accessing the state Department of Rehabilitation, hiring and managing assistants, understanding one's learning styles, disability management, self-esteem and body image, personal relationships, disability rights and the ADA, self-advocacy strategies, and other topics of interest to the students.
On the alternating days, the students meet in small teams with others having similar disabilities. Peer mentors, most of whom are former students in the class, facilitate the teams. A formal problem-solving methodology is followed to help draw out students' issues and aid the team members in addressing them in a systematic and goal-oriented manner. All issues are relevant for the team, both "hard" and "soft" (e.g., physical needs as well as personal problems and concerns).
Graduate students studying assistive technology participate in the teams as appropriate, helping to research and implement possible solutions. An Assistive Technology and Resource Lab is available for trying out different computer-based software and hardware and researching available other lower-tech products. The focus throughout is on soliciting ideas and input from all the team members while developing each student's ability to advocate for themselves and direct the problem solving process. Project staff train and supervise the peer mentors, monitor team sessions, and run the Lab. Peer mentors stay in touch with their team members outside of class.
After four semesters of our project, the START project has been very well received by its participants. Along the way, we are learning some valuable lessons.
The peer-based problem-solving team is a flexible vehicle for addressing student issues and can respond quickly to those requiring prompt attention. The team promotes mutual support and information sharing. It helps to reduce the social isolation that many students with disabilities have experienced. Even for students fairly well integrated into the general campus milieu, there are a number of topics which they don't feel comfortable discussing with non-disabled acquaintances and even close friends.
Peer mentors have proven to be a very valuable component in the team process and over time we have given them more responsibility and provided more focused training for them. The training includes such areas as listening skills and crisis management. Through the process of taking responsibility for the teams, the mentors have increased their own self-esteem, confidence, and problem solving and advocacy skills
Costs are reduced and staff can maximize their "reach" by creating an environment where students assist each other, student mentors play an active role, and non-disabled students interested in assistive technology help with research and implementation.
Technology issues are usually not the primary concern, especially for people with "hidden" disabilities such as learning disabilities. Again, issues such as low self-esteem and self-confidence, lack of family understanding and support, undeveloped social skills, and social isolation tend to rise to the surface again and again. Even where technology is the issue under discussion, it is often overshadowed by "soft" issues. To give a few examples:
The START model has not been without its limitations.
Recruitment and outreach to enroll potential students is time-consuming. The existing model can only reach a limited number of students who's time, schedule, and motivation permits taking the class.
Many issues have no clear solution and the problem-solving methodology is difficult to apply consistently given the varying nature of the problems being addressed.
The behavior of people with psychiatric disabilities, head injuries, or personality disorders can complicate classroom dynamics. Psychological issues come up such as confrontational behavior, depression, and suicidal tendencies which are difficult to manage, in or out of the classroom, and which can require the intervention of professional counseling staff. At the same time, the availability of the START team members and staff has made critical differences in some students' ability to weather these crises.
1) Additional supports beyond the traditional academic accommodations is crucial for many students with disabilities. Non-academic issues present major obstacles which must be addressed.
2) Mutual support and understanding can fill a big gap in disabled students' lives.
3) Building self-esteem is critical for student success, especially for those with learning disabilities and similar "hidden" disabilities.
4) Resolving small issues can raise the confidence level for taking on larger ones.
5) Peer mentorship is key to success. Ongoing peer training and supervision is important
6) Adaptive technology can be quite important but is often not the central problem.
7) Identifying personal technology needs can strengthen a sense of self-worth and capacity.
8) The extra work engendered by a project or service like this is often time-consuming but can make a big difference in individual student's lives.
We are working to promote a discussion on how to address these core lessons in postsecondary environments, as we are not alone in arriving at these understandings. To replicate aspects of our model, one may have to draw on alternate available resources . Some ideas include:
Focus on the peer mentor model only (without the lecture class), but maintain its structure in the Problem Solving Team.
Utilize students in High Tech labs and computer resource centers (or OT, PT, Rehabilitation Counseling, Engineering departments) in place of Assistive Technology graduate students.
Work in close collaboration with local independent living centers or other community groups to draw on external resources and expertise.
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