Cramped into a space too small to meet the needs of the growing number of students and faced with a workload too large for its current staff to handle, the Disability Resource Center at Portland State is struggling to meet its goal of helping students with disabilities succeed.
"We don’t want to corral the students into the office, but there’s just nowhere to go," said Polly Livingston, assistant director of the center.
The resource center’s staff, overwhelmed with requests from students at the beginning of the term, says their offices on the fourth floor of the Smith Center are inadequate to meet the increase in service requests from students.
The Disability Resource Center offers pre-admission counseling, academic support and planning along with other academic accommodations to students with various disabilities. Services and resources such as note taking and interpreting assistance, specially formatted texts, priority registration and testing accommodations are also available at the center.
The office lacks a reception area, forcing students to wait out in the corridor, and tight quarters don’t allow for much privacy, undermining the resource center’s dedication to confidentiality. Due to the sensitive nature of some of the students needs, staff strives for discretion.
"Confidentiality is huge," said Sally Nicoletti, the resource center’s office specialist.
Nicoletti said the growing demand for services is another reason more assistance is needed from the university. Unable to quantify exactly how much of an increase she’s seen this term, she points to a 50 percent increase in the number of requests for special furniture for disabled students and a three-week backlog on counseling sessions and reader materials.
Nicolleti worries that the resource center is not getting the attention it needs. "We’re not a priority, yet the population we’re serving is one of the most needy. At some point I hope someone hears what we’re saying."
Livingston also has concerns about the safety of a large number of disabled students on a floor they can only access by elevator. "What happens if there’s a fire in the building?" she asked. "Students have the right to be safe."
A petition being circulated by the Disabled Advocacy Cultural Association aims to put pressure on the university to grant the resource center a larger office space.
Students with disabilities have the right to a distraction-reduced testing environment, according to Nicoletti, but the advocacy association hears many complaints from students around finals time about the testing accommodations the resource center has to offer.
"It’s really frustrating when it takes forever to find a spot, and they’re in weird places. I know from experience. It’s frustrating because it takes up, like, 15 minutes of test time," said Katie Lynett, Disabled Advocacy Cultural Association event co-coordinator.
This past week, the resource center was granted use of a portion of the student lounge adjacent to their office for use as an alternative testing area. Davis says this area of the Smith Center is too noisy to administer exams. Other students use it as a study area and sound carries from the Park Blocks below.
"I mean, bands play out there," Davis said.
Several proposals have been presented to the space committee as recently as this summer, but Davis said they have been told the proposals they have will not work at this time.
The resource center’s ideal space would encompass an office with a private waiting area, enough space for counseling and administrative needs, testing areas, a reader services area, and a computer lab. Livingston said they have had their eye on the Public Safety building because it is at ground level and conveniently located, but no space in the facility is currently available.
Livingston thinks the university does want to help the resource center, but space and resources are limited. "We’ve been working with the university, but we can’t just bombard them with we need money for this and we need that. Facilities, they’re wonderful, but they can only do what they can do."
Ernest Tipton, manager of campus planning and design, said they are working with Livingston to address the resource center’s long-term needs, but was unable to offer any specific plans. "It’s in the works, as far as I know."
Livingston said that she and her staff are dedicated to the students they serve, but worries that everyone’s needs are not being met with the resources they have now. "It’s not just a job; it’s what we do with our life. And it’s the students; it’s the rest of their lives."
"We’re just barely meeting the minimum requirements. There are many other things I’d like to do, but I can’t even think about it," Davis said. "The bottom line is we just want to help the students."