UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Even though Stephen Verigood has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, there was a time in his life when he didn’t know if he would be able to graduate.
Verigood, who is deaf, said he didn’t know if his hearing aids would affect his ability to learn. When he found out about the Penn State World Campus Office of Disability Services, which provides resources and accommodations to help students with disabilities be successful, he regained his confidence.
For the past 30 years, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has helped students like Verigood receive a college education. The ADA, which was signed into law on July 26, 1990, prohibits discrimination and guarantees people with disabilities the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life, including higher education.
“My confidence picked up because I knew that I had the office’s support and that they were not going to let me become another statistic of someone with a disability not getting an education,” Verigood said.
At World Campus, the Student Disability Services office serves about 600 students, said Terry Watson, the office’s assistant director. He said the goal of the office is to significantly decrease or eliminate the barriers that students with disabilities face in online learning environments.
World Campus students who contact the office meet with dedicated counselors to discuss the barriers they face and how those barriers can be overcome through accommodations. For instance, students may be granted extra time on quizzes and tests, transcripts and captions for lectures, accessible textbooks, and more.
Verigood graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2013 and a master’s in human resources and employee relations in 2017. He said he used a combination of transcripts and captions for lectures and videos in his course work. There were times he used real-time captioning during live sessions.
“Throughout these times, I was always amazed at the level of dedication the Office of Disability Services showed in making sure these students are given the best tools to succeed,” he said.
Sydney Rhead, who is majoring in political science, was diagnosed with a learning disability in the second grade. She has a cognitive memory disorder that prevents her from remembering the meaning of material she reads.
She’s learned to accept that her learning disability will always affect her, but she’s also learned important strategies to overcome the daily struggles. She relies on creating lists, using planners and voice memos, and the help of her friends and family to make sure she gets things done.
Rhead said her World Campus student disability specialist, Maggie Kwok, is her “guardian angel.” Kwok created a document for Rhead to share with her instructors explaining her disability and the special accommodations she needs for her courses, such as extra time on quizzes and exams and the use of flashcards.
She said the positive experience she’s had at World Campus and the support she’s received from the Office of Disability Services has encouraged her to pursue her dream of attending law school.
Watson said the office helps more than just its students. The staff hosts programs and speakers that aid in raising awareness, and they provide the training and tools for instructors and course creators to teach online and eliminate barriers for students with disabilities.
“It’s our goal to provide an environment for our students with disabilities to feel welcome,” said Watson. “We want every office that interacts with students to contribute to that culture of inclusion.”
Watson has long sought to educate other staff members at Penn State and at universities around the country on how they can follow the principles set forth by the ADA to best support their students with disabilities.
In the spring, when Penn State and other universities moved their courses to remote or online instruction because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Watson helped create a webinar on how universities could provide disability services to online learners. He said representatives from more than 200 universities have seen it, and he is partnering with two national organizations to create additional webinars to share best practices.
Verigood, the student with two degrees, is working in HR for a State College, Pennsylvania–based hotel company. He remains involved with World Campus by serving as the president of the Penn State World Campus Alumni Society.
He said none of it would be possible without the support he received.
“Without the help of the Student Disability Services office at Penn State World Campus, I wouldn’t have been able to complete my education,” said Verigood. “I would not be where I am today without it.”
Those interested in learning more about the Student Disabilities Services office and accommodations can contact [email protected].