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OU amid coronavirus: Students self-advocate for final exam accommodations after silence from Accessibility and Disability Resource Center

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Disability Resource Center closed

A "closed" sign in front of the Office of University Community, which houses the Accessibility and Disability Resource Center, on April 15.

On campus, Dax Covalt would normally begin finals week at 8 a.m. within the walls of OU’s Accessibility and Disability Resource Center. 

By being registered with the ADRC, Covalt, a business management and communications junior, is allowed to take his exams in a quieter environment for the initial time plus an additional half of that time. Besides the early time slot and the general craziness of finals week, Covalt has been satisfied with these accommodations, he said. 

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Covalt said he has watched the usually communicative and accommodating ADRC fall silent. 

“Nowadays, it's just the teacher and you in terms of setting up your exam or making sure you get a time and a half,” Covalt said. “The ADRC hasn’t really been involved.” 

To experience academic success, some students require accommodations like longer periods to take tests, tutoring or private testing areas. Classes transitioning to online has created a complete change of learning environment, and despite the good intentions of professors and staff, not everyone registered with the ADRC can be effectively accommodated. 

The purpose behind the center is to advocate for students with any documented disabilities or impairments and allow them to request learning accommodations such as alternative testing, tutoring or note-taking services, according to its website. Students in need of accommodations can submit an accommodation web request each semester and sign up in advance for times to take their exams in the ADRC building. 

Normally, when students receive accommodations, the organization sends a standard email to each of their instructors detailing their needs, said Laura Clifford, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry. From there, professors communicate with students and discuss how their accommodations are going to apply to their courses, she said.

The ADRC serves as an advocate for students by sending out general emails about what is going on within the center and which members of the center to reach out to for specific accommodations, Covalt said. He also carbon copied them in all of his emails to professors to back up his requests. 

Alex de Russy, a health and exercise science freshman who is registered with the center, said being able to take exams in a secluded environment and have extra time has given her comfort throughout this academic year. 

“Larger groups kind of stress me out ... so I would go to the ADRC and be able to take tests in a quieter or smaller area,” de Russy said. “It has been very nice to know that I have somewhere to go when I need help or have somewhere to go to take a test.”

Now that classes are online, she said things have become more difficult. 

“With all of this change, it's been very stressful — and I've had double, if not triple, the work in some of my classes,” de Russy said. “ I know that it's very new and different for everyone ... as we weren't expecting this ... (but) I haven't gotten too many emails from the ADRC.” 

Students registered with the ADRC are experiencing frustration in this time as they are not only learning to adapt to this new environment, but they are also having to navigate their accommodations with limited guidance, de Russy said. They have had to become self-advocates. 

“I have had to reach out to my teachers and explain ... my accommodations via email,” de Russy said. “It's kind of difficult having to represent myself.”

De Russy said she has felt comfortable reaching out to most of her teachers in her smaller lecture. 

But a close student-professor relationship is not always a guarantee in larger lectures. This distance and lack of communication have been frustrating as professors attempt to accommodate students, said Edward Baron, a professor of astrophysics and cosmology who teaches lectures with more than 250 people.

“People haven't reached out to me except when they were freaking out because they didn't have the right amount of time in my exam,” Baron said. “I am not happy with the lack of guidance from the ADRC. They could have said, ‘Hey, you're giving an exam, here's a checklist of the things you need to do to make sure that your students are accommodated.’ That's their job.”

Baron said he isn’t sure if the center is solely reaching out to students, while Covalt said he hasn’t received any emails on how to handle this situation. 

“Especially during the coronavirus (pandemic) ... I have learned to always email a professor before I take exams just to make sure we agree on the time I am taking it,” Covalt said. “That's not required by the ADRC, but I think it's good to communicate.”

Students’ active communication with their professors and their professor’s dedication to working with them is what has made the difference, de Russy said. When de Russy experienced issues with her computer and did not have sufficient time to finish all of her assignments, she said Callie Craig, her English professor and an academic adviser, allowed her to take the weekend to complete them. 

Craig has adopted an open line of communication with students and flexibility regarding due dates, encouraging students to let her know how she can make the shift to online learning as seamless as possible, she said. While helping students registered within the organization transition this semester, Craig said her position as an educator has evolved. 

In normal times, students need compassion, guidance and leadership (among other things),” Craig said. “Right now, though, I think students need these things even more than usual. I find value in giving students frequent reminders of the excellent work they're doing, despite everything that's going on around us. ... I am so, so proud of them.”

Although the actual center hasn’t been communicative, de Russy said she made contact with a few employees from the center who have answered her questions and given her advice over email. 

“I try to remind myself I'm not the only person who's in the ADRC that is struggling, and if I have something to ask, I should go ahead and not be scared,” de Russy said. “I know I am doing the best I can, and so are they.” 

The Daily reached out to the ADRC for comment on March 29, April 6 and April 13 and did not receive a response by publication.

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