Episode 13: Accommodation is Collaboration
Matt Davis, Assistant Director of the Student Accessibility Resource Center at Western Kentucky University, talks to Lisa about self advocacy.
The book "A Celebration of Family: Stories of Parents with Disabilities." is available from Amazon here.
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Thanks to Steve Moore for the transcription which you can find in the show notes below when they become available.
Kimberly Parsley 00:05 Welcome to Demand and Disrupt, the disability podcast. Here we will learn to advocate for ourselves and each other. This podcast is supported with funds from the Advocado Press based in Louisville, Kentucky.
Lisa McKinley 00:19 Good Morning! Welcome to the Demand and Disrupt podcast. I'm your host, Lisa McKinley. Today we are with Matt Davis. Matt Davis is the Assistant Director of the Student Accessibility Resource Center on the campus of Western Kentucky University. Good morning, Matt. How are you today?
Matt Davis 00:40 I'm doing well, Lisa. How are you doing this morning?
Lisa McKinley 00:43 I am great. We are so excited to have you on! I've known Matt for a long time now. Probably 20 something years.
Matt Davis 00:53 20 something years?
Lisa McKinley 00:54 Yes! 20 something years. I think I actually met you before I became a student at Western. You were doing road races and I was at a road race with my sister and you were there. And that's how I met you. And I'm like, “This dude's cool!”
Matt Davis 01:13 And I started racing in 97, so that's ever been had to have been sometime around when I first started, started.
Lisa McKinley 01:19 Tell us about yourself, a little more about yourself and about your position at Western.
Matt Davis 01:25 Okay. I am from Bowling Green, Kentucky. I grew up here. We moved here when I was a little kid. When my father got a position at WKU, we moved from Lexington to Bowling Green. So, I pretty much grew up here in the Bowling Green area. I am an adult with spina bifida, I was born with Spina Bifida. So, I also have a disability as well. I have my bachelor's and master's in social work from WKU. I also do, as you well know and had mentioned before, I also have been passionate about adaptive sports for over 20 years now. My main sport is wheelchair racing, but I've played wheelchair basketball and tennis And, tennis students and softball and sled hockey And, so, hockey and so many other things. And, so, I always make the joke that I'm only doing this WKU gig so I can feed my sports habit. So, that’s a little bit about my background.
What I do at WKU is, as you mentioned, I'm the Assistant Director for the Student Accessibility Resource Center. And what I do is make sure that students who have a documented disability, that they disclose their disability to the university, make sure that they have all the resources that they need to take advantage of, or of or they can take advantage of, to make sure that they have the equal opportunity success during their college career. And that can vary from, you know, classroom accommodations, to housing, to finding tutor, tutoring assistance to oftentimes just being, you know, a listener. So, people ask me what a normal day is and there really isn't such a thing. It seems to be something different every day, which I like. It’s hard to believe that I've been here this long, this will be my 22nd year here at WKU as an employee.
Lisa McKinley 03:15 I would like to spend some time talking about the importance of self-advocacy, because we can have people advocate for us all day long, [but] I think the ability to advocate for one's self is so important. Can you talk a little about advocating for oneself as a college student and really how important that is?
Matt Davis 03:37 Sure. In, a lot of times when I speak to con, at conferences, or even if I'm speaking to a classroom of students here on campus, oftentimes, without mention, is one of the most important things I do in my role. You know, a lot of things can be, you can learn on a job, you can learn how to do different, you know, the process for providing accommodations, but I think helping students become their own advocates, once they get to college, I think is one of the more important roles that I have. Because a lot of times, students in general, oftentimes have had a lot of things in their life done for them up until they get to the college level, but it seems to be more prevalent in the disability community as far as even not just, you know, as far as schoolwork and those types of challenges, but also just daily living skills. And, so, I think that, because I think that's part of my role here is to help students make that transition into college and, you know. They are adults (tell people I'm using my quote fingers) “adults,” but they still have those responsibilities that they haven't had before oftentimes in their life. Not just getting to class but how to navigate to get groceries, how to navigate to get, you know, their medicines that they need or their supplies that they need or making doctor's appointments. So, oftentimes I'll get those requests, you know.
Students at the university, when they request accommodations, we don't, they do that through a process through our office and we provide them with what we call a Faculty Notification Letter to their email and they provide those to their professors to request the accommodations. So, that’s part of that process, is to let the student be in control of when or if they want to request accommodations for their classes. And, so, they have that letter and they can, they need to provide that to professors; we don't do that. And, so, we tell students, ‘College is all about choices and once you get to college, it's your choices whether choice as whether or not to use the accommodations.’ [I] always recommend that students provide their Letter of Accommodation or their Faculty Notification Letter at the beginning of the semester and then everything's in place. And if you want to just try the class without accommodations, then you know, that's also their choice, and so… And, also students will oftentimes request did I contact their professors or if they will contact this department on campus and I tell them a couple of things. What I'll do is, I said, “Well reach out to your professor, this department, and you can copy me,” and I'll even sometimes help a student formulate an email to them. And then that way, that helps them to kind of take over that role of asking for help around campus and getting into that routine of asking for those, that extra help that they need. And, so, those are some of the things that I see myself… And one of the things that helped me, I think, when I was younger. My first attempt at college at an early age and didn't do so well and had to drop out and I went back later. And, so, those students that I see that are struggling or, lack of a better term may term, may be goofing off or not taking college as serious, I can't really be really judgmental, because I see myself in them. And, so, I try to start where they are. And, so, that's part of that as well, because some students even hesitate who have accommodations – especially those students who have what we call a hidden disability – oftentimes, they're even hesitant to even reach out to our office. And, so, I think just encouraging them that they made that first step to at least go through the process to get help from us as part of that, that advocacy process.
Lisa McKinley 07:32 Encouragement is a huge thing; just to have somebody there beside you, you know, letting you know you can do this and this is how you might want to go about it. That, that is huge! So, if you can what, tell us maybe something a student might run into with a class. How are some ways in the classroom they might have to advocate for themselves?
Matt Davis 07:59 That's a good question. Oftentimes students who, I'll give you an example that some students who have accommodations may have to, accommodations for testing. And, so, what we require them to do (and what I mean testing, they, maybe they need extended testing time or a separate place to take exams or sometimes even, even a reader)… And, so, what we have that student do is when they need our offices, where students can come and take their exams, and, so, we require them to fill out a testing form. And, so, some of the, some of the issues they might face in the classroom is, maybe (and a lot of students, not just students with disabilities) but the time management factor. Being able to because, you know, a lot of times students transitioning to college, they've been used to their parents saying, “Have you done your homework? You need to get up and go to school. You need to,” you know, “go to your tutoring sessions.” And, so, teaching students with the time management, I think this helps. As an example, is filling out that testing form and, so, so that way they, because they're required to, we try to require them to do that at least three to five days in advance. Obviously, we get requests that are, say, the day before, and we try to accommodate. But that's part of that, that learning process and in that self-advocacy piece, And, so, some of the challenges, sometimes they run into challenges where the professors are either less willing or don't understand the accommodations. And, so, that's why I try to help, help facilitate that educational piece to the professor: so students don't run into those types of barriers, because we want them to focus on their studies and not having to fight with professors to get their accommodations.
Lisa McKinley 09:41 So, I am sure a lot of it is professors just not really maybe knowing exactly what a student needs and wants. Sometimes, I, you will have to step in and maybe say, ‘These are the accommodations this student needs…’
Matt Davis 09:57 Right. You know, we, when we determine the accommodations, it's a partnership with the student and one of our staff here. So, we, we just don't tell them, “These are the accommodations you're going to get.” It's, it's is a, it's a collaborative process. So, they kind of feel like they're being, they have that power in their own hands: getting that help that they need.
Lisa McKinley 10:20 It's an amazing resource. And I wish sometimes I had taken advantage of it more. When I was a student, I remember having one professor who refused to allow me to take an exam in private. He wanted to whisper the answers [questions] to me or the, he was proctoring the test in front of the entire class while the class was also taking their tests, but he was trying not to interrupt the class. So, he’s kind of whispering and, and that was the hardest test I ever took. Because, I mean, that's not a good test environment and I think if I would have had the courage to speak up, and, and, you know, called the student disability coordinator, I think I probably would have had more success in that class. So, yeah, speak to that: when students might be, you know, afraid to advocate for themselves and like, how do they find their voice?
Matt Davis 11:19 I think, you know, I do understand because I was a student. As I tell students, I was a student 100 years ago and, so, I remember, you know, students oftentimes are apprehensive about challenging professors as they see, they may see it as challenging professors where we see it as advocating for themselves, because if they're in that course, they oftentimes may be concerned about retaliation from the professor if they push for, you know, those needed accommodations. But I always tell students, when I meet with future students, current students, and even sometimes with their parents, I always tell students that our office is not just for the accommodations, the Student Accessibility Resource Center. It's also a place where students can get help for or, at least, pointed in the right direction for everything WKU.
So, that’s what the disability office should be. So, if a student needs to know, ‘I need to check on how to do my financial aid for next year.’ Well, somebody in our office should point that student or, at least, help them get the information they need, so they can start that process. And, so, I think that’s part of that, you know. Sometimes the apprehension is, is that confrontation, but let us, let someone in the disability services office, sometimes… We always talk about, oftentimes about self-advocacy, but I think oftentimes, too, the student, the disability services office is also there to be an advocate for the student in these situations. And, so, I think that's where they need to understand that they're not on their own, that we're here to support them and to reach out whenever they need that help.
Lisa McKinley 12:58 I think that's a huge thing. I think there's a lot of students out there who, you know, maybe in high school right now thinking about going to college, but then they look at their disability and they say, “No, maybe this isn't for me.” And they're overwhelmed by everything that, that might be involved. And, so, your office can really step in and help them navigate and help them to start to learn to self-advocate and also to be there as a voice for them when it when it gets challenging or when they might need somebody to intercede on their behalf. So, what would you say to someone who's thinking about going to college, but, like I said, they're overwhelmed by all of the prospects of it all?
Matt Davis 13:44 You know, one of my first pieces of advice is to contact, to reach out, even if you're in high school, to reach out to an office like mine on the campus that you're interested in going to just to have a meeting. I usually tell students two things. First off is, one is, make sure that the disability services office is a good fit, as far as, you know, meeting your needs. But also, a college that they have a program that you're interested in, if you know what you're interested in in your career. So, those are two things that I often tell students, give advice to. But meeting, looking at the campus, meeting with someone on the campus, meeting with the disability services office can kind of break down, maybe, that, you know, I always tell students… I get this question quite a bit, sometimes even from parents. It’s interesting that sometimes parents will talk about their children, you know, their son or daughter that's with them in their, talk about them like they're not even in the room. And then often, though, I had to do this the other day: I was talking to a prospective student and mom was answering all the questions and I said politely to the mom, I said, “I'm speaking to your son.” And, so, he started answering questions and, questions that I had and opened up. So, that’s part of that process of kind of letting that, you know, the old adage or the old saying, “Cutting the cord” for the parents and, so, letting them answer those questions. So, always try to direct those questions towards the student. But if the, if the student is, if the prospective student meets the general requirements for being accepted to WKU (which they don't take disability into consideration, they don't ask you if you have a disability), whether or not you're going to be accepted to a university. If they meet those requirements, then it's more my perspective, it's more of not can we make this work, but how can we make this work? And, so, that's where that partnership comes into play. You know, I have a role, the student has a role and, together, we can try to make this work. It may take some adjustments over the course of weeks or the semester. But if we all work together, I think we can make this a goal of working towards a graduation and getting a degree.
Lisa McKinley 15:57 You actually kind of touched on my next question in the story about the mom answering all the questions. There are probably some parents out there listening and they may not be, you know, completely aware of the possibilities that are out there for their children. They may have, you know, been the biggest mouthpiece of the advocacy over the years. What would you say to parents about stepping back and, and allowing their children to take over that advocacy process themselves?
Matt Davis 16:35 You know, I don't want to give the impression that we want to completely shut parents out, but we want to ease that transition, where the student kind of takes over that role. Because it is an important part of, you know… If they have a support system, whether it's a parent or someone that they rely on, that’s in that role, it's important that they be involved in that process in the beginning, because that might be something that they can provide insight to us or to the student or make it a collaborative effort. But I think moving it towards let, letting the student or the future student kind of take on that role themselves. I just wanted to emphasize that, you know, we obviously meet with parents and students when they're not at the college level yet just to go over the process and want to help them as much as we can. I use the example sometimes when I speak to classes that, my first attempt at college, I lived in one of the residence halls and was trying to learn my independence skills. And I called my mother on the phone and I said, “Mom, whenever I'm doing laundry, do I mix the color clothes in with the white clothes whenever I'm doing laundry?” And she said, “You figure it out.” [laughter] After a couple of pairs of pink underwear, I figured it out that maybe you shouldn’t mix them together. So, you know, it's sort of that learning; we prepare students in life. The reason why I mentioned that is we, we prepare students as much as you can, but there's going to be setbacks, and realizing that if you if you learn from those setbacks and you ask for help and take advantage of the resources, you know, being persistent and don't give up and, you know, getting the help you need, I think is an important piece of being successful in college.
Lisa McKinley 18:16 So, I’m hearing you say that, you know, having your support systems in place is very important. So, it’s kind of a balance between, you know, letting your parents or guardians be that support system, but not that over-reliance on them.
Matt Davis 18:33 That's correct.
Lisa McKinley 18:35 I'm glad you touched on that. Because that's, that's really important because you can't really go at this alone; we all need our, our support systems. What do you wish you would have known when you were a college student that you know now, that you've learned from this whole process?
Matt Davis 18:54 I think that what I wish I did, you know… What you could tell your past self is, when I had mentioned earlier before, is just taking advantage of all the help. I have a former professor of mine who is a, ended up being my boss and was a mentor; he passed away about 10 years ago. Dr. David Coffee had a great saying in the class. He’d say, he would ask, a student would ask, ‘How would I, how, what’s the best way to get, get a good grade in this class?’ And he would say, “Get your ass to class to pass!” I’ll always remember that phrase. Because, you know, that's one of the things that is different from high school to college is that, you know, you have to get to class and you have to, there's a lot more. They say that the average, if you have a class that's an hour, that there's three hours outside of class that you'll have to do work on that class. And, so, being disciplined, I think, is what I didn't do back in the, in my 1 st attempt at college. I wasn't very disciplined. That was the first time away from home and I always tell, always make a joke that the residence hall is really kind of like a halfway house: you're away from home, but you're not independently, totally independent. But still, it was a learning process for me that, you know…
We always emphasize or I always emphasize or sometimes tend to, over, over-emphasize how important it is to, you know, to study and to go to class and to get help and to go to tutoring. But part of the college experience, whether you have a disability or not, is to have some fun and being able to balance that, because college should be a, a enjoyable experience. There's so many clubs, there's so many, you know, you can go to games, there's so many networks that students have. People that I went to college with whenever I was an undergrad, I've still maintained contact with in my graduate program. And, so, there's that social piece of it that often times folks don't really realize that’s important for us folks with disabilities.
Lisa McKinley 21:01 Well, Matt, is there anything else we haven't spoken about that I might not have asked that you'd like… students who might be in college now or students thinking about going to college? Is there anything you'd like them to know that maybe we haven't talked about?
Matt Davis 21:18 I think it's okay, sometimes if you're not ready for or if they, if you're not ready for a big college atmosphere, it's certainly a great idea (I did this years ago) is taking maybe some core classes at your local community college, getting in touch with the disability services there, get some classes that everyone's going to have to take that will transfer over. Maybe, even if you don't want to take a full load, which is usually four classes at the college level, to go part time just to see how that's gonna go. And then you can always ease up to a full-time status. So that's my advice is to not be afraid of just jumping into a big campus or to take, you know, so many classes that it's, it may seem overwhelming, but it's certainly reasonable to ease into that type of situation. That would be my best advice and to not let your own fears keep you from doing what you are passionate about. Because the best way to do something that you're passionate about is to get connected with those who are at the college community and all the resources that are available and we can, together, kind of make this happen. Everybody's different; everybody’s plan is different. And that's why we don't have a cookie cutter way of helping students. But just ask for the help, ask questions and that would be probably my best advice.
Lisa McKinley 22:42 Wow, Matt, you have been a wealth of information! I've enjoyed having you on the podcast today. Thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Matt Davis 22:52 Thanks for having me, Lisa.
Lisa McKinley 22:54 Thank you.
Kimberly Parsley 22:56 Thanks to Chris Onken for our theme music. Thanks to Steve Moore for our providing our transcription. Support comes from the Center for Assessable Living in Louisville, Kentucky. And you can find links to buy the book, “A Celebration of Family: Stories of Parents with Disabilities” in our show notes. Thanks everyone!
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