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Friday, May 24, 2024
The McBurney Center provides accommodations for many students whose disabilities make the transition to college more difficult.

The McBurney Center provides accommodations for many students whose disabilities make the transition to college more difficult.

McBurney Center helps students with disabilities make college transition

Freshman Samantha Heesacker, who has autism in addition to clinically diagnosed depression and anxiety, is one of 23 current UW-Madison students on the autism spectrum and officially registered with the McBurney Disability Resource Center, which makes her college transition different than that of most students.

Even the special education teachers trained to help students with disabilities had trouble facilitating her transition during her early public school education.

“Too many able people go into that profession thinking they are saving a disabled kid. A lot of them go in with a condescending attitude,” Heesacker said. “I wish something would change in special ed so disabled kids get the respect they deserve.”

Although doctors diagnosed Heesacker with autism when she was four years old, her parents did not tell her about the disability until she was nine.

“I didn’t know I was disabled so I didn’t know why I was getting picked on,” Heesacker said. “And I think that encouraged behavior from other students.”

Classmates would mock her during her formative years in school because of her disabilities, which she wishes she had known about and understood earlier.

Throughout most of her pre-college education, Heesacker was in the Individualized Education Program, a free public school program designed to aid students with disabilities or delayed learning skills.

Heesacker decided to stop using the IEP in high school because she said she struggled to confront her disabilities.

However, her sentiments changed once arriving at UW-Madison.

“It was just weird to think of myself as disabled for a long time,” Heesacker said. “But I ended up finding other people who were also going through the same thing and I got more involved in [that community].”

After enrolling at UW-Madison for the fall 2015 semester, Heesacker confirmed her disabilities with the McBurney Center, which provided accommodations for her course work, attendance and testing requirements.

The center also provided her with a smart pen that can record the lecture and track when she takes notes if she feels overwhelmed.

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Tessa Timler, an accommodation specialist at the McBurney Center, said the center has accelerated the registration process recently, and most professors are eager to accommodate students.

The McBurney faculty cannot formally provide an accommodation plan for a student if they do not have the required paperwork on hand, which can delay the registration process, according to Timler.

“I will say faculty is really receptive to our recommendations for informal accommodations,” Timler said. “So even if [paperwork] technically holds up the process, many times the students who are seeking our services who don’t yet have a diagnosis can still get the accommodations they need.”

Heesacker said elements other than her disability, however, also made adjusting to college during her first semester difficult.

Transitioning from a small city to a large state university, living with a random roommate and knowing only four people on a campus of more than 40,000 overwhelmed her.

“It wasn’t a good situation at all. I couldn’t focus on anything. I couldn’t do homework. I was skipping class and not doing anything, just sort of laying in bed,” Heesacker said. “It was really rough and at the end of semester I realized I had to get my act together.”

She began visiting the McBurney Center for bi-weekly appointments with specialists to help her overcome a severe depressive episode her first semester.

“The appointments helped to just check in with someone, and to have something that was scheduled and that I had to go to,” Heesacker said.

In addition to sessions with specialists, the McBurney Center offers a wide range of accommodations for students on campus, including extended times on exams, modified attendance policies, real-time lecture captioning and sign language interpretations.

The center provided accommodations for 1,338 students registered with disabilities other than autism during the 2014-’15 academic year and is attempting to offer new resources as students continue to register for its accommodations.

According to Heesacker, the center wants to introduce a social group for students on the autism spectrum because they are such a small community on campus.

Despite the size of this community, Heesacker said her social experience at UW-Madison has largely been good.

Heesacker stated although she has not experienced outright discrimination, there is still a stigma regarding disabilities that needs to be broken.

Heesacker said UW-Madison should offer more classes concerning disabilities because education is essential to ending stigmas, which is the reason she wants to teach after graduating.

“I’m really passionate about history and I want to teach people about history. Maybe some people would say ‘Yeah, your disability is going to limit you,’ but I think it’s just going to give me a different perspective that not a lot of other teachers have,” Heesacker said. “I think it’s going to help me understand students and make a connection.”

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