Below the following article is an in-depth interview with Polly Waldman.
Responding to both student needs and a growing awareness among colleges and universities that services for students with a range of disabilities should be consolidated in one office, the College has appointed its first assistant dean of studies and disability Services, Polly Waldman. Waldman comes to the College from Marymount College where she was director of learning services.
Waldman, part of the Dean of Studies staff, has begun to work with students whose disabilities range from those related to learning to those connected to mobility and the senses. "I'm an information clearinghouse," she says. "I try to make sure that the College is making the right accommodations, that we're doing what we need to do to assist students.
"Everything in disabilities is individualized," Waldman adds. "There is no set accommodation for any one group; it's all individualized case by case, and that's Sarah Lawrence." What the College needs, she believes, is very clearly articulated processes and procedures for students to access services.
Insuring that the College adheres to the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is an essential part of her job. But, equally important, Waldman says, is that the College needs a cultural shift. She is looking forward to working with the student group "Beyond Compliance," which seeks to take the College to a new level of understanding about disabilities. "Disability is another form of diversity," she says.
Interview with Polly Waldman by James Bourne
BOURNE: Tell us a little bit about your background, where you came from, how you got to Sarah Lawrence.
WALDMAN: I've been at Sarah Lawrence since June 1st. Before that I was at Marymount College in Tarrytown, which is part of Fordham University and is a small, Catholic women's institution. There I got to work very closely with students, which is what I love to do. My title there was director of Learning Services. We ran an academic support center for students, for all students; I worked with students who had learning issues and concerns. My close work with students was ending because the college was closing.
I was familiar with Sarah Lawrence because many years ago I would have wanted to have come here as a dancer, because my background is modern dance. When I saw the posting it sounded like exactly what I love to do. And I love to create new things, and this is a new position.
My background-I danced, I taught. I worked at a Westchester Community College for a while, where I worked with adult students who had real academic issues. I started to understand that when you have difficulty adding fractions as an adult, there's usually more to it. That led me to go back and get a master's degree and a professional diploma in counseling. I think probably now there are programs you can go through where you actually get trained to work with disabilities services. But most of us in the field have gotten there different routes. And it's a field that I have come to love because I very much want to--being able to help students. Not enable them but to help them learn to become advocates and empower students to take their learning issues in hand and move forward.
BOURNE: How do you see your role here at Sarah Lawrence?
WALDMAN: Well, I think it's an evolving role. The position was defined-there was a job description-but I think it's also very much sort of learning first the culture of Sarah Lawrence, understanding how Sarah Lawrence functions and what the College has done in the past. I see myself as taking disabilities services - which, at Sarah Lawrence, involved lots of different people in different offices doing different things - and pulling it all under one roof, as one point person. Doesn't mean I'm not going to be working probably with the same people who were doing things before. But there needs to be sort of a centralized place where students know that they can go. And it may be that I will still direct them to the same person, to Academic Computing for an issue with computers or something. But now they have a person on campus who is their advocate.
BOURNE: You're sort of an information clearinghouse.
WALDMAN: I'm an information clearinghouse. I'm also really making sure that the institution, the College, is making the right accommodations, reasonable accommodations, and that we're doing what we need to do to assist students. Also, I'm trying to sort of clarify procedures.
BOURNE: Now, do you have to have a legal background as well?
WALDMAN: I don't need a legal background, but I need familiarity with the law. At the College level, we need to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act, and also Section 504 that we had after 1973. Those are the two. They're civil rights legislation, and they guarantee that students are not discriminated against, that they are given equal access. As students transition from high school to college, they've gone through special ed sometimes, resource rooms, which are covered by one set of laws -- special ed laws. And they're different from the ADA, which is really civil rights and nondiscrimination. And sometimes I see my role as an educational one for students, too, sort of understanding how college is different from high school, what kinds of things will be different here from what they're used to.
BOURNE: So it is a kind of a new world between college and high school, beyond just education and socially.
WALDMAN: It is.
BOURNE: When we're talking about the legal aspects of ADA and things like that, different rules and regulations apply.
WALDMAN: Right, right. And the way we accommodate may or may not be the same as what they have experienced in high school. But, no, I also know when to ask questions and refer. And sometimes the question is very much a legal question.
BOURNE: So conceivably an administrator or faculty member might come to you from the College's perspective and say, Are we doing this correctly? Or a student might come to you and say, Should I be expecting this, do I have a right to this?
WALDMAN: Yes, that's right. Sarah Lawrence is an old campus with a hill, which just makes it a difficult campus for somebody with limitations, without a doubt. That's another piece that I think the College is working on, and I'm trying to help. There is no way to level the hill or to make the hill less steep.
BOURNE: With whom are you doing most of your work? Are you working most closely with Operations and Facilities?
WALDMAN: Certainly this position will always be working closely with Facilities, and with Security. But my title actually is assistant dean of studies and disabilities services, so I work closely with the Dean of Studies office. A lot of what students need are academic accommodations, accommodations related to their classrooms.
A disabilities person is actually both a generalist and a specialist. I don't know very specific ADA code as far as, say, how many feet you need a ramp to rise, or how to do a curb cut, but that's usually not the responsibility of the disabilities person. But if I see that we have a building that somebody in a wheelchair cannot get into, then my job is to work with Facilities to figure out how to make what is in that building accessible to the students.
And I work with Academic Computing and the library when it comes to things like students who might need books on tape, and I work with faculty and the dons.
BOURNE: What about finding someone to help by interpreting the spoken word into sign language?
WALDMAN: Right now, we have a student on campus who's deaf, and of course he's entitled to equal access to the same programs, services, facilities as any other student. This includes the events, performances, and activities, too, not just classes and services. I asked him, "Can you tell us ahead of time what you think you want to do go?" That's just a practical thing because it does take time to find [interpreters]. I discovered something I didn't know: that there are interpreters who can interpret performances, and there are people who are strictly classroom interpreters, sitting with the students. So it took a little work, but I have found somebody who could interpret a musical performance our student wanted to attend. You also need two people when it's more than an hour because it's quite exhausting to interpret. And both are paying attention, both are listening, but after about 15 or 20 minutes, it usually shifts.
BOURNE: To the other one.
WALDMAN: To the next. And it's helpful if they can have scripts and things beforehand. Now we were able to get a script for a play our student attended, The Sexless Years, but we didn't have a script for [the rap musician] Chuck Dean. I've had a couple of people who said to me, you know, I do performance, but I can't rap. And I appreciate the fact that they say that. Oftentimes interpreters sit next to the person who is speaking so that the deaf person is looking at the person who's speaking.
BOURNE: How do you find interpreters?
WALDMAN: I've built a list over the years, and I inherited some names from the Dean of Studies office here. So at this point my list is fairly extensive. I just added three more people to it the other day because what I find is I call somebody, and they say, No, I can't do it. But do you know so-and-so? They're very good that way. We also have a deaf graduate student in one of the health sciences programs, which is another challenge because some of her classes are very technical and intense. She's going to have a clinical rotation in a hospital, and she'll have an interpreter with her, who has had experience in hospital settings. There are some interpreters who work mainly in hospital settings. It's very interesting.
BOURNE: Very, very challenging, for both the student and the interpreter.
WALDMAN: Yes. One thing about working in disabilities services, you're really getting an appreciation--if you didn't have one already--for the obstacles that people face on a daily basis. You know, when you and I are in a class, we concentrate on what the teacher is saying, and can take notes and whatever. But if you think about needing to be concerned with the content and what the teacher's saying, but at the same time you have to watch the interpreter and get the information -well, it just takes so much more energy.
BOURNE: Do you have specific plans for students, a list of things or programs?
WALDMAN: Yes, I have. One thing I believe is that we need to have very clearly articulated processes and procedures for how to access services if you have a disability. And that's important; it needs to be in print, on the Web site.
I've talked to the Counseling Department. We would hope to try to put together sort of a group for students who have learning disabilities or ADHD. I think knowing that a peer might be dealing with the same thing, and having an opportunity to talk about it, can be very helpful. Another thing that I'd like to do, and that I hope to do here, is academic coaching-that's kind of the buzz word these days, coaching--for students with ADD or ADHD, who essentially know what they need to do--or maybe they don't; maybe they still need some help with organization and planners and scheduling. But working with them or being available to them, to meet them on a regular basis to help them.
BOURNE: Now you would do that?
WALDMAN: I would do that. But I'd better watch out, because I keep saying I'm going to do all these things, and there are not enough hours in the day! But I think that often very bright students with ADD or ADHD really need help with that executive functioning, organization, stuff that gets in their way of being able to really learn.
BOURNE: Do you have a sense as to the number of students here who might be called disabled, and a sense of the range of what that means physically?
WALDMAN: I'm starting to, yes. And maybe what would be helpful would be for you to know how I even know that. On the college level, a student has to self-identity. They need to disclose to the College that they have a disability. We can't go out seeking and asking. So they get invited in mailings that go out in the summer, and now I have students who have identified who are incoming students, as well as information from students who were here before I came. But I wouldn't want to put a number on it because I'm not sure yet. It's still not a significant number within the whole College community.
But once identified, a student needs to document it. And this is where the label "disability" really has to be used because it has to fit guidelines under the ADA that it qualifies as a disability. Sarah Lawrence uses the standard guidelines that colleges use. Once identified and documented, then they get registered.
Those are the students that I know about. I don't know about students who don't self identify, who don't come to me. And I'm sure there are students who have learning issues or learning disabilities that I probably don't know about yet. Part of my job is making myself available--known--so that students perhaps won't stay in their room and suffer with something, when they can reach out for resources.
Our range is everything from learning disabilities and ADHD, which is the largest number, to students with mobility issues, deafness, students who are blind. We will have a blind student this year, who will be here with a dog, which is also a new experience for the College. Again, we need to make sure that we understand how to work with guide dogs. There's a large educational piece to this job, because I need to make sure I understand what is needed, and then the teachers need to understand, and the students need to understand, what you do and don't do with a guide dog in the classroom.
Teachers-especially Sarah Lawrence teachers - know how to teach, but we don't always know how to interact with somebody with a profound disability like blindness.
BOURNE: Now, will there be accommodation for her in terms of Braille?
WALDMAN: Well, this is an interesting thing because only three percent of blind people actually use Braille. For the world of the blind, technology is absolutely wonderful. There's software, something called Jaws, which is on computers, it's a screen reader: it reads the Internet, reads everything. Kurzweil is another reader. All of those computer technologies really make life easier.
Same thing with the deaf student, who uses something called a Sidekick; it is essentially like a cell phone, but it has amazing functions that allow for communication friends and peers, not with interpreters, but IM-ing. IM-ing is just like talking back and forth.
BOURNE: Except the person might be right there.
WALDMAN: Right. Exactly.
BOURNE: What about students with physical mobility issues?
WALDMAN: Yes. And we have students with ADHD, learning disabilities, and we have students under the ADA category of psychological/psychiatric disabilities --emotional or psychological disabilities, and I would only know about these students if they needed some sort of accommodation. Then they, too, would go through the documentation process. The way it works is if a student needs something like an academic accommodation, then we'll talk about it together, what's appropriate, what's reasonable. We'll craft a letter together, and that student reads the letter, agrees to it, signs it, and then takes it to their professor.
There are also students with physical or medical conditions who may need different accommodations-they may need a housing accommodation.
BOURNE: Was there something about the culture, the atmosphere, that Sarah Lawrence offered that attracted you?
WALDMAN: Sarah Lawrence is a creative place. My background has always been in the arts and humanities. And then when I actually sort of did my research about the donning and the seminar system, it's fascinating. Everything in the disabilities field is individualized; there is no like set accommodation that we give all students who are in wheelchairs, for example--it just doesn't work that way. It's all individualized case by case, and that's Sarah Lawrence.
BOURNE: So it certainly resonates here. So how do you feel about being here? You've been here now three months.
WALDMAN: The first three months have been wonderful, and people have been very welcoming. I do get the sense that they are really glad that this position was created. People are glad to have somebody to turn to, and they've been very helpful; I've needed to learn a lot. Having the summer without students has been helpful because I've actually been able to spend my days just sort of seeing how things are done and learning about Sarah Lawrence.
WALDMAN: Yes. And just sort of experiencing this registration week is fascinating because students are coming up here to interview with the faculty.
BOURNE: Have you met enough people to get a reaction from students who might not "use" you as a resource?
WALDMAN: Yes, and it's something that I find very interesting. When I was interviewing and I was given lots of materials, including about a student group called Beyond Compliance. That was really interesting, exciting for me, because I hadn't encountered elsewhere students who didn't have a disability themselves but who were concerned about students with disabilities, wanted to do the work of finding out about what was needed and what was available.
I believe very much that we need a cultural shift as well, that disability is another form of diversity. And I look forward to working with those students, with all students.