This image is taken outside the Educational Counseling and Disabilities Services office
on the Big Rapids campus.
Promoting the access and success of Ferris State University students is the core charge of Educational Counseling and Disabilities Services (ECDS). Located in the Arts, Sciences and Education Commons, the office is part of the multidisciplinary Retention and Student Success Unit.
Julie Alexander is director of Accessibility and Disability Services and oversees ECDS, working with educational counselors Kim Dickman and Cindy Smith, who administrative assistant Ashley Hawley and a group of student workers support. Alexander said their mission includes empowering any student to make choices that help them build success.
“Every student can benefit from considering how they might best manage their time or deal with anxiety before or during a test,” Alexander said. “This assistance is confidential and can help individuals build toward excellence in their college experience.”
Their department also supports more than 400 students who request accommodations for one or more disabilities, though Alexander said the number across campus who qualify for such assistance is more significant.
“Self-identification is the key for these students,” Alexander said. “They have to come to us. Sometimes barriers, such as societal stigma, get in the way. We are always ready to do what is necessary to assist or advocate on their behalf. Once they reach out, we then enter an interactive process. We use self-reports, observations and relevant documentation to determine what is necessary. Once we determine the accommodations needed, we communicate with faculty or staff to implement those accommodations. It can be simple in some cases, such as extra test time, which is proctored in our office. Other times, we may need to have in-depth conversations about course design and the essential elements.”
Services for students with disabilities include addressing difficulties students may face inside and outside the classroom on campus.
“I hope to work toward a more universally designed educational environment by considering ‘Can everyone get in the building or classroom?’ or ‘Are videos captioned for those who have difficulty hearing online course lectures?’ those are just a couple of considerations,” Alexander said. “Disability is part of the human condition; obstacles that are part of the educational process are where we make necessary adjustments. This is the least we can do to serve each student properly. We meet a legal requirement in this way, but we work to help each student with whatever assistance is necessary to reach their potential as learners.”
Alexander said the campus layout can also be cumbersome for a student, with a shuttle bus service instituted several years ago being part of a proper response to support mobility.
“Most students can manage to get around campus, but opportunities need to be available to everyone,” Alexander said. “Providing convenient and accessible parking or reaching an agreement that a student may walk in after a class has begun are easy steps to take when accommodations are needed.”
A more long-term goal for ECDS is changing mindsets when it comes to students with disabilities, according to Alexander. Disability Awareness Month programming each October is one way to keep the issue before students, faculty members and staff in the name of achieving a more inclusive campus community.
“Historical stigmas placed on anyone with a disability need to be removed. It is on all of us to break down these perceptions,” Alexander said. “We know it is a considerable task to change someone’s mind. Alumnus Michael Williams of Disability Associates, based in Grand Rapids, came to speak on campus Wednesday, Oct. 5. It was a powerful program where he demonstrated that someone with a disability can take pride in their condition. That is a perspective we, as a society, should accept and encourage.”
Another consideration to nurturing an inclusive campus community is presenting a greater social opportunity for those struggling to meet and interact with their fellow students. Alexander said disability awareness education is one way to break down barriers and show students how to share their joys and interests with a diverse audience.
“There had been a registered student organization with these goals at Ferris. It would be great to see it return and bring our students together,” Alexander said. “Gaining support for the cultural changes we seek is a gradual process. We will insist on changes when necessary, while finding pleasure in many efforts that have already been made to serve and celebrate each other.”
Alexander concluded by expressing her thanks to members of the Liaison Committee for Students With Disabilities, an advisory group of faculty, staff and university administrators.
“They are our champions for Disability Awareness Month programming,” Alexander said. “Another area where this group has shone is the advances made to improve the university website’s accessibility. As a result, we are looking into building an endowment for scholarships directed to students with a disability. Our members regularly consult with Physical Plant on potential changes that further accommodations necessary across campus.”
A former office intern is now a work-study employee for the department. Nicole O’Brien is a native of Traverse City studying Social Work while providing a greater understanding of the need to be inclusive and responsive to the students they serve.
“When I started my internship at Ferris in 2020, I did not realize how much stigma students attributed to using disability services,” O’Brien said. “Through my work with ECDS, I try to promote an inclusive culture of student empowerment. Too often, colleges may address the academic barriers students with disabilities face but overlook addressing the personal barriers they have. Julie has a very student-centered department. Because of this, I firmly believe Ferris and the ECDS are well suited to address personal barriers students face and foster disability empowerment in the wider community.”