University of Texas at El Paso alumna Davi Kallman began elementary school with the same vigor and excitement as any other child starting school for the first time. Over the course of a couple of years, Kallman’s exuberance turned to frustration and disappointment as she struggled tremendously in school. She failed all her classes and had difficulty understanding and concentrating on her schoolwork.
In addition to the challenges she faced, she also had to deal with the devastation of being ridiculed by her peers who called her “stupid” and teachers who didn’t understand her behavior or know how to work with her. A major turning point for Kallman was when her teacher contacted her mother to tell her that her daughter was “retarded” and required special education.
Kallman’s diagnosis was severe dyslexia – a condition that affects the way the brain processes written and spoken language. She was one of many students going through the educational system living with a disability.
At UTEP, no student with a disability has to struggle through their educational journey alone. The Center for Accommodations and Support Services (CASS) is available as a resource for students with disabilities to support, encourage and help them achieve their academic, graduation and career goals. CASS provides a plethora of student accommodations for physical, visual, auditory, learning, mental health and temporary disabilities.
CASS also serves as an advocate for students with disabilities to ensure they have equal access to campuswide opportunities. The center offers resources for UTEP departments such as disability-related sensitivity training, general disability/accessibility information, sign language interpreters and consultation on accommodations. CASS facilitates customized training and presentations on various topics for students, faculty and staff.
“In terms of the ADA, CASS has a two-fold role in supporting students with disabilities,” said Bill Dethlefs, Ph.D., director of CASS. “One is to ensure their accommodations are provided. The other is to minimize the chance there will be any ADA complaints.”
“To that end, we provide a required online PowerPoint compliance training module for all faculty called Accommodating Students with Disabilities. We are also still in the process of providing our onsite ADA and Disability Etiquette training for staff and student employees. So far, we have provided this training for more than 1,200 UTEP employees.”
After learning of her disability in elementary school, Kallman sought the assistance of a specialized tutor who taught her techniques to help her conceptualize words and figures and instilled confidence in her. She began using her strengths to help her stay focused and motivated to do well in school.
“Students with disabilities have low self-esteem and lack confidence in their abilities,” Kallman said. “My tutor, Kathy, instilled confidence in me and showed me techniques to use my strengths to help me overcome my disability.”
Kallman first learned about CASS through UTEP’s Student Government Association, where she served as vice president for two years. She was preparing to take the Law School Admission Test and used CASS to be able to get extended time on the test.
“By college, I had developed a lot of skills and techniques to deal with my disability,” Kallman said. “I used CASS to assist with providing me extended time on bigger exams, and this was crucial for me. I continued to use CASS’ assistance through my master’s program.”
Kallman thrived as a student and maintained straight A’s and a 4.0 GPA throughout her academic career. She is currently a Ph.D. student at Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. Her studies focus on ways to harness the power of the media to change people’s perceptions of individuals with disabilities.
UTEP graduate student Isaac Valencia has been blind since birth. Despite a few obstacles he had to overcome early in his academic career
because teachers did not know how to handle his disability, he has used his strengths to overcome his challenges.
“I was very blessed to have my mom and my stepdad who were school counselors,” Valencia said. “They sent me to a school for the blind in Alamogordo, New Mexico. I didn’t have a say in the matter, but it turned out to be one of the best things to ever happen to me. I got to interact with other visually impaired students, and it wasn’t just me with a disability like in regular school.”
The school gave Valencia the tools to manage his impairment and prepared him to be fully functional in the world once he graduated. His mother passed away when he was 16 years old, and his stepfather became his motivator and pushed him to further his education.
“My stepdad was always pushing me to do more,” Valencia recalled. “He would tell me, ‘You’re like any other adolescent I know; you’re only blind, not stupid.”
With encouragement from his stepfather, Valencia enrolled at UTEP and in 2007 graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. Today he is pursuing his master’s degree in rehabilitation and counseling at UTEP.
Since he was an undergraduate, he took advantage of CASS services, which helped him be successful in his classes and gave him the confidence to keep taking his education to the next level.
“With my disability, I don’t have the luxury of skimming through a book or reading a chapter, so it would have been a major issue for me if CASS services weren’t available,” Valencia said.
“Through CASS, I can have someone take notes for me, read to me and have additional time to take tests and quizzes,” he added.
If it weren’t for the support of CASS, UTEP graduate student Arturo Diaz might not have been able to complete his classes. He registered with CASS as soon as he enrolled at the University in fall 2015.
“CASS’s services are extremely useful for students with any disability,” Diaz said. “Without these services, I would be lost. I cannot move my hands, so I wouldn’t be able to take notes during class and it takes me longer to take test and quizzes; I wouldn’t be able to be successful in any of my classes.”
Diaz became paralyzed at the age of 16 after a diving accident. Shortly after his accident, he was angry and depressed and wanted to drop out of school. After going through rehabilitation and receiving some encouragement from his mother and his counselor, he decided to continue going to school to earn his GED, then his bachelor’s and even his master’s degrees.
“Eventually, you have to adjust to the situation you are in and do something about it or do nothing and be miserable,” Diaz said. “Once I started school, I saw I could do it. Education gave me freedom to do things, and I don’t see myself as disabled when I am in school doing things I didn’t know I could do.”
CASS helped Diaz stay true to his dream of earning his master’s so that he can become a counselor and help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and people with addictions.
“It would be a struggle not having the support of CASS,” Diaz continued. “I don’t know to what extent it would have impacted me; I may have had to drop out of school. It would be tough to succeed in my classes.”
CASS also played a significant role in the academic success of UTEP alumna Joann Cross, who was diagnosed at an early age with cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects muscle tone, movement and motor skills; and later with osteoarthritis. She graduated from UTEP in 2014 with a degree in media advertising.
“A big problem that students with disabilities have is disclosure, but I learned that there is no shame in having a disability or asking for help,” Cross explained. “Whether you have a disability or not, we all need help with something.”
Before attending UTEP, Cross had difficulty in her classes at El Paso Community College. It took her 13 years to obtain her associate degree because she was not aware of the resources available to her. When she became aware of them, she chose not to take advantage of them.
“I was in a place in my life where I thought ‘I can do this, I don’t need help,’” Cross recalled. “However, it does make a difference to have support. At first, I didn’t know what to do or how to access the services and resources available to me, and my school work suffered.”
As soon as Cross enrolled at UTEP, she signed up with CASS and utilized all the services and resources she was eligible for to ensure she stayed on top of her school work.
“As a student, you have the responsibility to find out what your strengths and weaknesses are, and that’s one of the things CASS helps you do,” Cross said. “Not only do they help you find out more about your disability, but they can refer you to people who can do the screening for diagnostics and figure out exactly what you need.”
During Cross’ last semester at UTEP, she needed to pass only one class to graduate. During the semester she lost her attended care services, and her mother was diagnosed with dementia. These new challenges made it difficult for her to get to class. CASS was able to help make arrangements with her professor for her to submit her projects and assignments online.
“If it hadn’t been for CASS acting on my behalf to make arrangements with my professor that last semester, I would not have graduated,” Cross said. “I wish that eligible students would take advantage of CASS as freshmen. If they use it throughout their academic career and are not stubborn like I was, then they will be successful because CASS’ staff go out of their way to ensure students have what they need to succeed.”
Being a successful student can be a daunting task, and having a disability can make it even more of a challenge without the added support needed to succeed. CASS has been instrumental in providing many talented past and present UTEP students living with disabilities the additional resources, services and direction they need to make their dreams of a college education a reality.
“CASS services are essential for students with hidden disabilities like me and those with more obvious physical disabilities,” Kallman said. “CASS’ staff are advocates for these students on campus and make sure all faculty and staff are treating them with respect. They truly care about this student population and have what it takes for them to be successful.”
Author: Christina Rodriguez – UTEP Communications