Disabilities No Barrier to Campus Life

<p>Director Donna Korbel, left, chats with students in the Center for Students with Disabilities in the Wilbur Cross Building. Photo by Frank Dahlmeyer  </p>
Director Donna Korbel, left, chats with students in the Center for Students with Disabilities in the Wilbur Cross Building. Photo by Frank Dahlmeyer

Nicholas Rotondo ’09 (CLAS) barely made it out of high school. Diagnosed in elementary school with a learning disability that impacts memory retrieval, he believed he could not do well academically.

“I was in a rut. I had no confidence,” says the senior history major from Groveland, Mass. “If someone told me in high school that I would go to UConn and graduate, I would have told them they were crazy.”

One of more than 1,000 students who receive assistance from the University’s Center for Students with Disabilities (CSD), Rotondo is now studying for his law school entrance exam and enjoying his college experience in Storrs.

“At UConn, I overcame some major hurdles,” he says.

After all his friends left for college, Rotondo decided to enroll in his local community college, mostly out of boredom. Though he had a difficult first year, his second year was better. After getting his first “A” on a test, Rotondo thought, “Okay, let’s keep this up.”

His resolve to do well in school was strengthened when he was detained by police for five hours after a traffic incident and no charges against him were filed. “I decided I was going to be lawyer and defend kids like myself,” he says.

Rotondo improved his grades at his community college, gaining admission to UConn. After struggling again in the classroom, he sought help from CSD to maintain his new academic standard. CSD provides him with a notetaker, allows him to take tests on a computer and gives him extended time on exams.

Rotondo says what surprised him was that the help he received went beyond academics. “People here not only care about you academically, but they care about you as a person,” he says.

Each week Rotondo meets with Manju Banerjee, associate director of CSD, to discuss his academic progress. But their discussions usually go beyond classroom issues. “Sometimes we do schoolwork. Sometimes we talk about life,” he says. “She has my best interests in mind, and I’ve never had that [in school] before.”

The Center’s mission is to enhance the college experience for students with disabilities. Students with psychiatric issues – such as major depression or attention-deficit disorder – comprise the majority of students receiving assistance, but the Center also helps students with chronic health issues, such as cancer or epilepsy as well as those with physical and learning disabilities, says Donna Korbel, director of CSD.

While high schools are required to identify students with special needs, colleges are not, says Korbel. At UConn, once the student submits documentation to establish his or her eligibility for services, each case is reviewed individually and the Center, in collaboration with the student, comes up with a plan.

CSD has seven professional staff members and 12 students who work inside the office, with the nearly 290 work-study students who serve as notetakers, readers or scribes.

“We can’t guarantee success. We guarantee access and we also try to give students the tools they need to become successful,” Korbel says. “You can’t do this work in isolation. We’re fortunate to have had such tremendous institutional support. Many students with disabilities tell us that being at UConn is the most independent they’ve been in their entire lives.”

Alumni who used CSD services while attending UConn point to the Center as a key factor in their academic and career success.

“The staff there really believed in me,” says Joe Kaddis ’90 (BUS), ’97 M.B.A., who earlier this year was named vice president of sales for Authoria, a leading vendor for human resources software in Waltham, Mass. Before he was diagnosed with dyslexia in the early elementary grades, Kaddis was characterized as intellectually challenged.

Dyslexia is a learning disability that involves severe difficulty with language, especially with reading. Kaddis says that he reverses letters and numbers, has difficulty with short-term memory and naviating directions, and is a slow reader, though with excellent comprehension. When he was ready to apply to college, he and his parents did extensive research on university programs for students with disabilities.

“UConn was by far the best,” he says. “I had a Ph.D. candidate assigned to help me, and the focus was on developmental, not remedial help.”

During his undergraduate years, he also met weekly with a graduate assistant who helped him identify his challenges and develop strategies to overcome them. Kaddis was given extended time on tests and used a computer for exams.

His skills in business became apparent as an undergraduate. Kaddis, who majored in marketing and communications, sold personal computers door-to-door and at the campus store through an internship with IBM.

With classmate and childhood friend Oliver Phippen ’90 (BUS), who is now chief technology officer at GE Asset Management, Kaddis founded Outreach LD, a program to encourage students with learning disabilities to apply to college.

UConn students with learning disabilities also spoke at various Connecticut high schools, sharing their experiences and answering questions. In many ways, this program was a precursor to CSD’s extensive outreach activities to promote post-secondary education for all qualified students with disabilities.

Like Kaddis, Gary Johnson ’04 (CLAS) chose UConn based on the strength of CSD. Johnson, who was left legally blind at age 2 following an automobile accident, admits that he would not have been as successful academically without the Center.

While at UConn, he used large-print texts or books on CD, his tests were either enlarged or given to him by a reader and he used a notetaker in class.

“It was just a matter of taking advantage of what was offered,” Johnson says. “My parents taught me from an early age that I could do anything I want…except play baseball.”

He also found support outside the classroom. For six years, he was a Husky cheerleader, serving as team captain for two years. Cheerleading coach Neal Kearney was impressed with Johnson, who did everything he needed to on the team, including catching his partners during tumbling routines. “You would have never known he had a visual impairment,” Kearney says.

Johnson completed his doctoral degree in audiology at UConn last year and is now an audiologist in Scottsdale, Ariz., running two offices.

While each student may have different needs, CSD works to provide a path toward success, as in the case of Justin Miller ’11 (CLAS), a human development and family studies major who says that if he didn’t ask for help, “I’d be stuck in bed all day.”

Born with Type II spinal muscle atrophy, Miller cannot use his legs and has limited use of his arms. As soon as he rolls his wheelchair through the CSD doorway, he is cracking jokes.

“It puts people at ease,” says Miller, who calls himself “Super Cripple” and sports several tattoos that incorporate the handicapped symbol.

Because of his physical limitations, Miller needs assistance around the clock. His motorized wheelchair gets him around campus, and a group of personal care assistants help him with everything from dressing and bathing to answering his cell phone. Wide doorways in his ground-floor dorm room accommodate his chair. Miller’s best friend from home helps him during the evening.

“A lot of people told me it would be difficult for me to go to college,” he says, but after his first meeting with the Center’s staff, Miller says he knew he would be able to pursue a degree. “I have a lot of people here who care about me.”

The personal care and attention that students receive from CSD is a reason for the Center’s success. “This doesn’t feel like a job,” says CSD’s Banerjee. “It’s our shared passion.”