From a very young age, Susan Gjolmesli knew that she wanted to be a teacher. Owing to a genetic condition, she suffered from visual impairment, and because protective laws for disabled people were still decades away, she was plagued by discrimination and was consistently belittled or ignored by potential employers.
“They were very negative, and I never secured a teaching position,” she said. “I was deflated and demoralized and went away from that, in essence, because I was green as grass and had very low self-advocacy skills.”
Years later, after raising her son, opening a commercial greenhouse, and gaining experience working for several blind advocacy groups, Gjolmesli was well-equipped with confidence. She was committed to ensuring that other students with disabilities would not suffer the way that she had.
For the past 18 years, Gjolmesli has worked as the Director of Bellevue College’s Disability Resource Center (DRC) in Bellevue, Wash. Together with her staff, Gjolmesli creates roadmaps to college success for students with disabilities. Currently, the DRC is home to approximately 900 disabled students.
“We have a lot of international students, just about every possible student type you could possibly think of,” she said. “Vets with PTSD, students with chronic illnesses—everything from chronic migraines to cancer—lupus, IBS, three students waiting for new kidneys, hard of hearing, lots of mobility impaired students, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and HIV.”
The DRC maps pathways to associate’s and bachelor’s degrees and provides multiple assistive technologies to help students with disabilities thrive.
The center also takes part in a program called AccessSTEM, which encourages students with disabilities to pursue STEM careers. AccessSTEM documents promising practices for helping students with disabilities participate in STEM disciplines, and it tests various assistive technologies for use in STEM classes, such as beakers that vibrate when certain reactions occur—alerting students who are visually impaired and cannot see the reaction take place.
But it’s traditional screen reading and voice recognition software programs that Gjolmesli says remain the most useful technologies for students with disabilities.
(Next page: How screen reading software helps visually impaired students—and how Gjolmesli has made progress with students on the autism spectrum)