Disability Resource Center empowers students to unlock their full potential

The DRC maps pathways to associate’s and bachelor’s degrees and provides multiple assistive technologies to help students with disabilities thrive.

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)

Personally, Gjolmesli, who is considered legally blind, favors Freedom Scientific’s JAWS Screen Reading Software above other assistive technologies.

“JAWS serves as the interface between a blind person and the information being written to a computer screen,” said Jerry Marindin, federal account manager. “It helps in navigation by adding features for all types of situations, which help overcome the problem of not being able to use a mouse to click on items. It also helps in creating and editing documents, spreadsheets, eMails, and all types of business applications someone might use at work, school, or home.”

The Windows version of JAWS was released in 1995 and since has been used in thousands of colleges, businesses, and homes. Marindin said JAWS allows users to interact with any PC using the same keyboard that a sighted person is accustomed to, and feedback comes to them in the form of synthesized speech or Braille via a specially designed piece of hardware called a Refreshable Braille Display.

“It’s very comprehensive, [and] you can do a lot with it,” said Gjolmesli. She said that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), schools and businesses are required to offer disabled workers comparable assistive technologies. JAWS is one such software program that easily “evens the playing field” for many students with disabilities.

“If you’re creating something, it needs to be accessible,” she said. “People … by now should know that.”

Autism Navigator Program

Gjolmesli said the Pacific Northwest has a higher rate of autism than the national average. Researchers have speculated that environmental or chemical toxins are to blame for the prevalence of autism, though research is still inconclusive.

Whatever the true causes of autism, educators must work to reach this unique student group and create pathways to college completion and success.

In 2010, Gjolmesli launched a pilot of the Autism Navigator Program (ASN) after she noticed several of her students on the autism spectrum failing after taking on a full course load.

“I decided to do a program with 13 students, and I had a control group. We hired four part-timers, and we divided [students among them]—and after significant training, we developed a program of best practices,” she said. “We’d work once a week with these students, because they tend to get overwhelmed and sometimes misinterpret assignments.”

Gjolmesli said she is particularly drawn to students with autism, because they’re direct, honest, and non- manipulative. She enjoys unlocking each student’s potential.

“I believe that people with disabilities have been marginalized for way too long,” she said. “[Through ASN], we’re able to show [the autistic students’] intellect.”

Today, ASN has nearly 50 students enrolled, and their GPAs continue to rise. Gjolmesli said that “common-sense things,” like organizing assignment calendars and checking in on students to guarantee they are grasping course material, are hugely helpful.

“Everybody [is always] saying ‘no, you can’t’ all the time,” said Gjolmesli. “Well, why can’t you? You just have to learn to think differently.”

It’s no secret that today’s students rely heavily on computers, yet computer skills that are second nature to some students are very difficult or even seemingly impossible for others to master.

Nuance Communications’ Dragon Naturally Speaking (DNS), a speech recognition software program, is commonly used with the autistic students who cannot write well, or who have dyslexia or dysgraphia.

“DNS brings voice recognition to the PC and allows individuals to simply talk to create content and command a computer,” said Jason Keith, communications manager at Nuance Communications. “Dragon’s powerful voice recognition software ignites new levels of productivity and convenience by enabling people to interact with and command their PC just by speaking.”

Keith said DNS is particularly beneficial to students with disabilities, because it helps increase their productivity.

“DNS can help any student become more productive by allowing them to speak up to three times faster than typing,” he said. “Be it controlling the majority of the computer’s functions—including opening and closing applications, surfing the internet, or updating social networks—to composing eMails, term papers, projects or simply notes, Dragon can allow students more time to accomplish other tasks by becoming more efficient when creating content or controlling their PC.”

Gjolmesli said DNS is, in her estimation, about 99 percent accurate and requires minimal training to recognize students’ voices.

“It’s [also] a fabulous tool for someone [who] is quadriplegic or doesn’t have fine motor skills for the keyboard,” she said.


AccessSTEM, a program that encourages disabled individuals to pursue STEM careers, has been a driving force in Bellevue’s DRC. AccessSTEM was created through a National Science Foundation grant to the University of Washington in 1992. Bellevue College is one of UW’s grant partners and has been working with AccessSTEM for the last four years.

“The premise is, NSF wants to focus on getting more students with disabilities in the STEM field, so that’s what this STEM grant is about,” said Gjolmesli. She said the AccessSTEM team at UW has a coach that comes every Wednesday to monitor students’ academics, and help them if need be. Many students spark friendships, some for the first time, while their GPAs flourish.

AccessSTEM “is a great program, and my students have benefited a lot,” she said. “In fact, they have this cool guru in assistive tech, and every once in a while they will pay students to [meet with the guru] to learn about assistive tech or evaluate a new program that has come out.”

These types of user tests are beneficial not only to the AccessSTEM representatives, but also to the students; Gjolmesli said the contributors are paid for their participation.

The big picture

Despite having been delayed a few decades, Gjolmesli was, in the end, able to pursue a career in education.

“I just said to myself, ‘I’ll show you,’” she said. “And I did.”

Follow Assistant Editor Sarah Langmead on Twitter @eCN_Sarah.

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