Three steep fights of stairs and sharp right turn later, Mercyhurst students, staff, and visitors arrive at the Learning Differences (LD) Program offices.
People enter through an old, wooden door that smacks closed and almost immediately spot a work study student putting notes in student mailboxes to the left of the doorway.
Laurie Kaveny, the office secretary, greets them from her desk at the top of the room.
A conversation about test proctoring floats through the open, central door that leads to the back area.
To the far right, a student doodles pictures and adds an inspirational message to the picture on the white board, while having a conversation with another student, who has his laptop open, as he sinks into the enormous blue couch on the wall to the right of the door.
A new professor tentatively steps into the office and lets the door smack closed behind them and asks the work study for Laurie, who begins to explain the alternative testing site details, but is interrupted by a ringing phone. A work study rushes to answer it.
Brad McGary, the director of the Aspergers Initiative at Mercyhurst and Rebecca Reuch, a program counselor, walk into the office for separate reasons. Brad, to talk to the student sitting on the couch; Rebecca, to ask Dianne Rogers, director of the Learning Differences program, a question.
In the back, Rogers is preparing for a meeting with a prospect student and their parents and in an emergency meeting with a student, while she checks her calendar on her computer, and eats her late lunch.
It’s just another afternoon in the LD offices.
Originally located on the fourth floor of the O’Neil Tower, the Mercyhurst Learning Differences program started in 1984 in response to Public Law 94-142, passed in 1974, which was the first piece of legislation on a federal level that mandated special services to kids in kindergarten to grade 12. At this time, students with learning disabilities began requesting services and began wondering if there were any services available for them in college.
The same phenomenon happened again in 1990, when the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 passed. Only a short time afterwards, people began talking about “spectrum diagnosis,” when more students with learning disabilities came of college age. Then again the 1990’s when Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) became a common diagnosis. As the different learning, disabilities, the program boomed in accordance with these children coming of age. This was hard on Mercyhurst, which initially did not know what to do with these students. However, the program rose to the challenge, mirroring what goes on in society.
In 1999, there was one staff member. Today, there are five full time staff members (director, deputy director, Aspergers Initiative Coordinator, counselor, and two graduate assistants) and 190 students. Rogers says that the program works with people who have all types of diagnoses, including physical health ailments (deafness, blindness), mental health disorders, epilepsy, carpal tunnel and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but students with learning differences make up the majority of students serviced. The program works closely with the counseling center, especially with students who have mental health disorders.
A student is not able to get accommodations for testing anxiety alone, but if they have an anxiety disorder, then they are generally able to make use of the LD office. Students with PTSD are able to make use of LD office, because it falls under the anxiety disorder umbrella.
Up to 15 percent of schoolchildren have learning disabilities to some extent. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, Learning Disabilities “are neurological disorders that can make it difficult to acquire certain academic and social skills.” Common types of learning differences include: Attention Deficit/ Hyperactive Disorder, where a student has trouble with concentration, organization and impulsiveness; Dyslexia, where a student has trouble with letters and words mixing up; and Sensory Processing Disorders, where students have difficulty processing information, such as seeing, hearing, or feeling.
Though students with learning differences struggled with academics, they meet the same admission criteria as other students who apply to Mercyhurst University. Unlike in high school, where the students might have special assignments or breaks, they take the same classes and do all the same work as their classmates, since colleges are not obligated to modify essential elements of a course (curriculum) for students with disabilities. However, the program is able to provide other accommodations, such as: note takers, alternative testing sites, weekly meetings with staff, and use of Kurzweil, a program which reads to students.
Once admitted, learning differences program students go into either Level One or Level Two. Level Two students are able to request disability services from the government. The LD program also asks the students to sign a waiver for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which allows the program to talk to their parents, even though they are over the age of 18, and to access their past educational records. The Mercyhurst Learning Differences Program is one of the few offices that has contact between students and their parents. Diane Rogers says that it is “challenging, balancing what the students want and parents want and what the faculty want and the faculty feel is appropriate.”
In order to enter the program, a student must be a high school student entering college, an adult student, have a learning disability diagnosis, and apply to the program. Rogers and her staff have 80 to 100 interviews each year with prospective students and their families.
Rogers job also entails grant writing to get funding for the program. In order to do this, she uses her extensive knowledge of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504. ADA says that it is illegal to discriminate against someone based on disability, while Section 504 prevents discrimination based on disability and says that students with disabilities must have equal access to education.
Rogers says that the most rewarding part of her job is “watching people graduate and get jobs.” And that is what the Learning Differences Program is all about. Giving the students tools to be successful in school and in life.