Seeing the Unseen: ALS at HFC

Assisted Learning Services staff. Photo by Anthony Stone
Assisted Learning Services staff. Photo by Anthony Stone

Last fall semester, less than one percent of Henry Ford College students registered with the Assisted Learning Services (ALS) department.

According to the ALS Policies and Procedures Handbook, “The ALS Office services individuals with various disabilities, including but not limited to individuals with physical, sensory, cognitive, or psychological disabilities.

Their mission statement reads: “ALS is dedicated to providing Henry Ford College students with equal access to educational programs, services, activities, and facilities throughout the college.”

The CDC’s most recent data, from May 2023, reflects that one in four people live with a disability.

Assisted Learning Counselor, Lynn Boza, says, “Sometimes people have a disability and documentation, but they hesitate to apply.”

“In high school, they were dubbed special needs, but we encourage people to come talk to us,” she adds.

The department takes several steps to address students’ embarrassment or shame.

Assisted Learning Services Counselor, Adriza Caesar, says, “We understand the stigma behind being a student with a disability and ensure that we treat their case with privacy, confidentiality and the care they would receive in high school or their service provider.”

The ALS department upholds legal obligations to the American Disabilities Act, which requires educational institutions to provide reasonable accommodations to ensure equal access to students with disabilities.

On top of battling stigma, trauma hinders students’ journey to classroom accommodations, according to Caesar.

Fortunately, Henry Ford College’s ALS department works in tandem with the counseling department.

Caesar holds a bachelor’s in psychology and a master’s in rehabilitation counseling—also a nationally certified rehabilitation counselor and a Licensed Professional Counselor.

Self-advocacy means everything to leverage a student’s disability fully.

Assisted Learning Services Accommodations Associate, Brenda Redinger, says, “It’s like when you have a toothache, your dentist doesn’t know until you tell them.”

HFC makes getting an accommodation simple.

Students must register and provide documentation on their own, including formal evidence of a disability from a medical professional.

Then, the ALS office coordinates an appointment to meet with a counselor.

This appointment reviews and evaluates the student’s eligibility to receive accommodations.

From there, the student and ALS office sign an agreement detailing the disability/accommodation.

Caesar says, “It’s very rare they don’t have documentation, but we get to talking, and they say, ‘Oh, I have something; I didn’t know this would constitute as a learning disability,’ they can sometimes go to their health chart on their phone and provide documentation right then and there.”

The ALS office sends a notification to the instructor, alerting them of the documented accommodation.

After that, the ball is in the student’s court.

Students must go to their instructor and let them know they’d like to use their accommodations.

“We have hundreds of students that don’t want to use their accommodations; that’s their prerogative,” Caesar says.

When students speak up about what they need by approaching their instructor in person or by email, students and instructors alike accommodate each other.

Transparent communication wins this game.

“If students don’t feel comfortable having that verbal conversation, send them an email, but at least communicate that you want to use your accommodation,” Caesar says.

A student’s diagnosis remains confidential unless otherwise relayed to an instructor or classmates by the student.

Caesar says, technically, instructors can’t deny students their accommodation, but they can tweak it to fit their needs as instructors, too.

Instructors can object to an accommodation if the accommodation “fundamentally alters their course objective.”

Talking about disabilities and academic accommodations isn’t easy. The awkwardness extends to professors, too.

According to the ALS department, misunderstanding of the process leads instructors to avoid discussing a student’s disability.

“They don’t know what they can and can’t say,” Redinger says.

Simply put, “Instructors should ask what accommodations do you think you’ll need from my class? Have that conversation,” Redinger adds.

In some cases, students can stay longer, and other students think they’re staying to do something else, when really, they are there for their extended time issued to them via disability services “We don’t get anything from the high school; IEPs are confidential information and are a separate document from high school transcripts,” Redinger adds.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 defines individuals with disabilities as those who have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment.

“We do hear from faculty about concerns about accessibility,” says Caesar.

Last year, an elevator in the “F” building was broken and students in wheelchairs or walkers could not access classes on the second and third floors. The elevator has since been fixed, but the ALS office heard about it. A local elevator company, Otis, said the elevator was old, the part was no longer manufactured, so they couldn’t get the part, so they ended up installing a new elevator. While ALS didn’t specifically work with the OTIS elevator company--communicating with OTIS and any financial decisions were managed by HFC Administration--ALS did offer feedback and collaborated with HFC Facilities to see the elevator repaired.

“One of our students was greatly impacted, she couldn’t get to her class on the third floor of the F building,” Redinger said.

The instructor went above and beyond, running from the third floor to the first floor to make sure she was getting the same level of instruction as her classmates.

“A lot of times, they can swap the classroom. We provide classrooms accommodations, but when it comes to doors and accessibility to buildings, that will fall on facilities,” Redinger adds. The HFC ALS department says they are pretty much on par with what everyone is doing by collaborating with different schools across the state.

Most schools don’t send notifications of accommodations via email. Most students have to go to an instructor themselves.

Some institutions make students update their diagnosis regularly. This calls for another doctor’s appointment and coordination to get an updated diagnosis. But at HFC, their diagnosis is good for the life of the student.

Caesar says that the ALS office is trying to remove that barrier to getting documentation.

As a student, memory issues can cause disabilities, which leads the office to attempt to gain access to the relevant documentation.

“It is fear of change, and they may feel uncomfortable with this accommodation - tech has changed, accommodations have changed, policies have changed, time has changed,” Caesar says.

“Not knowing what this will look like - some people are unwilling to change - that’s OK, but you have to because this is an accommodation-setting place,” she adds.

Provisional accommodations are accepted in very limited circumstances. They are temporary accommodations, while documentation for permanent accommodations is in the process of being provided.

Some students who have a visual disability, like requiring a wheelchair, receive provisional accommodations but need to get documentation as soon as possible.