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Professor’s disabilities accommodation research moves forward

Beth Jorgensen, a rhetoric and professional writing (RPW) professor, recently moved forward with her independent research in disabilities accommodation, emailing out a survey to the entire student body.

She said her interest in advocacy goes back to her childhood.

“I was introduced to disability issues as a youngster because my mother has a sister who was born deaf, and so I grew up with that,” she said. “I’ve had numerous individuals in my immediate and extended family who have dealt with all kinds of disability.”

Most families, especially large ones, have to deal with one disability or another, Jorgensen explained.

“I started working with children with developmental disabilities in elementary school, as community work that my mother had me do,” she said. “I worked in disabilities advocacy directly, as a child and parent educator, back in the late 80s and early 90s. So it’s been a lifelong interest.”

Jorgensen’s sister worked as a disabilities campaign coordinator for former senator Tom Harkin in the development of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“It’s kind of a family thing,” she said. “And so, years ago, when the deadline for ADA compliance was coming up, I thought this would be a good way to engage my students in primary research.”

Students taking upper level RPW courses, internships and independent studies were able to assist Jorgensen in conducting primary research in accommodations at SVSU.

“The survey came about because I would ask students to talk in class discussions about their own experience,” she said. “They raised concerns, not necessarily specific to SVSU but specific to other schools they’ve attended, or just general concerns about being identified as being a person with a disability.”

She said she thought a survey would be a good way to hear more students’ voices.

“I thought, I’d really like to get a sense of students’ perception on not only what it means to live with a disability,” she said, “but what it means to be identified as such, especially people who don’t have visible disabilities, what it’s like to be open about your disability, seeking accommodations and so forth.”

While all institutions are bound to have weaknesses in accommodations, Jorgensen said she wanted to see what SVSU’s strengths were so the community could improve.

This particular research project had been in the works since 2016. Jorgensen has been crafting the survey for about two years. The survey was finally approved at the start of the fall 2020semester, and sent out to students at the start of March.
Jorgensen said her team planned to have the survey circulate through early April in order to get as many responses as possible.

“We would like absolutely every student in the institution, even if they have not been diagnosed with a disability, to take a look at the survey,” she said. “Some other questions address whether you think you might have a disability. We’re really trying to look at the whole student population.”

Once the survey is closed, Jorgensen says she has set aside time until early June for data analysis. She said she hopes to have a report submitted to administrators and the Office of Accessibility Resources and Accommodations by the start of the fall 2021 semester.

The most rewarding part has been educating students in primary research and human subjects research, she said.

“I have really seen students come to an understanding of what it means to do research in an ethical way to understand the challenges with people who deal with various disabilities, to understand the challenges that they face,” she said. “I’ve also been deeply rewarded by seeing the compassion and empathy that students show for one another.”

She stressed the importance of independent research.

“Not only is independent research really, really important, but the perception of independent research is really important,” Jorgensen said. “It leads to a greater perception of objectivity.”

Although there is no direct correlation between human perception and what is actually happening, she said, a dominant perception among students could point to a need for further research.

Additional questions about her research can be directed to ejorgens@svsu.edu.

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