Univ. to implement disability counseling

Students with disabilities may have an added incentive to choose Yale over its rivals — at least by the time 2013 rolls around.

When it implements a new “peer mentors” program as part of its reform of the freshman counselor system in fall 2009, Yale will be the first Ivy League school to provide student-to-student guidance geared specifically toward freshmen with physical, mental and learning disabilities. Although Yale’s Resource Office on Disabilities already matches students who identify themselves as disabled with one another informally, the new program will likely institutionalize a support system, although details of the changes are still not, Office Director Judy York said.

The peer mentor program will also include counselors for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students, as well as international students and members of ethnic minorities.

As with other changes to the freshman counseling program, plans for disabled-student counseling are preliminary, York said.

It remains undecided how returning student peer mentors will be matched with incoming freshmen, Dean of Freshman Affairs George Levesque said.

“We want to find an easy way to match students so that the burden is not on the student to request a mentor,” Levesque said in an e-mail to the News. “At the same time, we want to give students some agency in the process.”

While disabled students interviewed praised the work of the Resource Office on Disabilities, they said they could have benefitted from a more structured counseling program.

Ariel Baker-Gibbs ’11, who is deaf, said she appreciated that the office provided her with contact information for other deaf students after she had been admitted to Yale. Baker-Gibbs said the most important advising occurs when a student is still considering his or her college options. It is important for colleges to inform disabled high school seniors about support services on their campuses, she said.

“I had some long e-mail correspondence with the other deaf students who were here,” Baker-Gibbs said. “I knew that I could get back together with these people and get advice from them if I needed to.”

The extended support system will also incorporate students with learning disabilities and mental health issues, York said. The University rarely facilitates peer-to-peer counseling for these students, she said.

Students with learning disabilities already receive direct support from the Resource Office on Disabilities, but the new program will have the benefit of forging connections between students. Kathryn Olivarius ’11, who is dyslexic, said while current administrative support for disabled students is strong, peer mentoring could make the transition to life at Yale smoother.

“It would have been nice to have somebody who knows the system and knows what to do initially when you get to Yale,” Olivarius said. “When I came to Yale, it was kind of an independent process. You have to deal with it by yourself.”

By implementing the proposed peer mentor program, the University would be a pioneer among its Ivy League peers in its support for disabled students. Officials at other Ivies said they have no formal programs in place to connect students with disabilities.

At Princeton University, interaction primarily occurs between students and the Office of Disability Services, and there are no peer-to-peer advising programs, said Princeton’s Disability Services Coordinator, Liz Erickson.

Officials from Cornell and Brown universities noted that students are able to make connections through organizations pertaining to their disability.

Cornell University’s student-run Union for Disability Awareness, which provides mentoring services for students, is separate from the university’s Student Disabilities Services office, which offers no peer mentoring, said Michele Fish, associate director for Student Disabilities Services at Cornell.

Still, not all students take advantage of the mentoring offered by the student groups, she said.

At Brown, peer mentoring is available to students with disabilities though a variety of different routes, said Catherine Axe, Director of Disability Support Services at Brown University.

Disability Support Services creates informal connections between incoming and current students with disabilities by request, she said.

“Some students want that student contact to be facilitated, and others do it on their own,” she said. “We try to help make those connections, but there isn’t a program they sign up for.”

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