Excerpted from Miami Magazine, Fall 2007

The Academic Resource Center helps students with disabilities overcome their challenges, accentuate their abilities, and flourish on campus and in the world.

Keaton "Zubin" Grogg, left, and Steven Posada achieve academic success with a little help from the Academic Resource Center.

With a Little Help
By Jill Bauer
Photos by John Zillioux

Before entering the hospital for a minor sinus procedure in 2003, Joanna Slochowski had never heard of the University’s Academic Resource Center (ARC). That was the point at which her life became divided into befores and afters.

Before the procedure, she was an A student majoring in elementary education and psychology, as well as an accomplished dancer. After the procedure, she suffered a massive stroke and would have to relearn how to hold up her head, how to walk, talk, eat, read, and write. Before the procedure, she flourished academically and socially. After, daily life was a struggle. Then she turned to the ARC. “The ARC has helped me tremendously,” says Slochowski, now a junior majoring in Judaic studies with minors in elementary education, psychology, and dance. “I used to be a really great note taker. People used to borrow my notes. But now I can’t keep up with the professors. The ARC provides me with note takers, and I also take my tests at the ARC, where readers help me go over my answers.”

The Academic Resource Center is a spacious office tucked away on the second floor of the Whitten University Center. The ARC has become the go-to place for hundreds of students with documented disabilities, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), cancer, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and anxiety disorders, as well as for students without disabilities who just need a little extra scholastic help.

Through its Office of Disability Services, the ARC reviews documentation and assigns accommodations in accordance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. “We help students with anything that impedes them from achieving their academic goals,” says ARC director Mykel Billups, M.S.Ed. ’94. “We make things happen for students. If there aren’t door openers, we install door openers.”

Americans with disabilities—51 million according to the 2002 U.S. Census report—are the country’s largest minority. The ARC staff enables more than 400 students with various disabilities each year to reach their academic goals. Students with disabilities have made significant progress in their transition to adulthood during the past 25 years. A 2005 report by the U.S. Department of Education shows that the number of students with disabilities who completed high school increased 17 percent from 1987 to 2003 and that their enrollment in postsecondary education more than doubled to 32 percent.

ARC director Mykel Billups arranges for a stenographer to attend class with Lee Lefkowitz, who is hearing impaired.

“The national increases are consistent with what has been taking place at the University of Miami,” Billups says. “The number of students requesting note-taking services and testing accommodations through our office has more than doubled in the last five years.”

During any given afternoon there are students at the ARC participating in study groups and peer tutoring, a service offered to all students on almost any subject. The center also houses “distraction-reduced testing environments” monitored by cameras. Common accommodations also include extended time for in-class exams and access to class notes, scribes, and readers.

Billups explains that prior to 2002, services for UM students needing aca-demic assistance were scattered throughout the campus. Pat Whitely, vice president for student affairs, petitioned for an umbrella organization housed in the University Center. Billups, daughter of longtime UM special education professor Charles Mangrum, has been at the ARC helm since 2005. She says that the level of support and involvement in students’ lives makes the ARC unique among similar centers at other institutions. “We become part of our students’ lives academically, socially, and many times emotionally,” Billups says.

Lee Lefkowitz is a senior marine science major who was born with a hearing impairment. With a full-time position as a bank supervisor and the added responsibility of caring for his 80-year-old grandmother, he is grateful for the ARC. “Dr. Billups is by far the most helpful person at UM. She e-mails me to see how things are going, and if I have a problem I go to her, and she’ll tell me how to fix it or whom to contact.”

A stenographer accompanies Lefkowitz to all of his classes. The University picks up the estimated annual $80,000 tab for the translation. “She has her computer and I have mine, and she feeds the lectures to me in real time,” says Lefkowitz, who notes that his disability is otherwise not very obvious. “I’ve assimilated myself into a hearing environment. A lot of people don’t even know.”

“The ARC has definitely made my life easier,” says Steven Posada, a junior sports administration major. Posada suffers from spastic cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that limits motor skills and muscle memory. “The social adversity that we deal with on a daily basis is sometimes overwhelming, and the ARC helps you deal with external problems. They help you to just be a student.”

Posada says he was reminded of how difficult living with a disability can be when he missed his first class at UM because of a transportation glitch. “A specialized service picked me up at 6 a.m. and my class was at 9, but they got me there at 10. This is the sort of thing that takes away your control, your power, your ability to do anything spontaneous.”

Joanna Slochowski works on a project for her quilting class, not an easy task after suffering a massive stroke.

Ora Prilleltensky, professor of educational and psychological studies in the School of Education, fully understands Posada’s position. Prilleltensky, who has written extensively about individuals with disabilities, has a form of muscular dystrophy and uses a power wheelchair to get around campus. “People with disabilities are usually seen as patients, not in positions of power. But the ARC is there to accentuate students’ abilities and to create a level playing field,” she says.

Posada notes that sometimes it’s the obstacles that motivate him. “It’s not what you have to prove to your peers; it’s what you have to prove to your professors. They often doubt you and wonder what you can do.”

Billups is quick to point out that many students’ disabilities are invisible and often include cancer and other diseases. “We have a few students in wheelchairs, but they don’t represent all that we do here. About 80 percent of our students have a learning or emotional disability, and about 8 percent have mobility issues. We make sure faculty members understand the nature of the disability and how it impacts classroom learning.”

When Slochowski—who initially suffered from anxiety and depression after her stroke—returned to UM in 2004, she says that the ARC staff advocated for her on several occasions. “I was having a problem with one of my teachers in a quilting class because she didn’t understand that I wasn’t able to use the rotary cutter. Dr. Billups spoke to the teacher, and now we get along great,” Slochowski says.

“Joanna’s a very smart girl but her rate of processing is a bit challenged, so she needs the extended time accommodation for testing and a reader to read exams to her,” says Shawn Post, B.Ed. ’73, M.Ed. ’74, Ph.D. ’78, associate dean in the School of Education. “But we don’t do anything to jeopardize the integrity of the courses we teach. Every student is responsible for the same professional knowledge.”

Cherie Bauer, whose son, Robert, is a senior majoring in political science and suffers from ADHD, says it was important for her son to be in a school that offers services to disabled students. “My son is able to take his exams at the ARC in a quiet environment, and he has never felt stigmatized in any way,” she says.

Of course, scheduling upwards of 400 students with disabilities can be quite a task. Erica Velarde, ARC senior staff assistant, has worked closely with Roque Céspedes, a sophomore with a double major in meteorology and mathematics. Céspedes has cerebral palsy and gets around campus in a motorized wheelchair. “Roque requires a scribe and his speech is impaired, so a test can take him six hours,” she says. “There’s a lot of choreography involved.”

“When I was accepted to the University of Miami, the ARC was one of the first things I checked out. I wanted to make sure that wherever I would go, I would get the accommodations I needed to successfully complete my college education,” says Céspedes, who lived in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, until the age of 9 but could not attend school there because of a lack of facilities that could accommodate him. His mother homeschooled him and brought him to Miami, where he ultimately graduated high school as No. 9 in a class of 308 students.

Though she attended the University before the ARC was established, Sabrina Cohen, B.S.C. ’00, adapted well to campus life with help from the Office of Disability Services, which is now part of the ARC. Cohen, who now owns a thriving PR and marketing firm, suffered a 1992 car accident that left her a quadriplegic. “I lived in Mahoney with all the other students,” she says. “The only difference for me was that my suite was wheelchair accessible and they modified the shower for me. In the dorms I had a great social life.”

“I love UM overall,” Posada says. “I’d recommend it for any disabled student. They’re comforting, and they provide all the services that make you feel like you are on your own. Which is important for me because I like feeling like I’m on my own.”

Jill bauer is a book author and freelance writer in Miami, Florida.