Michael Romanelli tried and tried to ace his tests with the same result: a struggle to finish on time. During some exams, he did not even have time to read all the questions.
But things changed for the Weinberg senior when he started taking advantage of the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities at the start of his sophomore year.
“I wouldn’t be doing as well as I am in school today,” says Romanelli. “I don’t think I would have the same plan as I do now, that being applying to medical school.”
He tested positive for attention deficit disorder after freshman year, something he attributes to a high school wakeboarding accident. Although he does not necessarily think his difficulties in class stem from ADD, Romanelli does appreciate using the center.
SSD provides Northwestern students with documented disabilities the services and accommodations they need to succeed in school. The most common requests are extra test time, a reduced-distraction testing room and note-taking services, says Alison May, who has a doctorate in learning disabilities and serves as the office’s assistant director.
May counsels Romanelli on a weekly basis — his neatly organized planner is a clear product of their meetings.
She also handles more difficult cases. May sometimes needs to brainstorm what she calls “innovative accommodations,” or methods of finding a way for a disabled student to participate in the class while still adhering to the professor’s requirements.
“We may have something that requires a little bit of thinking,” says May. “It becomes more of a debate.”
She has had to think critically to solve a host of obstacles for students with disabilities. One example is working with Bienen professors to slow down listening pieces or play them several times so students with auditory memory issues can identify the meter, she says.
Barry Coddens, a distinguished senior lecturer in the chemistry department and Romanelli’s former professor, says he is able to accommodate students without major changes.
Coddens started teaching at Northwestern well before the SSD office opened in 1997. He says the process of helping students is more streamlined now.
“The one thing that I think [SSD] has done is it’s kept more students in the programs that they’ve selected as undergraduates, which I think is good,” says Coddens. “Once you go through the process of accepting a student to Northwestern, you don’t want to have them leave because of something that occurred in one particular class.”
Like Coddens, Romanelli urges students to seek the help they need, including going to a doctor if necessary. Although Romanelli only got tested after learning that similar resources were not available for students without disability documentation, he goes to the office without worrying about a possible stigma on campus.
“I think that some people can get this understanding that [SSD] is almost like a crutch for people, because they do get more time on exams and time is a constraint for some students,” says Romanelli. “I don’t think a lot of students outside of SSD understand what great benefits it can offer.”SESP junior Eupha McCrary uses the office to help her with a minor learning disability similar to dyslexia. She also sits on the SSD Student Advisory Board, which comprises a small group of students who strive to raise awareness about the office and get SSD students to form a supportive network.
“I think it would be an asset to the students if there was more of a community,” McCrary says.
May says that while the SSD community is usually reasonable when requesting accommodations, it is worth noting that SSD does not have to side with students. Some students hope to slide by with an “incomplete” mark in a class until they hand more assignments in instead of failing after missing several days, May says.
“In general, the professors seem to be surprised when we tell them we don’t have to bend over backwards,” says May. “Our office is designed to level the playing field, not to guarantee success.”
Romanelli says he wants similar resources to be available for all students. Before graduating, he plans to email University President Morton Schapiro to urge him to open additional counseling and study skills services for everyone.
McCrary agrees, saying that all students could benefit from some SSD services. She specifically prefers the office’s writing advice to the library’s.
“If I did have an academic problem that I really needed help with, I don’t know who I’d go to if I didn't have the SSD office," McCrary says.