In a small group meeting with students yesterday, University President Mary Sue Coleman addressed a number of concerns raised by those assembled, including issues regarding students with disabilities on campus and the University’s Smoke Free Initiative.

Jake Fromm/Daily

At the fireside chat — a monthly meeting with invited students held by Coleman and University Vice President for Student Affairs Royster Harper — students voiced concern with how the University handles issues relating to students with disabilities.

Rackham student Katie Pethan suggested that the University should take a more proactive approach in reaching out to students with disabilities. Pethan said some departments are better than others at assisting students with disabilities, but she would like to see more action taken throughout the University.

Pethan said it’s often difficult for incoming graduate and undergraduate students to know what resources are actually available to them. However, she acknowledged that in order for the University to offer any help, disabled students need to inform the University of their disability.

“I would like to open the discussion about how to create a proactive, perhaps an orientation, for students who self identify after they’ve been admitted,” Pethan said in an interview after the event.

In response to Pethan’s concerns, Harper said the University needs to remove the stigma in students’ minds about identifying themselves as disabled, adding that the University’s system for making accommodations for students with disabilities requires students who identify as disabled to “step forward.”

“If you come, you can get it,” Harper said. “We need to figure out how it occurs before because sometimes what happens is that students don’t want to put (their disability) on their application material. There’s such a fear that there’s going to be negative consequences to it, so people are silent. Then it makes it difficult to do the proactive piece.”

LSA sophomore Sarah Rabinowe, meanwhile, discussed the difficulties students with learning disabilities face if they want to apply for classes that would serve as a substitute for the LSA foreign language requirement.

All LSA students are required to take four semesters of a foreign language. However, if students show documentation that they have “extreme difficulty” learning a language, and if students receive a score on the Michigan Language Aptitude Test that shows they have a language learning disability, they may petition the University’s Academic Standards Board for a language substitution.

In an e-mail interview after the fireside chat, Rabinowe wrote that there needs to be more involvement from the University’s Services for Students with Disabilities office in the process of obtaining a language substitution.

“The issue is that there’s a failure model set up where there is a waiver process that goes through the Foreign Language Waiver Committee (FLW), a subcommittee of the LSA Academic Standards Board,” she wrote. “It’s done through the advising department, rather than the disability department and only one person from the disability department is on the committee.”

She added that the Academic Standards Board has requirements that she says are impossible to meet. Rabinowe said the board often questions the legitimacy of a student’s disability or says that the language a student is taking is merely too difficult for him or her and that he or she should try another one.

“You have to try, that’s fair enough, a foreign language before you can apply for your waiver,” she said. “The problem is, they often require that you try, withdraw, fail (and) show you can’t succeed in more than one language.”

By the time students complete the process of obtaining a language substitution, their grade point average and other academic standards have suffered, Rabinowe said.

“By then you are no longer competitive for certain graduate schools, for many different programs, fellowships and scholarships,” she said. “People lose their scholarships over this issue.”

Ideally, Rabinowe wrote, she’d like the Academic Standards Board to be more understanding of students with disabilities.

“What I’d like to see happen is that there would be the consideration (for people with) these disabilities,” she wrote. “If they’ve had these accommodations for years, had a foreign language waiver throughout their education, and/or a preexisting medical documentation that says you have a disability, that (should) be a proper indication of your ability. Not to fail a language at the University of Michigan. Evidence of a disability should be proof enough.”

Coleman answered Rabinowe’s apprehensions by saying the University is working hard to be a welcoming place for all students.

“Often times with the silent disabilities, if you’re not in a wheelchair, people say, ‘Well, what do you really need?’ ” Coleman said. “We’ve been very active in trying to get mental health issues to the fore and trying to say, ‘Look, this is a part of normal issues that people have. We’re not going to discourage people because of this.’”

Another topic that came up was the University’s impending Smoke Free Initiative — scheduled to take effect July 2011 — which has been a topic of debate across campus that students pointedly questioned Coleman about at the fireside chat yesterday.

Students accused Coleman of initiating the smoking ban without transparency and without student input. Coleman denied the charges and defended the policy.

“I disagree with your premise completely that we haven’t been transparent,” Coleman responded to the students who raised the issue.

She said smokers and non-smokers alike were consulted when the decision was made to implement the ban. She encouraged anyone who wanted to get involved in the process to speak with the task force created to help initiate the smoking ban.

“We’ve had lots of people involved, and we want to find ways to be sensitive (to people who smoke),” Coleman said. “We’re not telling you, you can’t smoke. We just don’t want you to smoke on campus.”

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