An estimated 500 students were registered with Columbia's Office of Disability Services eleven years ago. Today, that number has grown to over 1,500.
This significant increase in the number of registered students follows an expansion of services provided by the Office, which helps disabled Columbia students navigate college life, all of which have happened during Director Colleen Lewis' decade-long leadership of the office.
During Lewis' time at Columbia, ODS has added learning specialists, assistive technologies, career development services, and Commencement Week accommodations.
Any student registered with the service can work with the office's full-time learning specialist or two part-time specialists to work on study strategies and developing academic skills. To register, with DS, students must provide proof of their disability. Registering comes at no cost at all, but it can takes an average of three weeks to be processed.
Graphic by Amanda Frame and Emily Li
There are now also specialists in the office who help train registered students about how to use assistive technologies, such as wheelchairs and hearing aids.
Lewis has also overseen efforts to help disabled students fully participate in the college experience—even when they are not on Columbia's Morningside Heights campus.
"If students have an outside-the-classroom component to their course, we'll look at, 'Can we provide accommodation for that?'" Lewis said. "Students in an Art Hum course, they might need to go to a museum to do a paper. They may need assistance in transportation there."
Through a close partnership with Lime Connect—a nonprofit that focuses on providing career support for individuals with disabilities—since 2007, ODS also provides registered students apply for jobs at Google, IBM, and Target, among other big companies.
The Lime Connect partnership has also enabled ODS to host panels on the challenges of navigating a disability in the professional world.
Lewis said ODS also places special emphasis on preparing students for study abroad programs and graduate school admissions examinations like the MCAT or LSAT.
ODS also provides services to students' family members. The office is particularly busy during Commencement Week as they work to provide accommodations for disabled visitors.
"People aren't anticipating how much walking there'll be when they come to campus, so we give a lot of families wheelchairs for the day or for the week when they're here," Lewis said. "A lot of people need supportive equipment. They have walkers, they have canes, they have other wheelchairs, and we have a check for those."
Beyond help with transporting visitors with limited mobility, ODS provides them with a designated entrance and seating area which they are guided to by chaperones. The Office also tries to honor specific requests.
"We provide them with assistance getting to the seating area, we provide captioning at the ceremonies, and programs in large print," Lewis said.
Although ODS isn't planning any big changes for the future, Lewis said students are in control of the direction the program grows. But her mission remains the same—to continuously evolve and expand Disability Services to best reach students.
"We're always thinking about and listening to what our students say," Lewis said, "in terms of what types of programming we do and to help us to meet their needs."