Expanding Professional Competencies: Pursuing an Online Certificate in Disability Services in Higher Education

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The field of disability services in higher education promises a career path that is both rewarding and dynamic. It is also plays a vital role in the health and success of our institutions, given its student-centered approach and interdependence with nearly all institutional programs, services, and resources. With increasing numbers of students with disabilities seeking services and increasing pressure to deliver accessible learning opportunities, the path can also be daunting. Whether you are new to the field of higher education, pursuing a career in disability services, or you are a seasoned administrator seeking to broaden your professional competencies, the Disability Services in Higher Education (DSHE) Certificate at Suffolk University may be the answer you are looking for.

The idea for a disability services certificate program came from the notion that the field was lacking a direct point of entry. Through networking with colleagues, we recognized three recurring themes: in many cases, professionals “happen upon” this field, most of the specific disability services training takes place “on the job,” and in many cases, new professionals feel underprepared. As the field is evolving in its own right and expanding to incorporate cross-campus functions relating to accessibility, demand for knowledgeable service providers and stakeholders is high.

Over a total of twelve credit hours, training in the DSHE program incorporates both online instruction in an asynchronous environment and a hands-on practicum experience. The program can be completed in as little as one academic year. The specific coursework begins with a foundation and perspectives course, designed to provide a legal and historical framework for the field, resources targeted to meet the needs of professionals at all levels, and best practices ranging from operations to influencing cultural change on campus. The second foundation course deals with disability, documentation, and reasonable accommodations. Participants will learn the skills necessary to become a case manager, including how to engage in the interactive process of evaluating accommodations requests, reviewing documentation, the nuances of implementing and troubleshooting accommodation plans, and managing a compliant grievance process. Beyond the foundation courses, participants have the option to take either a course in post-secondary transition or a course in assistive technology, emerging technology and web access for disability services.

Coursework in the three online courses is designed to provide practical and applicable skills for careers in disability services or comprehensive knowledge of access issues that students with disabilities may encounter in higher education settings. We were deliberate in creating an assessment plan for each course that is modeled after real world applications. In addition to learning the content, participants benefit from observing a disability services office, writing policies related to access issues, learning to review documentation and create both accommodation and transition plans, compiling resources related to assistive and emerging technology, learning critical skills related to evaluating the accessibility of electronic and information technology, and so much more.

The final course that participants will complete is a one-semester field practicum, working in a disability services office, with weekly seminars and supervision from one of the program’s instructors. During the practicum, students will have the opportunity to learn and practice a variety of roles within the field. Most importantly, the practicum provides a guided experience for learning critical skills from operations management through student contact, and will provide participants with exposure to differing models and perspectives of service delivery.

To date, participants who have successfully completed the program have brought a wide range of backgrounds to the learning environment, from K-12 educators, current graduate students pursuing various degree programs, and student affairs administrators seeking to broaden their skillset. While initial assessment of outcomes is underway, we have received positive feedback from graduates who have been successful in their search for a career in disability services. They report feeling well prepared for their new roles. Program graduates who are practicing higher education professionals have reported developing skills that have had an immediate impact on their current role, in addition to becoming more access-minded, more strongly focused on being a student advocate, and a more effective ally to their disability services colleagues.

As campuses seem to be focusing more time, effort, and resources on attracting and retaining diverse learners, we feel that the importance of disability and accessibility services will continue to rise. If you are interested in learning more about the Disability Services in Higher Education Certificate Program, please visit us on the web at: https://www.suffolk.edu/disabilitycertificate

Andrew Cioffi, Director of Disability Services, Suffolk University
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Kirsten Behling, Director of Student Accessibility Services, Tufts University - GUEST BLOGGER

Andrew Cioffi is a graduate of Suffolk University in Boston, where currently serves as the Director of Disability Services. His areas of professional interest include promoting university-wide accessibility, assistive and emerging technology, and the intersection of disability and diversity. Andrew’s current teaching experience includes Issues in Postsecondary Disability Services and Assistive Technology in Postsecondary Education. Andrew has served as Chair of the Assistive Technology committee for New England AHEAD and presented both regionally and nationally on best practices in access and accommodation.

Kirsten Behling is the Director of Student Accessibility Services at Tufts University and an adjunct professor in the Disability Services in Higher Education Graduate Certificate Program at Suffolk University. Prior to working at Tufts, Kirsten developed and managed the Office of Disability Services at Suffolk University. While at Suffolk she worked to ensure that while students were accommodated and the university was also proactively addressing the access needs of diverse learners. She helped to develop the Graduate Certificate Program in Postsecondary Disability Services at the University of Connecticut. Kirsten is also heavily involved in New England AHEAD, a regional affiliate of AHEAD. Her research interests include campus-wide buy-in to access needs, access in online learning, teaching the diverse learner, and educating current and future disability services professionals.