The MSU Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities (RCPD) has a long history of assisting students, employees, and visitors with resources that create an environment of opportunity. Founded in 1971, the organization operates with a four-part mission, ABLE;
- Assess and document disability, academic, and workplace needs,
- Build and facilitate individual plans for reasonable accommodations,
- Link individuals with technology, education, and resources and
- Extend independence through auxiliary aids, disability-related information, and self-advocacy.
To learn more about the RCPD’s important work at the university, OISS spoke with Grace (Boyang) Tong, an advisor at RCPD and Mohammad R. Alrwashdeh, an accomplished international graduate student in the Electrical Engineering Department who has utilized RCPD services. Considered a success story in his department, Mohammad came to MSU in 2013 and has shown excellent progress in spite of his serious chronic health issues and disabilities. He has defended his thesis and will return to his home country, Jordan, to serve as an assistant professor following graduation this summer.
OISS: Grace, when did you first begin working with RCPD and what is some of the work you do there?
Grace: I started working at RCPD back in Fall 2015 as a pre-doctoral intern working with students with chronic health condition and ADHD/learning disability. I officially joined the RCPD team in Fall 2016 right after I received my doctoral degree in Rehabilitation Counselor Education. I worked with students and employees with Autism Spectrum
Disorders, chronic health condition and psychiatric disability for the past academic year. I am currently working with MSU students and employees with psychiatric disability.
OISS: What do you consider to be the most fulfilling part of your job?
Grace: As ability access specialists, we are facilitating individuals with disabilities to utilize and maximize their strengths, skills and abilities in achieving the full integration into university activities. As a result, the most fulfilling part of my work is the opportunities to work with those wonderful individuals full of positivity and potentiality. I thankful to be part of the RCPD team making differences to expand equal access and to create an environment full of opportunities and possibilities for individuals with disabilities.
OISS: Mohammad, can you tell me about your first experiences with RCPD?
Mohammad: I first reached out to RCPD after a doctor at the Olin Student Health Center recommended I use their resources. Despite my accident occurring in early 2014, I did not know about the center or begin working with them until the end of 2014. I also think that the view of chronic health, both physical and mental, in the international community contributed to my delay.
OISS: What are some of these beliefs about health that deterred you from seeking help?
Mohammad: Most international graduate students are in difficult programs like engineering and other STEM majors. Many of these students will not realize that they have disabilities, health or psychiatric issues for different reasons; some may consider it a shame, or they came from a country that doesn’t offer accommodations for certain types of disabilities.
For example, I came to Michigan State from Jordan. I remember when I was teaching at a university there, we received notices and information from the registration office regarding students who have hearing, mobility and vision disabilities. But psychiatric disabilities are something that people, and especially students, in most Middle Eastern countries will not voice for different reasons. It may affect their careers, social life, reputation and even promotions. Most will hide their struggles and many will not realize they need help and can’t get the treatment and medication they need.
Grace: I’d like to add that the definition of Disability is “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such impairment or being regarded as having such an impairment.”
Due to diverse cultural backgrounds, many international students and scholars still believe disability conditions are physical related and are more visible (e.g., mobility disability, blindness and visual impairment, and deaf and hard of hearing). However, invisible disability conditions (e.g., autism spectrum disorder, ADHD/learning disability, chronic health condition, and psychiatric disability) can also cause a significant impact on individual’s major life activities.
Individuals with a disability should not be viewed as dysfunctional, rather than that, they are a special group of people full of capacity if being facilitated to equal access. Individuals with disabilities represent a group of diverse, similar to individuals from diverse racial, ethnic or international backgrounds.
OISS: Mohammad, are most students and staff members understanding of your experience?
Mohammad: There have been a small number of people that did not understand my disabilities and health issues, but most colleagues and professors recognize my needs and see me as a true success story. I now have 15 published and accepted articles in international journals and conferences. I have defended my dissertation and am expecting to graduate this summer. One thing I’m especially proud of is being a graduate students’ representative in different committees within the campus. I hope to use my experience to help other students succeed. In spite of all the challenges I face, I have overcome them and have accomplished a great deal in my field.
OISS: What advice do you have for students and faculty who may need assistance but are afraid to seek out the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities?
Mohammad: I encourage all students and faculty, especially the international graduate students, to use the facilities and supporting centers here at MSU. The great thing that I discovered here is that the disability is not a shame, it is a gift that makes you a different and special person. In my case, I believe I was lucky to have an excellent environment in my department; my advisers, the chair, the professors and my colleges who all supported me and encouraged me to do all my best in my study and success in my academic life.
Accommodations that are given to disabled students are the source of equality and fairness for these students. The RCPD advisers also support students if they have conflicts or academic issues related to their disabilities.
Grace: Students, faculty and staff that may need our services can do the following:
- Please identify and register a disability at https://www.rcpd.msu.edu/services/register. You will be asked to log on to the MyProfile page with your MSUNetID and password to register with RCPD and request a contact from a specialist.
- Based on the disability category you are registering for (see the above nine categories), one assigned ability access specialist will be assigned to contact and work with you regarding the following steps.
- An RCPD ability access specialist will contact you through your email account to request documentation of your disability. For more information about disability documentation, please follow the link at https://www.rcpd.msu.edu/services/documentation
- Once your sufficient documentation has been received by your assigned specialist, you will be contacted to schedule a needs assessment meeting to determine the reasonable accommodation.
- RCPD will provide students with a Verified Individualized Services and Accommodations (VISA) and Statement of Employee Accommodation Determination (SEAD) for: (a) verification of disability and registration status with the RCPD (b) an outline of reasonable accommodations.
- International students with a registered disability condition working on campus may request work-related accommodations as student employees.
Taylor Mackey is currently a senior at Michigan State and the OISS Communications intern. Taylor studies English and Advertising with an emphasis on digital marketing. She also serves as a Student Intern-Ambassador for the Community Relations Coalition, an area nonprofit that works to bridge the gap between the city of East Lansing and MSU.