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Tower Guard, disabilities resource center work to make MSU more accessible

March 12, 2020
photographed on March 11, 2020.
photographed on March 11, 2020. —
Photo by Alyte Katilius | The State News

Due to his disability, computer science senior Yash Sharma needed some extra time for exams. 

He registered with Michigan State’s Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, or RCPD, during his sophomore year, and said professors were understanding when it came to accommodating his needs.

“I know there is a social stigma against going to RCPD and taking accommodations, because in the culture I come from, taking extra help for something that everyone in the class is doing — that was not something that’s really supported,” Sharma said.

“I like to see it more as leveling the playing field than giving someone a leg up. People should not be afraid of the stigma.”

According to the latest Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives’ Diversity at MSU report, released in 2019, 612 new students registered with RCPD at the Academic Orientation Program during the 2017-18 academic year. Additionally, a total of 255 MSU employees had active permanent disabilities registered with RCPD.

From programs dedicated to helping students with visual or audio impairments to opportunity-driven programs for students with autism, Sharma said RCPD looks to make accommodations in any way possible.

“Everyone’s case is different, so they really go by a case-by-case basis,” Sharma said. “I think that takes care of a lot of people without … conflict and differences that someone would see.”

In collaboration with RCPD, Tower Guard — a service organization for sophomore students on campus — works to build a more accessible environment for students impacted by disabilities. Throughout the year, they volunteer and raise money for RCPD to assist in initiatives including audio-enabled textbooks, scribing exams, one-on-one tutoring and adaptive sports. 

“Ultimately, we strive to create a more inclusive community at MSU and ensure that all students are provided with an equal opportunity to excel academically and beyond in other realms,” Tower Guard President Mackenzie Desloover said via email. 

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In addition to their efforts promoting accessibility, Tower Guard hosts a variety of events with the goal of making an impact on the community. 

Emily Stecevic, liaison for Tower Guard’s Council of Students with Disabilities, or CSD, said via email her role is to create a bridge between the two groups. Part of her efforts are creating joint events to bring members of CSD and Tower Guard together.

“Anyone who is enrolled in the RCPD can join the CSD, and they talk about making equal opportunities on campus, such as shoveling the sidewalks for those in wheelchairs to be able to get around easily in the winter,” Stecevic said. 

Last year, Desloover said the organization raised $21,346 through fundraisers for RCPD. This year, she said members are working hard in hopes of exceeding previous profits.

Tower Guard Fundraising Coordinator Madison Sewick said the group hosts a fundraising activity at least once a month, with all proceeds going directly to RCPD.

“All members have to do a total of 20 live hours, the live hours are working directly with the students,” Sewick said. “During the beginning of the semester, we’ll do tours of the campus, for the freshmen especially, if they can’t find their way to a classroom.”

During the winter, Tower Guard participated in the “Moonbeams for Sweet Dreams” program organized by the Beaumont Children’s Pediatric Family Advisory Council. Members stood outside the hospital shining lights in the windows of pediatric patients, who shined their own lights in return. In doing so, Sewick said Tower Guard members hoped to communicate that these patients were not alone.

Tower Guard was going to host the 20th annual Shamrock 5k Run-Walk-Roll to raise funds for RCPD this March, but it’s been postponed due to coronavirus concerns. 

“I think it’s truly incredible that just as students, let alone sophomores, we are able to organize largely successful fundraisers, volunteer around 10,000 hours annually and impact countless lives,” Desloover said. “Tower Guard is full of students who want to act on their passions for service by doing good in the world.”

Students involved in the Building Opportunities for Networking and Discovery Program — which works to “contribute awareness and ability to the broader MSU and autism community,” according to RCPD’s website — connect with peer mentors and participate in periodic social and skill building events. 

When it comes to students diagnosed with a psychiatric disability, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, there’s an option for them to register a service or assistance animal through RCPD to make living and navigating campus feel easier. 

Jess Fairbanks, an economic specialist intern at RCPD and graduate student in the rehabilitation counseling master’s program, said students first need to provide extensive documentation of their condition, including issues in concentration, motivation, focus, sleeping and interactions. 

“Service animals are different. The task needs to be more extensive than, ‘It assists me and provides me comfort,’” Fairbanks said. “A task needs to be specific, like, ‘It alerts me when my blood sugar is low, it alerts me when I’m going to have a seizure, it prompts me to lay on the ground.’”

According to RCPD’s website, an individual may live with an assistance animal if they have a disability, the animal is necessary to use and if there is an identifiable relationship between the disability and the assistance provided by the animal. 

“When a student requests an assistance animal in university housing, they’re saying, and their mental health professional is saying to the university, this individual, this student has to have this assistance animal in order to live and use their university residence,” Psychiatric Disabilities Specialist John Pedraza said.

For those with learning disabilities, RCPD hosts the Stern Tutoring and Alternative Techniques for Educations Program, providing tutoring and academic support to those who qualify. According to RCPD’s website, each semester 15-20 students are chosen to attend weekly meetings providing disability-specific instructional, tutorial and peer mentoring components. 

“I didn’t even know what disability rights ... I could get on campus,” Sharma said. “(RCPD) helped me figure out all the ways that the university here could help us.”

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