Trustee committee hears update on Student Disability Resources

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Penn State’s support of students with disabilities, even in the remote environment, and the future of disability awareness at the University were discussed during the Board of Trustees Committee on Academic Affairs, Research and Student Life today (May 6).

Leah Zimmerman, Student Disability Resources executive director, presented the office’s responsibilities, service, goals and future plans with a particular focus on broad disability awareness to the larger University community.

Student Disability Resources provides assistance to students that qualify as having a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.

"We are dedicated to making sure that disability is part of the diversity conversation," Zimmerman said, adding that disability is part of the human experience.

Since the start of the pandemic last year, Student Disabilities Resources continued to support Penn State students in-person and online by coordinating support services, providing reasonable academic accommodations and promoting disability awareness in the University community.

Zimmerman said that the office’s processes and procedures were modified and even improved as a result of the pandemic and the remote environment. Zimmerman’s team quickly switched to an online academic accommodation letter distribution system, and student appointments were all held virtually. Zimmerman found that the online letter distribution process, which provides documentation to faculty of a student's accommodation needs, allowed her office to better connect with faculty and to be even more responsive to concerns or questions. 

Ultimately, Zimmerman’s office recognized that some students’ access needs changed in the remote environment. Some accommodation needs were minimized, such as mobility-related accommodations or note-taking assistance, while other students needed additional or different accommodations, like closed captioning or access to recorded lectures.

Two commonly reported challenges experienced by students in the online environment involved time management and organization.  As a result, Student Disability Resources responded by offering virtual workshops with campus partners and drop-in hours for students who desired support in these areas. 

Student demographics

Zimmerman said that on average in 2021, 20% of undergraduate and 11% of graduate students nationally have a disability; however, only about one-fourth of these students seek assistance.

Zimmerman reported that Student Disability Resources currently serves 5.1% of students at University Park and 5.6% of students at the Commonwealth Campuses. Of University Park students, 33% have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), 29% have psychological disorders, 14% have learning disorders, 12% have physical health disorders, 5% have neurological disorders and 3% have an autism spectrum disorder.

Deaf and hard of hearing disabilities, blind and low-vision impairments, auditory processing disorders, traumatic brain injuries and mobility impairments make up 1% each of the University Park student disability demographics.

“The majority of the disability types we are serving are invisible disabilities,” Zimmerman said. "These are not readily apparent disabilities and this is challenging when we are living in a world where seeing is believing and understanding.”

Zimmerman further explained that students have varying needs in the classroom depending on their identified disability.

For students with high-incidence disabilities, which are disabilities that occur at a higher frequency in a population, there is a need for greater faculty flexibility for these students to participate. Their disabilities may have waxing and waning symptoms that affect them on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. High-incidence disabilities include ADHD, mental health disorders -- such as mood disorders, and chronic illnesses like Crohn’s disease.

Low-incidence disabilities, which are disabilities that occur at a lower frequency in a population, include individuals with blindness, deafness or those with mobility impairments, and require more faculty coordination and accessibility preparedness for accommodations. Accommodations may include braille books, physical accommodations or closed captioning on videos.

Zimmerman explained that Penn State should continue providing faculty and staff with the proper support and resources to assist individuals with disabilities.

Shedding stigmas: Improving disability awareness through advocacy

Zimmerman’s priorities moving forward include generating broader community engagement with Student Disability Resources, improving current career and internship opportunities, continuing resource stability across the commonwealth, and promoting dialogue surrounding disabilities in higher education.

The Disability Access Initiative, co-chaired by Zimmerman alongside Michael Bérubé, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature, aims to focus on access via meeting physical needs for students, employees and visitors, providing improved signage across the University and updating websites for student access.

Additionally, Zimmerman works with the Accessibility Leadership Coordinating Group, which focuses on developing accessible information and communication technology with a goal of University-wide collaboration and sustainability.

For more information on Student Disability Resources, please visit 

Last Updated June 22, 2021