Making Bennington More Accessible with Diana Petschauer
In September 2023, Diana Petschauer was eager to start her position as the director of Student Accessibility Services at Bennington College. This new role, which had previously been shared between Residential Life and Academic Services, was created to provide added accessibility and American Disability Act (ADA) expertise more conveniently than ever.
Petschauer brings decades of work in education accessibility, a national certification as an assistive technology professional, and experience as the principal of her own consulting firm to the position. She works directly with students to support them with academic and housing accommodations requests.
Why did you choose Bennington?
One of the reasons I chose Bennington is how different it is from most other higher education institutions. There’s a very positive personal approach. I appreciate the individual Plans, specifically.
What stood out is the more robust student support compared with most other places: Academic Services, Counseling and Psychological Services, Student Life, and the Dean of Studies are all connected and working cooperatively. While these supports are similar to other colleges, there is a proactive approach that all faculty and staff take to support students through each step of their learning plan. We all communicate often with each other to help support students through their learning experiences here.
I also enjoy my work directly with students. Being a director at other places may mean having less direct contact. Time with students helps ensure what I am doing—whether with accommodations, assistive tech support, learning skills, or referring to other campus resources—is really helping. Bennington feels like a place where I can make a significant difference, learn from other people, and grow in my experience.
What’s your highest priority?
One thing that I have done as a part of my career is help people consider universal design and inclusive design. When you have universal design in mind while developing anything, whether it be a physical space or a curriculum, you are thinking of anyone who might come into that space, including students, faculty, staff, and members of the public of all abilities.
The cliché example is a ramp versus stairs. When there is a ramp, everyone can get in: the person who uses a wheelchair, a typical individual who walks, the person delivering packages with a dolly, the person pushing a baby carriage. All of us, when our hands are full and if it's there, push that automatic door button. But when there are stairs or no button, there is a barrier. I would like to be a part of adopting a College-wide universal design perspective on anything we develop going forward.
What are misconceptions about accommodations you would like to correct?
- “Accommodation” is not educational leniency—it’s a compliance process.
People casually use the word “accommodation” to describe leniency in certain situations. For instance, a faculty member might allow a student a few extra days to complete an assignment, because the student had been sick. However, the word “accommodations” actually has an official meaning that requires a thorough and specific process in compliance with the ADA.
Students have to provide specific documentation and meet for an interview where we discuss and document students' experiences in a “self report.” After meeting, reviewing, and following up as needed, my office produces an accommodation letter and memo that students can give to their faculty members. Students are expected to share the memo with their faculty members and discuss any accommodations that they are approved for, as well as how they may work within the expectations of each class. This communication between the student and faculty member(s) is required, and we provide support to both the student and faculty, as needed, throughout the process.
- Accommodations protect students’ privacy.
I also want students to know that they are protected under FERPA, which means they don’t have to disclose what their disability or medical condition is to faculty or staff members, when discussing approved accommodations. They do, however, have to have a conversation about how accommodations are going to work with the faculty members in their individual classes.
- Accommodations are in place to provide participation.
Accommodations do not exempt students from any classwork, or classroom expectations, such as discussions, behavior, homework, objectives, or goals, etc. Accommodations are approved and implemented to support students as they meet the same expectations as everyone else on campus, while reducing or eliminating barriers to access and inclusion. Accommodations and accessibility efforts support students' participation in the learning experiences and campus events.
What is the most fun part of your job?
I love to introduce students, faculty, and staff to the accessibility features on the devices they already own. We used to pay thousands of dollars for expensive software and hardware, but as technology has evolved, and during COVID, when everyone went remote, people realized how inaccessible some things were, such as websites, educational platforms, and educational and workplace materials and programs. Those of us in the field have always known and advocated for accessibility; the pandemic brought much-needed attention and awareness to these challenges.
More large companies—Microsoft, Apple, and Google—all started competing for the best accessibility because they wanted people to use their products and devices. They improved their built-in accessibility features and continue to add more accessibility throughout software updates on laptops, phones, and tablets. You might think the functionality would be sub-par, but it’s robust. It’s amazing! It’s free! There are accessibility tools and features for people who experience difficulty with vision, hearing, and communicating; those who need physical access support; and supportive features and tools for literacy and executive functioning. These are things that all college students can benefit from.
What are you most proud of accomplishing in your first few months?
The project that has made the biggest visible impact is the parking in front of the Woo houses. In the past, students and staff with an accessible parking permit had permission to park there, but the spaces were not official. They were dirt. There were no lines and only limited signage. So people would crunch in as much as possible side by side, which didn’t allow someone who uses a wheelchair or other equipment to get in and out of their vehicle. I am grateful to Buildings & Grounds’ collaboration, as well as Campus Safety, in rectifying that situation quickly and efficiently. Additional spaces have been added in other locations, as well, and we continue to work together to update and improve accessibility across campus. I am now working with a couple faculty members who are helping to plan some student involvement during the next term, which is exciting and positive.
I have enjoyed attending Plan meetings to experience the Plan Process for students, learn about the support provided by the students' Plan teams, and work with students to learn their personalities, interests, goals, and needs.
I have also provided training to Academic Services staff and have learned a lot from the academic counselors, as well as from the Dean of Studies. We all collaborate to support students and faculty. I have also learned a great deal from the Student Life professionals in regards to housing policies and procedures and needs, and so many other departments—updating processes and websites with IT, Counseling and Psychological Services, Buildings & Grounds, and the Career Development and Field Work Term—to collaborate in regards to accessibility updates and student support. My work is interwoven with many folks on campus.
What are you looking forward to next?
I am looking forward to finding more opportunities to make the campus more accessible and looking for ways to fund that work. I am also on the orientation committee, and it’s great to think about what sort of orientation and First-Year Forum topics I could help introduce and facilitate, specifically to support our neurodiverse population, as well as to support all students with executive functioning skills, academic technology and skills, and using campus resources efficiently to support student success.
I look forward to continued collaboration with all departments to support student wellness and mental health. All students could benefit from more skills and tools to help them get acclimated to college and know what to expect. I want students to be able to access support before they get overwhelmed, which includes exploring opportunities to create summer bridge programs for incoming students who are neurodiverse. Often, these students can benefit from extra time to acclimate themselves both physically and socially. On-campus and remote bridge programs are also useful for anyone who wants to learn more skills and tools to support themselves for academic success and get more information about the differences between high school and college.
What should people know about you and your role?
I would like to work with everyone on campus—students, faculty in all departments and disciplines, and staff—to positively educate, raise awareness, and work collaboratively toward improved accessibility. Reach out to me, come to me, email me, meet with me.
If a student starts to struggle academically for any reason, I encourage students, faculty, and staff to reach out to the student's Academic Services counselor. These counselors are the first line for everything and can start directing students to resources, including to me if they think formal accommodations could be helpful.