The OAA’s new system makes accessibility accommodations easier to apply for and manage
By March, the Pacific University Office of Accessibility and Accommodations is working to implement a new software system called Accommodate. As the name implies, the system will make it easier for students to request accommodations for their disabilities or obstacles and view past accommodations, lighten the workload on OAA employees, and make it possible for professors to see what accommodations their students should be receiving. The Pacific Index spoke with Assistant Director of the OAA Pete Erschen to learn about how this new system will improve upon the current one.
The new system will be integrated with Pacific University’s single sign-on authentication, meaning Accommodate will only require Boxer ID to access, even if the user has never used Accommodate before. Erschen said that the ability to access information in the current database is severely restricted: “There’s only four administrators who have access to it right now. This new system will allow every single faculty member to get in and see what their students have said. In this system it’s interactive.” Accommodate will be able to auto-fill students’ basic information, saving time and effort. Students will also be able to export their accommodation documentation to take to another university, grad school, or workplace; compared to the current system which requires the student to fill out a Docusign form, which then gets emailed to OAA, before being printed, filed, and manually input. Most requests also require some back-and-forth to determine the students needs and complete their documentation. Erschen said that during busy times like the beginning of term, the OAA office might process three or four accommodation requests per day.
Erschen and the OAA office considered several market-leading software options before settling on Accommodate, produced by a company based out of Virginia called Symplicity. Pacific has signed a three-year contract for the use of their software, but Erschen expects they won’t need to change software again anytime soon, especially considering the increased cost (and stress) of setting up new software.
Erschen laughed, “The school that we pay for the current system doesn’t even use the system anymore for their own stuff. . .. If there comes a point in time when the school who’s maintaining and selling that thing to other schools says ‘Yeah, we’re not going to use our own thing anymore,’ you get an idea of where things really are.”
The system for requesting and managing accommodations is changing, but for now, the metrics by which the OAA evaluates requests for accommodations aren’t. Cases will still receive individual attention and evaluation. At the end of the day, Erschen said, the university’s duty is to make “reasonable accommodations” for students with disabilities or limitations that prevent them from receiving the same education as other students.
Not every person at Pacific will see or even feel the change of Accommodate sweeping through and giving further access to students. A large portion of the students that require accommodations only need them temporarily—such as athletes that get injured and are on crutches for a few weeks before returning to business as usual. But for those that require accommodations at all times, and even those with limited accessibility needs, Pacific can be difficult to navigate.
Recently, President Jennifer Coyle and several other members of the Pacific administration borrowed wheelchairs and canes for a walk-around of the campus. Their walk found the accessibility around campus lacking in some areas. The President and her administration is working to learn about ongoing areas lacking accessibility both on campus and in classrooms, looking to be more proactive about creating environments that everyone can access and use.
Student Outreach Coordinator Becca Ellenbecker, who has lots of experience fielding questions and concerns about accessibility, told The Index that Pacific is working on increasing accessibility across the campus. The ramps to campus buildings are one example. Most of them are too steep, sometimes even for walking, and changing the angle of incline can help. Something most students should notice is an increase in lighting around campus, such as Trombley Square, that has improved accessibility and safety for all students during the evening and night.
Ellenbecker also said that one of the biggest hurdles for addressing accessibility concerns is finances. There were talks about adding an elevator onto the UC, but that could cost millions of dollars. Smaller things have to happen without the large budget of revamping the entire campus. One such compromise was moving some UC boxes to the top floor for students that required ready access when unable to quickly reach the bottom floor of the UC.
Progress is slow, but progress is still progress. These changes will further Pacific’s efforts to sustain a diverse community in which anyone can go to class and receive an education. — Ashley Strobel and Lane Johnson