July 26 is recognized annually in the United States as National Disability Independence Day. The observance commemorates the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act into law in 1990. In this Q&A, Brent Fragnoli, a care and wellness consultant and prevention and outreach specialist in the Center for Student Support and Care, provides a glimpse into one aspect of how Notre Dame works to provide a more accessible and welcoming environment for students with disabilities.
Q: What is the Center for Student Support and Care, and how does it enhance the student experience at the University of Notre Dame?
A: The Center for Student Support and Care (CSSC) is comprised of Care and Wellness Consultants and Sara Bea Accessibility Services. The primary goal of the Center is to support and advocate for students with a variety of needs. In this capacity, the Center acts as a bridge between students and the wider University community, ensuring students have access to resources and necessary accommodations.
Q: What do you do as a care and wellness consultant and prevention and outreach specialist?
A: My role provides preventative support to students navigating complex situations. I work predominantly with students returning from a withdrawal and students with disabilities to provide intentional support and increased accessibility on campus. From developing presentations for faculty on how to implement Universal Design for Learning in the classroom to fostering resiliency skills among returning students, I have the immense privilege of waking up each day and being fulfilled through my work.
Q: Why are care and wellness consultants needed on campus?
A: Increasing student retention, well-being, and support is only attainable if we can connect students to the right campus resources. Care and wellness consultants work to streamline the process of connecting students to necessary and relevant support on campus through a multitude of ways. One unique aspect of care and wellness consultants is that we are assigned to specific schools, and some of us are even embedded in a particular area. This kind of organization and collaboration with the Academy allows us to meet students where they are, help them identify concerns and struggles sooner, and better support the vast and complex needs of students in specific populations.
Q: Why is this work important to you? What’s the best part of your job?
A: This work is incredibly important to me because of how connected my work (and that of the wider CSSC) is to the mission of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Working with students in distress pushes us to consistently serve as men and women with hope to bring. Whether we are helping a student discern life outside studies or providing equal access in the classroom, the work of the Center is integral to student well-being on campus.
The best part of my job is being able to facilitate the formation of disabled student leaders on campus. In particular, one aspect of my role I am especially fond of is the mentorship program we launched last year. The Accessibility Leadership Fellows (ALF) program was created in partnership with the Student Government Department of Disability Advocacy to foster a community that celebrates, mentors, and advocates for Notre Dame students with disabilities. Being able to work with and guide the mentors and leaders of the ALF program is incredibly rewarding.
Q: What percentage of students report having a disability?
A: At Notre Dame, just under 14 percent of the student population is registered with Sara Bea, which is slightly below the 20 percent national average for college students. One unique data point, however, is that of the roughly 1,700 students registered with Sara Bea, only 4.7 percent have a visible diagnosis.
Q: What are some of the challenges and barriers that exist for students with disabilities – particularly those with invisible disabilities – and what are some ways you partner with students, faculty, and staff to overcome these challenges?
A: When thinking of barriers that disabled students face, it is important to note that both the legal coverage and the process to obtain accommodations is vastly different in higher education from the K-12 system, and students are often unprepared for that shift. When thinking of students with invisible disabilities there are really only three general categories of chronic medical, mental health, and neurodivergent diagnoses. Some examples of barriers to these diagnoses at Notre Dame might be:
A strict attendance policy in an early morning course for a student with Crohn's disease who typically experiences heightened symptoms in the morning.
An incoming first-year student who has obsessive compulsive disorder and would prefer to live in a single room but is required to be paired randomly with a roommate.
A student with autism being evaluated on their classroom participation.
A student with dyslexia in a course that only utilizes PowerPoint presentations with small print.
The barriers students face are vast and individualized based on the nature of their diagnosis, area of study, and a variety of other factors. When working with students to overcome barriers, there is a large emphasis placed on self advocacy to connect with appropriate resources as opposed to suffering in silence. When working with faculty and staff, it is important to increase awareness for the small things that not only increase accessibility for one student, but for all. For example, including captions, alternative (alt) text, and larger font in a PowerPoint, or offering more flexibility in assignment deadlines are relatively low hanging fruit that can make a world of difference for students with disabilities.
Whether we are helping a student discern life outside studies or providing equal access in the classroom, the work of the Center is integral to student well-being on campus.
Q: What might people be surprised to learn about students with disabilities? What are some of the stereotypes, misunderstandings, or myths you’d like to dispel?
A: When it comes to the misunderstandings of our students with disabilities, one that really stands out is the stigma around the need for accommodations. Students here are extremely driven and can be quite competitive, which sometimes can lead to doubt over a peer’s accommodations. Oftentimes, students are unaware of both the process we require students to complete in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the fact that accommodations do not modify the intellectual rigor of a course. Our role as an access office is to modify the logistical rigor of courses that impacts a student more than their peers due to their diagnosis.
Q: Based on your experience, what steps can we take to be better allies to students with disabilities or to make them feel more included and celebrated for who they are?
A: Just as our Catholic, Holy Cross mission calls upon us to foster authentic connections with the students we serve, the best form of support we can offer our disabled students is to lend them a genuine and open ear to let them share their experiences. Too often, we view disability as a scary word and avoid conversations with students. In reality, offering students a space to share and advocate is not only empowering for them, but a learning experience for faculty and staff.
Q: What have you learned about yourself or the students you’ve worked with since beginning in your role?
A: What impresses me daily about students with disabilities on this campus is their leadership and advocacy for more understanding, community, and accessibility at Notre Dame. I am fortunate enough to serve as the advisor to the student group AccessABLE, and partner closely with the Department of Disability Advocacy in Student Government. The dedication and work these students put in to leave behind a more accessible Notre Dame than what they experienced is truly astonishing.
Q: How can faculty and staff better partner with the Center for Student Support and Care?
A: The most important aspect of any partnership is communication, and when it comes to increasing our partnerships with other faculty and staff on campus we absolutely love to connect and share the resources we offer and discuss the students we serve. Whether it is sending an email, filling out our online referral form, or having us present at a department meeting, we are happy to build more connections and awareness on campus!