Deafness, ADHD, Physical Disabilities, PTSD And More: All Leanne's Award-Winning Work At NMC
By Craig Manning | Feb. 7, 2021
Leanne Baumeler might be the head of what she calls “an office of one” at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), but it’s an important office. As NMC’s disability support coordinator, Baumeler is responsible for making sure that students with any number of disabilities receive everything they need to access and excel at the college. Every semester, she works with 90-100 students to assist with everything from physical campus accessibility matters to curriculum modifications. It’s work that recently won Baumeler a prestigious accolade, and work that has only continued to evolve as COVID-19 has pushed NMC into an almost-year-long foray into virtual learning.
Under Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), public and private colleges are legally required to provide “equal access to postsecondary education for students with disabilities.” Since she joined the NMC faculty in 2010, the responsibility of ensuring compliance with those statutes has fallen to Baumeler – though she’s quick to point out that her role is not unique in the broader education ecosystem.
“A lot of what I do applies for any college or university, because everyone has to have someone like me doing this kind of work,” she tells The Ticker. She also points out that, while she’s technically the only person in her department, her work remains collaborative, involving everyone from individual professors to NMC’s educational technology professionals.
A common misconception about disability support on college campuses, Baumeler says, is that it’s all about campus accessibility projects, such as making buildings more disability-friendly. In truth, she notes that most architects these days are familiar enough with ADA requirements to know that “you have to have ramps, you have to have Braille on doors and elevator buttons, you have to have cutouts on curbs, so that people can get from their accessible parking.” Sometimes – like if snow makes walkways impassable for wheelchairs, or if an elevator isn’t working on campus – Baumeler gets a call and coordinates a fix.
More rarely, a larger campus accessibility revamp will come into play. When NMC’s new West Hall Innovation Center was under construction, the college had to move its cafeteria to a spot on campus that required students to cross College Drive. Baumeler worked with NMC leaders to invest in a new stoplight crosswalk system, where students can press a button to activate traffic lights and cross the road safely. All students can use the system, but Baumeler says it was specifically “put there for the students who are blind or low-vision to get across, because they can't see the traffic.”
While these bigger-picture projects occasionally come to Baumeler’s desk, the majority of her work involves one-on-one collaborations with individual students.
“I talk to them about the barriers that their condition is confronting them with, as far as access to NMC’s programs and services – not just the physical access, but the educational access,” Baumeler says. For example, they might need their textbook in Braille, or something like that. I take care of those things for them.”
Baumeler, says one of the most challenging yet rewarding parts of the job is the myriad hurdles she’s able to help students navigate. Physical and mobility disabilities; visual impairments; deafness; learning disabilities such as dyslexia; social anxiety; post-traumatic stress disorder; ADHD: these are just a few of the situations Baumeler has assisted students with.
The accommodations that allow students to learn and flourish despite their disabilities also vary. For example, a student with ADHD may require a longer time allotment on exams, while a student with low-vision might need a screen-reader that helps them utilize virtual learning materials.
Speaking of virtual learning, Baumeler says that COVID-19 and the pivot away from in-person instruction for most NMC programs has posed new challenges. Screen readers aren’t particularly good at recognizing math symbols or formulas, so Baumeler has been coordinating part-time staff to connect with low-vision students over Zoom and read the materials aloud.
Still, while the pandemic has created some obstacles, Baumeler says the majority of the students she works with have actually “really appreciated the move to virtual learning.”
“If you have mobility challenges, getting to campus could be a barrier,” she explains. “And many of the students I work with who have mental health or emotional disabilities really appreciate not having to come to class and be with other people, because of social anxiety or PTSD.”
Amidst it all, Baumeler also achieved a significant career milestone: In October, she was honored by Michigan United Cerebral Palsy (MI-UCP) with the Marion (Kit) McDonnell “Close the Disability Divide” Award. The award honors “a person or organization for accomplishments in assuring that people with disabilities can be included in society and experience all that life has to offer with the greatest degree of independence.”
Though she’s flattered, Baumeler says the work she does every day with students is the true honor of her life.
“I'm all about fairness,” she says. “And it just doesn't seem fair that somebody would be left out of all the good things going on in the world [because of a disability]. Society has put up these barriers in the way we’ve created the world, not thinking of somebody else’s access needs. Any little bit I can do to help with the breaking down those barriers is very rewarding.”Comment