“Although my current job is very different from when I initially started my career, the common theme is advocacy,” says Ronda Purdy, director of Disability Services at Bellarmine. “I’ve always been very passionate about giving a voice to the marginalized and empowering those individuals to self-advocate, know their rights and be reminded of their worth as human beings.”
Ronda, a native of Coldwater, Ohio, earned her undergraduate degree at Ohio University and a master’s in Art Therapy at the University of Louisville. For the first 13 years of her career, she worked in community mental health, primarily at Seven Counties Services and St. Joseph’s Children’s Home, where she used art therapy in treatment with children and families that had experienced abuse or neglect.
In 2007, she came to Bellarmine as a counselor/disability services coordinator in the Counseling Center. In order to learn more about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), she became involved with KY AHEAD (Association on Higher Education and Disability), spending three years on the board and one year as president. Last year, she was promoted to her current position, where, in addition to assisting students with accommodations, she helps to raise the Bellarmine community’s awareness about disabilities and focuses on improving campus accessibility.
Ronda and her husband, Marty, live in Lanesville, Ind., with their three children: Emily, 17, who will be a Bellarmine freshman in the fall; Ethan, 16; and Ben, 13. In her spare time, if she’s not at a Harry Connick Jr. concert, she’s probably seeking tickets for one: She has seen him perform at least 10 times.
What led you to work in the advocacy field?
Some experiences during my teenage years. The teenage years can be turbulent, and I was lucky to have several strong, supportive women in my life who helped me find my voice when I was feeling somewhat defeated and powerless.
What kinds of disabilities do you deal with in your job?
The spectrum is wide. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. We accommodate students with learning disabilities, attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder, psychological disabilities, chronic medical conditions, visual and hearing impairments, autism spectrum disorders and physical disabilities. We take a very individualized approach, which means that we will explore reasonable accommodations for any documented condition that is creating barriers for the student in the learning environment.
How have the numbers changed since you’ve been at Bellarmine?
When I started in 2007, there were about 65 students registered with Disability Services. There are now approximately 250. This is a trend that many universities are experiencing. There has been more awareness about the services available since Bellarmine created a full-time position, and high schools are also doing a better job at transitioning students into the college setting. Students and families come in with an awareness of their rights and an understanding of necessary accommodations and services.
How has technology changed your work?
Advancements in technology have played a huge role in making college more accessible for some students with disabilities. The list is exhaustive but includes everything from software that assists with reading and writing to real time captioning for deaf or hearing-impaired students. The “smart pen” is a great example: It records lectures and can play back specific sections if you touch it to that point on special paper. Sometimes the simple things we take for granted now, like instructors who have their PowerPoint lecture notes available for students to copy, make a huge difference. I’ve also learned that with so many classroom needs, “There’s an app for that!”
Have you ever encountered pushback from a faculty member?
Overall it’s been very easy to work with Bellarmine faculty. My experience is that when there is some pushback, it has to do with a lack of awareness about student and faculty rights under the ADA, or the habit we sometimes get in of thinking that there’s only one way to achieve a particular goal. I very much respect faculty perspective and need to hear from them about their course objectives. Sometimes it may not be reasonable to provide an accommodation if it compromises the course objectives or somehow lowers the standards for the students with disabilities.
Do students ever “suddenly” need services—say, the night before a paper that they haven’t started is due? In other words, has anyone ever tried to game you?
I’ve absolutely heard my fair share of excuses and sob stories! I think my counseling background has given me some good assessment skills so that I can pretty quickly recognize the “gamers” when they come along. Accountability is important, and sometimes these late requests provide “teachable moments” for the students. Sometimes there are valid reasons related to a change in symptoms or new conditions that require some last-minute scrambling. When this happens, I’m grateful to have Bellarmine’s accommodating community. Sometimes it takes a village!
If Harry Connick Jr. were to visit Bellarmine, what special accommodations would you recommend for him?
Well, I’m not really sure, but I can tell you that I would clear my calendar in order to have ample time to explore his accommodation needs!
Carla Carlton | firstname.lastname@example.org