Northeast's Disability Services rises to meet growing demand

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by amandab  6/19/2017 8:24:37 AM -- 

NORFOLK, NE - Disability services at Northeast Community College has always served a vital function at the College, and demand for its services is rapidly increasing. Mary Balaski, director of Disability Services at Northeast, said that over the last five years, Northeast has seen a 27 percent increase in the number of students who were identified and received accommodations through Disability Services.

Balaski said the rise in demand for disability services at Northeast is largely attributed to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and mental health diagnoses. She said five years ago, she was aware of four students on the autism spectrum, and that number has tripled since then.

Similarly, Balaski said the number of Northeast students seeking accommodations for mental health conditions has doubled in the last five years, and that approximately one third of those identifying as having a disability report it as related to a mental health diagnosis. These conditions include depression, severe anxiety, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and others.

Balaski said mental health issues can greatly impact the day-to-day demands of college students, affecting study habits, learning processes and even class attendance and participation.

Disability Services employees also work with students with learning and physical disabilities. Approximately 45 percent of students who report a disability and request accommodations have been diagnosed with a learning disability, which can include challenges in cognitive functioning related to reading, writing and/or math. Another 20 percent request accommodations related to physical disabilities, which include diabetes, multiple sclerosis, deafness, hearing and vision impairment, blindness and other conditions.

Balaski said Disability Services also works to provide support for Northeast students with temporary medical conditions, including surgeries, injuries and illnesses. It also provides support to students protected under Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs and activities, and encompasses pregnancy and parental status.

“Any system of your body that can be affected, we’ve accommodated it,” said Balaski.

Balaski said Northeast’s Disability Services Department takes a “proactive rather than reactive” stance when working with students to develop an accommodation plan. During the summer before fall classes begin, each student completes an intake, accommodations and documentation process, along with training on usage of technology, that requires about six hours of work.

“We want the students to be the lead planner in the ‘how’ of their own success,” Balaski said. “What tools can you use? What levels of support do you need? How does the disability affect you in an academic environment?”

For example, if a student has tremors in his or her hands, Balaski said, they may need to use a computer for written essay tests. Software that adjusts font sizes and contrast can aid students with vision issues, while special fonts can be beneficial to students with dyslexia.

“So many times, students feel something is wrong with them, when it may just be course adjustments that are required,” Balaski said.

When a student qualifies for accommodation, Disability Services notifies the instructors, who then discuss with the student their accommodations for the class.

“Faculty bridge that gap,” Balaski said. “And faculty will not view (students) as ‘less than.’ They care about students’ approaches to learning. If things need to be different, that’s more than okay.”

Recent Northeast graduate Brooke Phillips, Yutan, struggles to comprehend written texts. Through Disability Services, she arranged to take her exams in the College’s testing center, so she could take extra time on tests and have them read to her using computer software.

“With me not being able to comprehend what I’m reading at all times, the programs they offered were great for me to make the transition into college.”

Phillips said she took a psychology course that required her to read a lengthy case study. “Me focusing on something that long to read, it just wasn’t happening.”

Disability Services was able to scan the text into a program so a computer could read the case study back to her. “It was no problem after that.”

Phillips said that without the assistance of Disability Services through her two years at Northeast, she definitely would have struggled with school. “I can do a lot of things on my own, and I’m fairly independent, but when it comes to programs helping me understand what I’m reading, that’s huge. Because if I don’t understand, then what am I learning? Nothing.”

Phillips graduated from Northeast in May with an associate of arts degree in business administration. This fall, she will attend Midland University to complete a four-year business administration degree with a focus on marketing.

Balaski said one of the more satisfying parts of her job as director of disability services is seeing students succeed in college.

“We get to see students uncertain, lacking confidence. And then we get to see them mature and grow, and see they’re individuals who do things differently. It’s a celebration of their development, rejoicing in their growth.”

For more information about Disability Services at Northeast Community College, visit, or contact Balaski at (402) 844-7343, or



PHOTO CUTLINE - Brooke Phillips


Brooke Phillips, Yutan, uses a computer in the adaptive technology lab at the office of Disability Services on the Northeast Community College campus in Norfolk. Over the last five years, Northeast has seen a 27 percent increase in the number of students who were identified and received accommodations through Disability Services. (Courtesy Northeast Community College)

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