Mechanical engineering senior Ben Mitchell
Mechanical engineering senior Ben Mitchell.

As a college freshman, mechanical engineering student Ben Mitchell had a strict Tuesday routine.

“Tuesday was calculus exam day and, so, I was at the Disability Resource Center by 7:45 a.m. every Tuesday,” said Mitchell, who is on the autism spectrum. “The major thing for me was to have some extra time to take the test. Sometimes I think differently and tend to look at other things (when taking an exam) that can cause me to go down a rabbit hole.”

Now a senior, Mitchell has maintained a 4.0 grade point average and is on track to graduate in May, 2021.

“The DRC helped me so much. It has directly helped facilitate that 4.0,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell is among the thousands of college students protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark law that turned 30 this year. The law prohibits discrimination based on disability and has reshaped the nation’s infrastructure and attitudes concerning equal access and opportunity.

UofL law professor Laura Rothstein, an expert on the ADA, said colleges were well prepared to comply with the ruling many years before it became law.

“That is because higher education had been subject to part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973,” said Rothstein. This pre-ADA law mandated that any agency that receives federal dollars must provide equal access for all persons.

Indeed, UofL opened its first office dedicated to helping those with disabilities 12 years prior to the ADA said Colleen Martin, who heads the DRC.

In those early years, the primary focus was to help those with physical disabilities. But in recent decades, the unit’s role has morphed and expanded considerably.

“Today, the vast majority of students who come to us are students with invisible disabilities, such as ADHD, learning disabilities, mental health conditions, chronic health conditions, autism spectrum disorders and others,” Martin said.

“We now serve approximately 700 students per year. DRC tailors services to the needs of each student. Common accommodations include things like testing accommodations, supplemental note takers, textbooks in alternate format, access to assistive technology, etc. We also help promote awareness of disability in our campus community and provide advocacy for students with disabilities and their access needs.”

For Mitchell, the DRC was indeed an advocate. He says his academic confidence has translated into greater self-confidence—including being more comfortable in social situations.

“Coming here has launched me from someone who was clueless to being at the top of my class and even mentoring others,” said Mitchell.