MISSOULA – Amy Capolupo and her staff at the University of Montana’s Office for Disability Equity believe their mission comes down to a simple but powerful formula: Identify the specific needs of each student sitting before them and then relentlessly remove any barrier standing in the way of their success.
With more than 1,500 students in their charge, that may mean alerting students to a broken elevator undergoing repairs to arranging alternate test accommodations for a single mom struggling with depression.
The work is not easy, Capolupo said, but it is always fulfilling.
“Helping students for us has to be a very thoughtful and interactive process,” she said. “Disabilities add a layer of complexity to each student’s study, so we have to meet them where they are and then map out what they need to achieve their goals.”
This commitment to student success will be a key theme of Capolupo’s address as UM’s Fall 2022 Commencement speaker on Dec. 17.
Despite serving in leadership roles on campus for the better part of 20 years, and having earned her undergraduate degree in psychology and master’s degree in social work from UM, Capolupo said she was still surprised when a call came from university leaders asking her to be Commencement speaker.
“It’s definitely an honor, but I thought “why me?’” Capolupo said obviously bemused.
She goes on to offer an explanation: This year’s ceremony will recognize Emma Lommasson, who died in 2019 at age 107, with a posthumous Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters for her decades-long commitment to UM and its students. And it’s that commitment that is very much mirrored in the work of the Office for Disability Equity.
“I never had the opportunity to meet Emma, but the people who learned directly from her helped and supported me as a student, and that important connection is definitely part of my comments,” said Capolupo, a native of Rockland County, New York, who moved to Missoula in 1998.
“I would not be where I am today without that support, and I am eternally grateful and privileged to assist today’s students,” she added.
While still polishing the draft of her Commencement speech, Capolupo took time to talk with UM News about the work of the Office for Disability Equity and the students they mentor.
UM News: You’ve worked in disability services for a number of years. What have been some of the more significant changes you have seen both in the student population affiliated with your office and with society’s overall attitudes toward disabilities?
The biggest change is in the type of students we work with and their expectations. When I started, the largest group of students we served identified as having learning disabilities. That has now changed to students who have disabilities that impact their mental health.
In previous years students were more comfortable with requesting accommodations and now they expect that access is simply built-in to all parts of the institution and that they should not have to request an accommodation for an event or class assignment.
This change is evident in societal attitudes as well. As an example, employers who are inclusive now ask questions like “how can we improve or change our environment so that we can best support you in your employment,” rather than this is “our culture” and how do you fit into it?
UM News: Has a greater understanding of mental health challenges in society made it easier for your office to get needed help for students with depression and other issues? Has it helped students with these challenges seek out additional services?
In most cases, yes, UM employees are much more aware of the impacts of mental health on academic performance and campus engagement. When something like attendance is required in a course, faculty are increasingly spending time with students explaining why it is essential to the course and informing students about what is reasonable should they need to miss classes. This gives our staff a greater ability to work with students on what could be possible in terms of accommodation.
Additionally, clinical and non-clinical mental health supports and training are now widely available on campus.
UM News: What do you see as next steps to broaden our support of students with disabilities?
Training on, and a full-scale adoption of, inclusive design practices in all we do, as well as a firm commitment to improving physical access.
It is no longer acceptable to consider a student’s ability to navigate logistical processes as an essential part of obtaining their degree. We need to simplify processes and continually ask ourselves if a policy or practice is truly serving students well.
UM News: If you had one piece of insight or advice for students and staff to support our disabilities community what would it be? What should they know?
I would love for everyone to think with an accessibility or inclusive mindset. Designing courses, buildings, programs and events with access in mind makes those activities better for everyone. If someone isn’t sure what a disability-related mindset is, they are welcome to contact our office for national and campus resources.
UM News: What advice would you give students needing support for their disabilities?
The Americans with Disabilities Act provides legal protections and to access those protections students must engage with us. We want things to be accessible without having to request accommodations, too. However, the reality is that even in the most well planned out environments, accommodations may always need to be made.
Letting us know what you are experiencing is the best way for us to enact change.
UM News: What message would you give to students with disabilities who might be considering enrolling in UM?
UM is a supportive environment. Our faculty and staff care just as much about the students we serve as we do about the content we teach and the services we provide.
At UM you matter, and we will do all we can to support you in obtaining your degree or credential and in becoming the best version of yourself. We do this so that we can best position you to attain your career and personal goals.
Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, firstname.lastname@example.org.