University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

Beth Stafford

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May 13, 2010 
SAC recognizes exemplary service May 14

UWM’s Student Accessibility Center (SAC) had so many nominations citing faculty and staff for working effectively with students with disabilities that the center is naming four honorable mentions in addition to the five winners of the annual SAC Excellence Awards.

All of the honorees will be recognized at a ceremony at 1 p.m. on May 14 in Mtichell Hall room 245. SAC Excellence Award recipients were James Burmeister, Fred Helmstetter, Janine Kwapis, Ghada Masri and Jennifer Wanasek.

Honorable mentions were Dave Edyburn, professor, Department of Exceptional Education, School of Education; Jessica Maerz, assistant professor, Department of Theatre, Peck School of the Arts; Kristin Sziarto, assistant professor, Department of Geography, College of Letters and Science; and Bo Zhang, associate professor, Department of Educational Psychology, School of Education.

“We were delighted to receive so many thoughtful nominations from students and staff in recognition of the hard work and excellence from UWM faculty and instructional staff,” says SAC Director Laurie Petersen. “One of the criteria for this award was the use of universal design in instruction.” 

Universal Design is the concept that products and environments can be designed to be accessible to all users, much like curb cuts that are used by bicycles and strollers as well as wheelchairs. When Universal Design is incorporated into the curriculum, students with disabilities may not need to disclose that they have a disability or need to request individual accommodations, Petersen says.

“As more faculty and instructional staff incorporate the principles of universal design into their curriculum, students with disabilities have greater access, and all students benefit from this inclusive teaching model,” she adds.

Here are profiles of the award winners:

James Burmeister
Senior Lecturer, Department of Music, Peck School of the Arts
Burmeister was nominated by a student who is blind, and said Burmeister “made me feel like I belonged.” The student says, “James Burmeister is one of the few people outside my immediate circle of friends and family who has the gift of making me forget about my blindness.” The student describes how Burmeister creates a class environment where a student with a disability “is just another student” who can excel on individual merit. The student also appreciates Burmeister’s willingness to hold individual meetings, despite the extra time required for these sessions.

Burmeister says, “I treat my students the way I would like to be treated if the roles were reversed. I want them to know that I am accessible for any concerns that they have about my class, and available if they just need to talk. Above all, I care for their success in my class as much as I care about success in their careers.” He adds, “Music is not only an art form, but a discipline. The student with a disability often has an advantage. They have already mastered an obstacle.”

Fred Helmstetter
Professor, Psychology
A student cites Helmstetter for “finding ways for me to learn in his neuroscience laboratory, despite my vision/comprehension problems.” For example, Helmsetter would ask the rest of the class, “What are we looking at here?,” and that would help this student in a way that wasn’t noticeable to the rest of the group.

“What sets him apart from many other professors I’ve had is his patience with me and determination to get me to understand through explanation, even if I can’t physically see the concept.” The student goes on to describe how together, the student and Helmstetter found “successful, alternative way of testing/demonstrating my understanding in the form of oral exams, paper writing and presentations.”

Helmstetter says that he “enjoys watching students master material that they thought was too difficult at first.” He adds, “I find teaching to be a very rewarding part of my job at UWM. My particular passion is for understanding how the brain works, and I appreciate the opportunity to share that with our students. I try to help them understand that much of what we take for granted in our own thinking, perception and behavior can be understood in terms of basic, quantifiable physical processes and principles.”

Janine L. Kwapis
Teaching Assistant, Psychology
Kwapis is a teaching assistant for Professor Fred Helmstetter. A student with vision difficulties describes how “Janine has shown me processes that are extremely detailed, and if I didn’t understand she would show me again, and if I still didn’t see it, she would find other creative ways of showing me how to see the important information.” This student also says, “It is possible that my vision has improved under Janine’s tutelage, as I was encouraged to use my eyes and think in new ways.” Along with Helmstetter, Kwapis “found creative ways for me to understand highly visual information and contribute to the laboratory research despite my challenges.”Kwapis says, “I’ve had good experiences with UWM students and students with disabilites at UWM. It’s rewarding to see a student work hard and have their dedication pay off. My best experiences as a teacher revolve around that moment when the student finally understands a difficult concept − it makes all of the work worth it.”

Ghada A. Masri
Visiting Assistant Professor, Center for International Education
Masri was cited by a student for “always trying to make me feel comfortable” despite a disability, and for making sure that the student always had a transcript, when necessary. In addition, Masri kept an open dialogue with the student’s interpreters via e-mail and dialogue before, during and after class. “Even with all of this effort, Ghada has not made me feel different, but actually more like part of the class.”

Masri says, “Learning is an active process, and I believe it is essential that multiple strategies of engagement are involved which stimulate curiosity and the will to know.” She uses several media sources (Web-based and visual), class discussion, group projects and oral presentations, “allowing students the opportunity to engage through diverse communication media.”

“In developing any curriculum, my priority is to create a space that promotes the expression and exchange of multiple voices and perspectives,” Masri continues. “It is important that students develop an investment in their own education by direct participation in the dynamics of the classroom.”

Jenny Wanasek
Lecturer, Theatre, Peck School of the Arts
“Jenny’s embrace of a deaf student in her ‘Introduction to Acting’ class has been nothing short of phenomenal,” says an interpreter with SAC. The staff member describes Wanasek’s use of sign language in the classroom as “rooted in a deep and sincere desire to communicate directly with the student, and to allow the student full inclusion into activities.” Making the class “visual” took “a lot of energy, planning, flexibility, open-mindedness and a rare thoughtfulness on the instructor’s part. Jenny made accomplishing it look effortless.”

The interpreter adds that when adaptations are made so seamlessly, all of the students in the class accept them as a matter of course. “The class as a whole has accepted and incorporated the deaf student in a sincere and meaningful way. This class functions as a shining example of accessibility at its best, done in an unselfconscious way. This is the direct result of the leadership, spirit and heart of Jenny Wanasek, who truly deserves this award.”

Wanasek operates with a goal of more than “equalizing” the playing field in the classroom. “In addition to making sure that every exercise is fully available to each student regardless of accessibility challenges, I let the class know that I am in a position of learning from the student who is specially challenged.”

Wanasek says that when this attitude is demonstrated, she find that almost all students are grateful for the chance to “get beyond” their reticence about dealing with those different from themselves. “The added bonus is that experience has the potential to invite them to be less judgmental toward themselves and their own challenges, whatever they may be.”