Stand Up, Stand Out: Disability Services at HACC

Stand Up, Stand Out: Disability Services at HACC

— From the pages of FLL Issue #24 • Photo by Silas Crews

Vicki Van Hise, Coordinator of Disability Services
Harrisburg Area Community College Lancaster Campus

Three hundred not Spartan warriors, but students with needs, lots of them, and one indomitable force of a woman helping all of them.

Sending your child, the one you still see as the five year old who learned to pedal the two wheeler and you escorted from house to house on Halloween night, to college is a difficult process for any parent, but more so for those who have lived and worked with a child with disabilities. The disabilities range from moderate to severe, from autism across the spectrum, to those using wheelchairs to mild learning disabilities, all of which require an active and engaged parent. All require parents who speak up and advocate for their child and their progress, and then if they are successful and graduate from high school and college is a possibility, how do they possibly step back and send their child into the world of the adult, into the world of college? They can do it because of the heroic efforts of Vicki Van Hise, Coordinator of Disability Services at HACC.

“I love these kids. Every day there is a step forward — from baby steps to something huge, like the student is now a fully participating, independent citizen.”

To say Ms. Van Hise is busy would be a severe understatement and would probably evoke a giggle or two from the staff who work with Vicki. There are walk-in students, appointments, and, as Vicki tells me, three hundred students on her caseload. These kids vary in disabilities, vary in needs, vary in abilities, but all need her and her special skills. Basically, her job is defined as supporting the student without lowering standards or rigor. She works with instructors to make their materials more accessible and make reasonable, keyword reasonable, accommodations. Perhaps it is just additional time to take a test, interpreters for the deaf (there are currently eight deaf students on campus) or rearrange furniture in the classroom so that the student’s wheelchair can fit more easily. She is available for her kids “that move through life differently” and does all she can to return phone calls within 24 hours and be available for all new students who may just need a five minute conversation to release building anxiety. “Many of these kids did not have a good experience in high school. It is my job to help do things differently, to help them be successful in college. HACC is a great way to test the waters, a stepping-stone towards additional degrees or job training.” Though she does admit state funding for the Office of Vocational Training, which services these specific folks, has been significantly cut and this does make it difficult for parents to help their children move into being independent citizens and adults.

Vicki shares while there are specific secondary schools designed to work with students with disabilities, there aren’t that many and they are very expensive. HACC’s current rate of approximately $687 for each 3-credit class may break some middle class families’ budgets but students only need to be enrolled in 6 credits or two classes to be eligible for Financial Aid—and for many new students with disabilities, 6-9 credits first semester is ideal! In the long run, HACC is one of the few places these special students are given the help to help themselves.

“I love these kids. Every day there is a step forward — from baby steps to something huge, like the student is now a fully participating, independent citizen.” She goes on to explain. “Sometimes, most times, all kids need more than a high school diploma. They need a skilled job, further education, and we can do that. We set them up for success. These kids will know I am on their side and the parents know we are helping to fill a gap between the ages of 18-21 when some other services may be available, but not many, and waiting lists are long.”

I ask Vicki if she has kids of her own and she tells me that she doesn’t. It is the reason she acknowledges that she has survived ten years in a job that burns out many in shorter time periods. “I am uniquely cut out for this job,” she says, the job of helping special needs students adapt and thrive, and parents breathe and believe in the future of independence for their kids. Vicki is a giver of hope—not just dreams, but tangible achievements, successes, and lives of economic and personal successes. Vicki is right; she is uniquely cut out for the job. The only thing missing is fairy pixie dust, but then again, she doesn’t need it. She has a cell phone, a computer, and a highly efficient receptionist. After thirty minutes, I am charmingly dismissed. There are students waiting and parents calling. It is four o’clock and she has hours and hours of work ahead of her. There is a reason that she says, “Nobody is in line for my job.” Reality is that we need more Vickis in this world. She is an advocate for three hundred students, all with needs above and beyond those of the average college student. Three hundred, and one very capable, smart, dedicated Vicki.

Disability Services
Main 212 • 1641 Old Philadelphia Pike
Lancaster, PA 17602
Phone: (717) 358-2972