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Department Spotlight: Duke’s Disability Management System

How a team of 10 helps hundreds of students and employees with disabilities

The Duke Disability Management System staff, to include Director Leigh Fickling, on the left, organized a “Beyond Disability, Beyond Compliance” National Retreat in 2014 on Duke's campus.
The Duke Disability Management System staff, to include Director Leigh Fickling, on the left, organized a “Beyond Disability, Beyond Compliance” National Retreat in 2014 on Duke's campus.

On any given day, the Duke Disability Management System office is talking with an employee who needs nearby parking, a student with a disability who is planning for sorority rush, or Pratt School of Engineering staff members who want to make sure lab equipment is accessible to everyone.

The Duke Disability Management System, established in 2000, helps the university and health system comply with federal and state regulations and connects students, employees, job applicants and visitors to disability resources and accommodations.

“I think one of the things that makes our office unique is that we’re a centralized, one-stop shop for anybody seeking answers to disability issues,” said Leigh Fickling, Disability Management System’s director. “When students come to us, we want them to be able to have whatever Duke experience that they want. Same with employees.”

The number of undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities who have registered through the office has increased dramatically, from 93 students in fiscal year 2011 to 559 in fiscal year 2016.

Fickling said when people think of disabilities, it’s easy to think of someone in a wheelchair, someone who’s blind or deaf, or has a service animal. She explained that a person with a disability, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. This includes learning disabilities or psychological disorders such as depression, or even a chemical sensitivity to workplace cleaning solutions.

“The hidden disabilities are the ones where society as a whole struggles because you can’t see them,” Fickling said. “Because a disability may be hidden, the person may have to go through a bigger process of disclosing the disability and helping people understand what it is.”

Here are lesser-known facts about the Duke Disability Management System:

Graduation is on the radar seven months early.

The Duke Disability Management System team starts planning in November for Duke Commencement, which is in May. Before Christmas, the team receives calls from families looking for help with parking and seating accommodations as well as requests for wheelchairs.

Always have an emergency plan.

Fickling and her staff help students with residence hall and classroom accessibility and employees with their workplace accommodations. After that, the next step is to figure out what will happen if there is an emergency at these locations. Duke Occupational and Environmental Safety Office (OESO) helps with individualized safety plans.

New technologies and web accessibility are the next challenge.

Duke is working on a plan to streamline the way it addresses and offers assistive technology, or software and equipment such as voice recognition software, text-to-speech tools and screen magnification software, on campus. The office also plans to streamline processes to make Duke web functions more accessible, such as captioning videos and tagging images.

Prepare for the Class of 2021.

After regular decision applicants get accepted to Duke in April, Disability Management System gets busy before student orientation in August by connecting with students who may need assistance.

Every day is game day.

Disability Management System has a close partnership with Duke Athletics. They create accessibility plans for all campus athletics, and Fickling attends every Duke home football game to assist fans with disabilities and participates in conference calls and meetings to prepare for basketball games. Topics of conversation can range from how to buy a T-shirt to fans bringing medical supplies through the Cameron Indoor Stadium security checkpoints.