Holly SlackTechnology Based Learning with Disability
Wright State UniversityDayton, OH
Holly Slack slides her wheelchair up to the microscope and, with her thumb and forefinger wrapped around the knob, rotates her wrist to bring a specimen slide into focus. Her master’s thesis research in histology—the study of tissues—focuses on the kidney structures of certain frogs. What happens when their systems shut down during winter hibernation? How do they react to differing conditions of cold? Could the process they go through possibly improve how human organs intended for transplant react to cold storage? Holly hopes to find out.
The black tables in the biology lab are too high for Holly to reach, so Jim Frisbie, the research assistant who manages the lab, brought in a study table and raised the microscope incrementally with boards until it was right at eye level for her. He keeps a portable heater nearby for times when Holly is working on her research because her circulation is poor and she is always cold. He reaches into the fume hood to pour the chemicals she needs and acts as her hands when her research involves use of pipettes or the accuracy of fine motor skills.
It takes several half-hour periods for frog tissue to be imbedded in resin so that it can be sectioned into a specimen that Holly can study under the microscope. During that down time, she and Jim collaborate on another project. They have filled three pages in a legal pad with ideas on improvements they would make to Holly’s wheelchair. Some, like an umbrella holder, cargo pockets, a heated seat, and a mechanical arm, are practical considerations. Others, such as all-weather tires, vacuuming capability, and space for corporate sponsor advertising, hint at Holly’s sense of humor and how well she has adapted her dream of becoming a scientist with her disability.
Innovative methods and technologies
Holly’s creativity and inventiveness, coupled with her achievements in science and her life experiences, make her a perfect candidate for Wright State’s new Technology-based Learning with Disability Program. With the combined expertise of the four disciplines involved in the program, Holly’s idea of creating a wheelchair that pivots above a stationary wheelbase may become a reality.
In this new program, graduate students in biomedical sciences, computer science, engineering and human factors and industrial/organizational psychology will search for innovative methods and technologies for making education accessible to students with disabilities. They’ll test the theories of their chosen discipline against the practical challenges of real-world problems faced by people like Holly.
“There is a clear shortage of professionals who understand the issues related to universal access to education,” said Forouzan Golshani, chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and director of the program. “Wright State, with its history of serving the needs of students with disabilities, is the perfect place for a program designed to bridge the gap between the fundamental nature of disabilities, opportunities that technology offers, and different teaching strategies.”
Attracting Highly Qualified Ph.D. Candidates
“Wright State has made significant strides in creating an accessible environment within our lab and technology programs. The infrastructure is there for students to take courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The Technology-based Learning with Disability Program is a means for us to attract highly qualified Ph.D. candidates who want to work in technology or in the sciences in these areas. We anticipate that a number of those highly qualified doctoral candidates will also have a disability,” said Jeff Vernooy, director of the Office of Disability Services and chair of the program’s outcome committee.
“In the 28 years that I have been here at Wright State, I have had the opportunity to see the university open doors for students in a variety of areas. This new program not only opens the door: it rolls out a red carpet.”
Vernooy knows from experience that the doors to a science education have not always been open for people with disabilities. As a junior in high school, he was forced to take his chemistry class in the nurse’s office because his school did not have an elevator to get him and his wheelchair upstairs to the classroom. He studied alone with his textbook, while his classmates did experiments in the lab.
A Life-Changing Event
Holly Slack was a sophomore at Lakewood High School in rural Hebron, Ohio, when she decided on a science career. She loved biology—cell studies, genetics and human heredity, how organs function, and how disease disrupts vital processes. Looking through the microscope opened up a whole new, magical world. Holly had nearly finished her junior year in high school when the car she was a passenger in ran off the road, flipping three times and ejecting her from the back seat. Her neck was broken between the fifth and sixth cervical vertebra. Holly could breathe, but had lost all feeling from her chest down.
During the two months that Holly spent in rehab learning how to live with quadriplegia, tutors kept her current on schoolwork. They worked with her throughout the summer to keep her on track and she graduated with her senior class as a valedictorian.
It was at her rehabilitation center that Holly first heard about Wright State and its reputation for accessibility. Some expressed surprise at her plans to attend college, but “it never even crossed my mind to change my plans after the accident,” she said.
The Office of Disability Services helped her adapt to the challenges of college life and four years later Holly got her bachelor’s in biological science, finishing with a 3.8 GPA.
Holly finished her master's in biology last year and has recently started working on her doctoral degree as one of the first students in Wright State's new Technology- based Learning with Disability Ph.D. program
“Sometimes when I am in the lab I get ideas about technology that would be helpful,” she said. “In this program I’d be helping others and helping myself.”
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