Disability Support Services Helps Students Navigate Journey through College Years

After their daughter was born blind, Stephanie Flynt’s parents decided she would be best served learning to navigate school alongside sighted students. She calls the process mainstreaming, and it set the tone for how she approaches life.

“A lot of people don’t see me as a person. They see me as a disability with a side of person,” she explained. “When I’m talking to a person for the first time, I want them to get a good impression that I’m not my disability. I’m a person at the end of the day.”

The Brandon native who goes by “Stevie” developed a high level of independence while in high school in Rankin County. While she says it left her well prepared for the next step in education, she admits to feeling daunted by the prospect of leaving home for the vast campus and academic demands of Mississippi State University.

Joined by Nala Belle, a newly acquired guide dog, Flynt started her campus journey with assistance from Mississippi State’s Disability Support Services.

Now in her second year on campus, Flynt is a President’s List Scholar with enough credit hours to classify as a junior. In her words, she’s thriving at Mississippi State, living away from home for the first time. She even followed in her mother’s footsteps and joined Delta Gamma social sorority, which coincidentally has a service mission focused on assisting those with visual impairments.

Flynt credits Disability Support Services for much of her successful transition into college life.

“They’ve given me a very good support system,” Flynt explained.

  • Stevie Flynt and her guide dog Nala Belle take a break between classes in Flynt’s room at the Delta Gamma sorority house.

  • Flynt and Nala Belle routinely use MSU’s S.M.A.R.T. transit system to get around campus.

  • Micah White, left, associate director of Student Support Services, walks with Flynt as she learns new routes on campus at the start of the spring semester.

  • Benjamin Michael Woods, a graduate assistant with Disability Support Services, walks with Flynt through McCool Hall.

  • Associate Professor Vasabjit Banerjee answers questions regarding a spring semester political science course and relevant accommodations that may be helpful through the semester.

  • Flynt gets acquainted with classmates in her Introduction to Logic philosophy course.

  • Flynt eats lunch at the Delta Gamma house with her sorority sisters.

  • A state-of-the-art Braille note taker is a learning and communication tool Flynt uses for both personal and academic tasks. She also uses screen readers and smartphones which she says have greatly benefited the vision-impaired community.

  • Flynt enters the Office of Student Support Services, which includes Disability Support Services. Centrally located on campus, many describe the Montgomery Hall office as a great “home base,” where students can come by to consult with staff members or simply to get a cup of coffee and find a study spot.

Centrally located in Montgomery Hall and based in the Office of Student Support Services, Disability Support Services provides educational access and opportunity through resources, advocacy, collaboration and academic accommodations for any student with a documented disability, including visual or physical impairments or learning disabilities. Its work has contributed to Mississippi State coming in at No. 3 on the list of top colleges for students with visual disabilities as published by Universities.com.

In Flynt’s case, the support office provides staff to walk with her to class at the beginning of each semester as she learns the new routes that come with a new schedule. But after those first few weeks, it’s just her and Nala crossing campus and using the shuttle to get to and from her sorority house.

Flynt also uses new technology like screen readers and smartphones that, while not specifically designed for the blind, have greatly benefited the vision-impaired community. She also uses a state-of-the-art Braille note taker during classes. Disability Support Services assists her with getting textbooks in electronic format, as well as translating some materials into Braille to help her efficiently complete her classwork.

“When you say it’s a Mississippi State University family, it really is, and I couldn’t have been accommodated better anywhere else,” Flynt said. “I know everybody here, I fit in well here and I’m happy here.”

A 20-year-old political science major with a minor in Spanish and pre-law, Flynt plans to go to law school after graduation, so she can represent minority groups. She feels her blindness helps her relate to many underrepresented groups, and she’s confident in advocating for herself and others.

Associate director of Student Support Services Micah White said the ability to advocate from first-hand experience is invaluable to his office as it works to form individual plans of action for clients.

“We see the student as the expert because they’ve lived with this disability and know what they’ve done in the past in a classroom that could work now,” White explained.

He said Disability Support Services also works with MSU faculty to learn what is expected from students in their classes.

“When you know what both sides need, everything can work together to create a successful and satisfying educational experience for everyone,” White said.

Austin Nix has lived in Moseley Hall for the majority of his time at Mississippi State. He uses a cane to navigate campus and a sign to ask for assistance when crossing roads

Austin Nix starts each day in Moseley Hall where he has lived for most of his time on campus. The 22-year-old information technology senior remembers transitioning to MSU as a freshman and living apart from his family for the first time as a daunting task.

“I knew how big this place was,” recalled the Mississippi School for the Blind graduate. “It was a difficult first semester, but I knew things would get better.”

The Brandon native said he visited the Office of Student Support Services almost daily to help with the adjustment, taking advantage of an open-door policy Julie Capella describes as one of the office’s greatest strengths.

“You don’t have to have an appointment to come, and you don’t have to sign in,” the assistant dean of students and director for Student Support Services said. “We see a lot of our students not only daily, but sometimes several times a day because this is a home base. They come in here to talk or just have a place to relax, feel comfortable and get a cup of coffee.”

Trenell Scales, a junior kinesiology major from Sturgis, helps guide Nix across a roadway near Montgomery Hall. Julie Capella, director of Student Support Services, says, “I think it remains a constant that our students who don’t have disabilities are very willing to assist students who do.”

Like Flynt, Nix was born with blindness. At age 9, he began losing hearing in one ear, and soon after, the other followed. He now qualifies for support services at the university as someone who is blind and deaf, although he actually has partial hearing with the help of hearing aids. A special device that hangs around his neck and a small microphone he can give professors to clip onto their clothing function as direct connections to his hearing aids.

Disability Support Services has worked with Nix since he arrived on campus. In particular, the staff helps him get textbooks in electronic formats. He doesn’t need a lot of special accommodation for taking tests because he takes many tests on a computer. However, the office does assist many students with testing services. In a year, the staff typically administers about 3,600 tests, but last semester, they doubled that pace in accommodating students with a variety of registered disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and Autism spectrum disorders.

Capella explained that the university doesn’t see accommodation as “something extra.”

“We see it as a great part of the diversity of campus that enriches everyone, and I think it shines through here more so than in other places,” Capella said. “I think our students are the big push for having an accessible, open mind and an expectation that it’s part of the diversity of Mississippi State.”

Nix receives help from support staff to establish routes to classes in the first few weeks of each new semester. Beyond that, he traverses campus independently using a cane and a sign that helps him request assistance from other pedestrians when crossing roads.

This independence and acceptance from fellow students encouraged Nix to extend his time in Starkville. Following his May graduation, he plans to attend graduate school.

“Blindness does not indicate a lack of intelligence,” Nix explained. “Some people seem to think that it does, and they’ll yell and scream at you or talk really slow. I haven’t run into many people like this at MSU. Most are pretty friendly, and they try to be helpful.”

Capella said inclusive attitudes are among the multiple factors on campus that impact students like Nix who have one or more disabilities.

“Access is more than just the physical characteristics and navigability of campus—it includes inclusive attitudes,” Capella said.

“Because of our hospitality on campus, just in general for the university, this spills over,” she continued. “I think it remains a constant that our students who don’t have disabilities are very willing to assist students who do. They are very willing to accept others.”

LaBrittany Knight uses a motorized wheelchair to get around the university. “I always knew I wanted to come here,” she says.

LaBrittany Knight is a 23-year-old recent graduate of Hinds Community College and a native of Indianola, a town she describes as “close-knit.” She said this first year on a large college campus has been overwhelming at times, but she is finding her place by plugging into campus life. She said the encouragement of those around her, especially her resident assistants in Deavenport Hall, also helps.

Knight has 20/20 vision with her glasses, although she does have exotropia, which means one eye has weak muscles and turns a bit. Premature birth and subsequent medical developments caused her to have spastic diplegia cerebral palsy.

While the part of her brain that controls muscular movements is affected by cerebral palsy, Knight is quick to point out that she has an above average IQ with no intellectual disability. Physically, she can take a few steps, but her movement is limited, so she uses a motorized wheelchair.

Among Knight’s goals is graduating cum laude from MSU with a degree in information technology and a minor in business. She said her dream job would be to work for Google and largely credits her drive to achieve to her parents, who encourage her to “go after what you want.”

“They say you can’t wait for it to fall in your lap because it doesn’t work like that,” Knight recalled. But when it came to choosing Mississippi State, she found a bit of encouragement.

One of her middle school teachers was a Mississippi State graduate, and Knight said she believes that might have been part of the reason she felt drawn to MSU from a young age.

“I always knew that I wanted to come here. I guess I just knew it was where I was meant to be,” Knight explained.

She said she appreciates the staff in Disability Support Services, who are dedicated to helping her and other students in their pursuit of success. Not only does she benefit from assistance in getting the various accommodations she needs, but she also participates in weekly lunches as part of the TRIO program, which is designed for first-generation college students. Both Disability Support Services and TRIO are administered by Student Support Services.

Knight visits with friends in Deavenport Hall. She said the support system from friends and professionals on campus has helped her adjust to university life.

“Everyone is just so sweet here,” Knight said of the Montgomery Hall office. “It’s a good place to be and when you come here, you feel at home.”

The Dean’s List Scholar said she also enjoys her job at Barnes & Noble on campus.

“People are shocked because the stereotype is that if you have a disability, you can’t work,” Knight explained. “But the managers are so nice, and they really care about me.”

Knight helps with answering calls, managing the textbook rush and frequently works with the retail store’s spreadsheets.

“I think it’s fun that I get to work within their databases a little bit. It’s really a fun job, and never a dull moment,” Knight said. “I’m actually living my dreams because all I ever wanted was to go to school and work. I’m doing that now, so my dreams are coming true.”

By Allison Matthews, Photos by Megan Bean, Video David Garraway