MF: Madison Fantozzi
LB: Leah Bartholomay
KP: Kim Pearsall
LB: It’s like a whole new world? A whole new world?
MF: All right well, welcome back to POLKcast, I’m your host Madison Fantozzi.
LB: And I’m your co-host Leah Bartholomay.
MF: We’re joined today by Kim Pearsall, Director of Disability and Counseling Services here at Polk State College, and Kim’s job is critical to eliminating barriers for students with disabilities to ensure that the college remains an all-inclusive environment, where higher education is truly accessible for everyone. So, we are super excited to chat with you today Kim, thank you for joining us.
KP: Thank you for having me.
MF: Yeah, definitely.
KP: It’s awesome.
MF: So the Office of Disability Services is crucial to upholding the college’s mission of providing access to higher education to everyone, and it may be obvious for some students to seek out the services your office provides, but there’re also a lot of resources and opportunities that may be lesser known, so can you kind of give us, for starters, the scope of what your office does?
KP: Yeah so, I’d like to say that the foundation is to provide support to those students who would expect to need it more than the average student, right? So you think about the average student coming straight from high school, apprehensive, there’s typically a lot of trepidation about starting college, the changes, the process, right, ’cause y’know, children don’t really have to be concerned about how to get enrolled in K through 12, but when they come to college, they are often very involved, and in some cases, their parents are asked to kind of wait outside and allow for the student to learn what the process is, learn how to advocate for himself or herself, so, so I think our office wants to be the foundation of support, so that if they forget where else to go, they can at least come to us, and we can sort of help them figure it out.
But in addition to that, we do provide critical services for students who are living with disability, so academic support services, technical services, a lot of our students who have processing, processing disorders for example, would need the use of a digital recorder, or their own computer to make sure that they understand what they’re hearing in lecture, and so if they can use their own computer, that would record lecture, they can download that to programs that allow them to reorganize their class notes. So there’re a lot of things that we can offer, note-taking assistance, things that I guess we’ll talk about a little later, but, but I think the overall scope is to provide support, be available to students who need us, and help them figure it out.
MF: Yeah. You said that, kind of helping that transition between high school into college so, do you work pretty closely with a lot of the high schools targeting those students that might be coming here, or how does that work? How do the students find you guys?
KP: Yeah, that’s a good question. So we have started working more with the guidance counselors and administrators in the Polk County schools. We typically would want to talk to those staff who are serving students that are about to graduate, right, so 10th to 12th graders. And so we have been asked to, talk to some of those staff members at their Polk County quarterly meetings, talk to the staff, parents, and other interested folks about what the transition involves.
The fact that we do need documentation from the student, the school is not responsible for sending documentation regarding the student’s disability, that’s a misconception. A lot of students think, well it just magically happens. And it doesn’t. Or, that we would somehow know that a student has a disability.
Again, that’s a different conception from K through 12 where the staff is responsible for seeing a student struggle, trying to help them identify why that is, it’s actually called Child, I think it’s called Child Find, or seeking out what the problem is with the child, and then getting them to the services they need. Well in college, the student has to come to us, we don’t go looking for them. So those transitional changes are important to review with the K through 12 staff and, and the parents.
MF: What are some of the biggest needs that you see for our students?
KP: I think, we could certainly use more technology, and I think user-friendly technology is necessary, so, we have for example Sonocent, which is a note-taking service for students who aren’t able to take notes for themselves, right again, if they have processing disorder, or they have a physical disability, we do hire note-takers, but unfortunately, we have a high turnover because oftentimes note-takers are students, so they’re graduating and moving on.
And we struggle, quite frankly, with our population of students who use note-taking as a way to support their academic performance. So, we just don’t have a lot of students who take notes. So, what we’re looking for is, again, Sonocent is a good program, but you have to have a computer or some sort of smart phone or smart item device to download the lecture, and so that’s an extra step, and then when you download the lecture, you have to be able to navigate the system in order to have it work best for you. That’s an extra step. So, it’s almost like you have to be more than basically familiar with a computer device to use it.
LB: Sounds complicated.
KP: It is, it’s pretty complicated, I mean I had to play around with it for a little while so, I think if we had something that was a little bit less complicated, more user-friendly, simple, we would have more students who would feel, more comfortable with using it and, and so I think that’s where we struggle the most, is just accessing the technology that will help students.
MF: Okay. About how many students do you all serve?
KP: So, between the two main campuses, because we, we consider the main campuses as the home base, right, so that would include the satellite centers, we have about 450 students,
KP: registered. Now they won’t all take classes at the same time, but they are registered with us, and we’re growing. And I think to the education system’s credit, we have more students and their parents recognizing that students can pursue higher education. They don’t have to rely on social security benefits to live on. They can dream bigger. So we have a lot of students who have autism spectrum disorders for example, where, maybe 10 years ago or less, they probably would
not have been able to fit into a college system, it just would’ve been very difficult, but now with the education system recognizing mainstream education is important, providing accommodations differently is important, meetin’ students where they are. We do have a growing number of students who feel a lot more confident and believe in themselves, and their parents believe in them, and so, they are coming to college and excited about it.
LB: That’s awesome.
LB: Do you have like a particular student in mind, maybe like a success story or someone that you met which, maybe they were struggling or?
KP: Yeah, I do. I have, so there’s one student in particular, she, was really struggling to pass math, and I think part of it, it was a combination of her having a learning disability, and her just lacking the self-confidence. And being told, y’know, it’s just not gonna happen, you’re not smart enough, or accept your limitations. And so we talked about some options. She did remediation, so she took the developmental math courses, and had to take, so there’re two levels, developmental math one, and developmental math two. She ended up taking them both about three times each.
KP: So she really struggled, and wanted to give up and had expressed the desire to give up a few times, and so I just kept encouraging her. We talked about how she might take the class by itself and how she might get the additional support that we could offer in terms of tutoring and things like that, and she just stuck, she stuck with it. And so I saw her sitting outside in the lobby, and, in Student Services, and I asked her how she was doin’ and she said passed math.
MF: Oh my gosh, woo!
LB: That’s awesome.
KP: Yeah, and so, and was moving forward so, I think for her, I don’t even know that she cares that she will eventually graduate, it was the math, right, the success of getting it done and not giving up, and not allowing something to overcome, to overwhelm her, but overcoming that obstacle. So, yeah, so I was really excited for her.
LB: That’s impressive. ’cause I
KP: Yeah, that really is.
LB: definitely would’ve given up.
KP: And I think most of us would, right? I mean it’s–
LB: Right, that’s, that’s, really, that shows some incredible determination to take it two or three times
LB: and still not be able to like, I’d be like, well I guess, I guess that’s it.
LB: That’s really cool.
MF: That’s awesome.
MF: And I’ve, I’ve been fortunate to interview, for polk.edu, a couple of your students, and y’know they always say that your office is a blessing and it really got them through, so, it’s really awesome.
KP: That’s great. And it’s an honor, quite frankly, to work with so many of them. Again they, they do the work, we’re just fortunate enough to work with them and provide them with the support they need, but they do it all.
MF: Where does your passion for helping these students come from?
KP: I think I’ve always had a passion to help, and, quite frankly, my beginning career was in the area of mental health, so, obviously mental health falls into the category of disability services, but, early on I saw myself as working with a population of people living with mental health issues, and, and doing what I could for them.
So I recognized that I can’t help everybody, but I could do what I could for them, and that allowed me to see, the spirit in people, right, and, the fact that we all want to be successful. That is sort of a commonality. We wanna be successful, we want opportunities, we want to be able to say that, y’know, we did it, we put in the effort, and recognize some benefits from that.
So when the job presented itself here, I thought about how my early experience could, could help with those students living with disabilities, and, and just the challenges that I’m familiar with. So, so I think my passion for students with disabilities has grown from a passion in helping people who are considered the underdog, and are just, I remember I was, I was working at a nursing home facility, it was sort of a high-end group home for adults who had suffered a traumatic brain injury.
And there was this one woman who would lose her false teeth once a week. It was just, it was inevitable, it was gonna happen, so we were prepared to help her look for her teeth about once or twice a week, and, and, I, I was just patient.
Other staff members would get annoyed with her, and it would get old, and she would blame us of course, because of her brain injury and, and being a senior in age, she was just in those end-stages of being paranoid and whatnot anyway, so, she would blame us for stealing her teeth.
Why we would want false teeth, I have no idea, but, but I would just be patient and pretend like this was the first time we were doing it, right? So where did you leave your teeth, y’know it’s like, let’s start looking here, and I remember she said, “You’re gonna have a better job than this one day.”
KP: “You’re gonna have a better job.” And, and so, yeah, so she, so I joke, I used to joke with Cate Igo, and say y’know, she sort of spoke it into existence for me, but, she was right, so I was like, so I think yeah, but, at y’know the, the base of things, I try to see people as individual and recognize that everybody has a story. We all have experiences that bring us to where we are, and again, we all have those common characteristics of a desire to have something better and, and the ability to work hard for it if we want it bad enough, so, so I try to work with people there.
LB: That’s awesome. So back to the teeth.
LB: Were they typically in the same place that she would lose them all the time?
KP: No, no they would usually be everywhere.
LB: Right, okay.
KP: And yeah, and so, and I didn’t even wanna know.
KP: How’d, how’d your teeth end up in the second drawer of your sweater, where you keep your sweaters, but yeah, so.
LB: So you’re really good at overcoming obstacles, and, what is it called, brainstorming, not brainstorming.
KP: Critical thinking? Problem-solving?
LB: Problem-solving, there ya go. Oh, man.
KP: I try to do what I can.
MF: Well you touched on mental health earlier, will you share with us a little bit about the BayCare Assistance Program that we have here?
KP: Absolutely. So, in addition to working with students who are living with disabilities, my office is responsible for coordinating the mental health services that we provide. So we have a contract with BayCare. BayCare, as you know, is a, is a national healthcare provider, and not only do they provide medical healthcare, but they provide mental healthcare, and here in Florida, they provide contracted services to a number of state colleges.
And so the benefit of that is, our students have access to licensed mental health professionals 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Any student can call the toll-free number, 1-800-878-5470 and speak to a licensed professional about anything that they’re going through, right? And so what we often tell students when we promote the services, we go to classrooms and we talk about what we offer, excuse me.
We try to normalize the fact that everyone’s gonna have something that comes up. I mean, ya know, if you’re living and breathing, you’re gonna have something that happens, trauma, stress, crises, so, it’s important to know that you can talk about these things even before you feel like they’ve overwhelmed you, right? And actually, the students who are more successful understand that going in, so they don’t necessarily wait until something has grown so out of proportion that they’re not even sure if they can deal with it.
They go in and talk to someone and get a feel for what the person that they’re talking to thinks they should do or, they sort of talk up the problem so that they can hear it, and try to, process is a fancy therapy word for talking about something, so that you, you’ve addressed it, and it’s not internalized, you’re not holding it in or denying that it’s there, you’ve addressed it openly. And so that really is important.
So the BayCare Student Assistance Program affords students up to three face-to-face visits, free of charge, completely confidential, and then the toll-free number, if they were to call that, they can speak to a therapist by phone for an unlimited number of times. So, it really is important because again, talking about things usually helps, even before it becomes a crisis.
You can talk about it, get someone else to help you consider options, and, and typically folks feel better. So, we really try to push and normalize that it’s better to talk about it than try to deny that it’s happening. Cate and I would say, we would never be available to students 24 hours a
day, seven days a week, I mean we just can’t, right? So the fact that the college has invested in this type of mental health program is very, very important, and so, shout-out to my supervisor Reggie Webb, for helping me to advocate for this.
I think it’s probably one of the most important services that we offer at the college in terms of, again, additional support, recognizing that students come from all walks of life, and they do need a safe, qualified person to talk to. It’s also important too, because when you think about a lot of the students that are starting off in college, being young adults, maybe not having a whole lot of experience with developing relationships, the counselor-client relationship is one that I think some students help, or use to help model what’s healthy, right, so if you’ve been talking to someone who affirms you, validates that your feelings are real and important, supports your, decisions if they’re healthy and they’re stable, and you’ve never had that, you may have never had that. Having that for the first time maybe, is significant.
So I’ve had students when I did the counseling say, y’know I don’t think I’ve ever had someone say that what I have to say is important. Or, I’ve never had someone listen to me. A lot of times people feel like they just, someone talks over them, or waits to talk, but they’re not really listening. Or, I’ve had students say, it’s good to know that I can come here and you don’t feel like, what I have to say isn’t more important than what you have to do here, right, so I don’t rush people off and, just takin’ the time with them.
So, so I know as a counselor, when I was in the role, it was an important opportunity to model healthy relationships. So I think the fact that we have the BayCare system, and they are all trained professionals that are here for our students to do that and more, is just, it’s tremendous. So I’m very, I’m very proud of what Polk State offers, and pleased that our students have that available to them.
LB: That actually extends out even to faculty and staff as well.
KP: Right, right, yeah. So, well and what’s interesting is, so faculty and staff have the Employee Assistance Program, but if a staff person is also a student, they do have access to the BayCare Student Assistance Program, so you’re right. We have the same type of service available to faculty and staff.
KP: Through our Employee Assistance Program.
LB: Yeah. Which is interesting ’cause you kind of think about, or I do, I think about maybe 20 years ago, and just like the work, the workplace in colleges, and I don’t think that mental health was
as, we weren’t as aware of, the extent of, even just simply talking to someone like you said, validating someone’s can change so much, and it’s kind of interesting to see now, I feel like there’s so many more people or students especially, like younger people, that are having anxiety problems, and stress, and the internet and all of these things, this instant gratification, has really kind of, really changed humans, I feel like. Just the stress
LB: of you’re instantly gratified, you have the world at your fingertips, and it’s like, such a quick, now what, now what, now what. It’s really interesting just to kind of see people transition into stuff like, when it gets too intense, it’s really nice that there is a program.
KP: Absolutely, and that’s a great point Leah, because I think you’re right, I mean I’m old enough to remember when we didn’t have social media, and cell phones, and, y’know, things that allowed for, folks who perpetrate, experiences like bullying, and harassment, to do it on a scale that we could only imagine years ago, right, so, it’s, it’s now, the experience of most of our students who have ever done anything or had something happen, where someone captured it on social media, and then it turned into a big thing and folks were talking about it, and so, now it’s perpetual.
You can’t, you can’t live it down, you can’t forget that it happened, and one experience that most of us can, can identify with, maybe you’re in high school and you’re not the most popular student and you didn’t get invited to someone’s party, well now that folks can put that on social media, you may not have known that you didn’t get an invitation before, but now ya know, and guess what, now you’re different.
And because you’re different, you’re an outsider, and because you’re an outsider you, you might get bullied or harassed for that, so, it is, it’s just, it’s a different generation and age, and I think it is a struggle because of those factors to, find a way to support students and reassure them that it does get better, if you can hang in there, it does get better, but, but I do think we’re fighting against that. And we’re certainly living with the reality that mental health, access to mental health, is just not where it should be, and so, we had recently, a licensed psychologist on campus during Disability Awareness Month, Dr. Jeanene Robinson-Kyles, to talk about the connection between our mental health, our state of mental health, and mass shootings in this country, and she talked about the fact that, not only do we not have the proper access, folks can’t afford medical care, so mental healthcare is just gonna be prioritized way down, but we normalize a lot of violence.
Children are exposed to violence through video games and other medias very early, so, it, it just doesn’t seem as shocking and outrageous anymore to a lot of young people. So, so if you’re already disturbed and you don’t have anyone you can talk to, or people around you are perpetrating against you, so they’re not even safe, you unfortunately get someone who considers a way out, and so they might turn to violence. Yeah.
LB: Dude, people in the ’80s had it so easy. I’m just kidding.
MF: Well, when is Disability Awareness Month?
KP: It’s in October, and so, we are looking forward to planning for this year’s Disability Awareness Month. I forget what year we’re in, but, maybe year 13? But yeah, we are very, very excited. We’ve got some things in the works, so I won’t spoil it, but I will say that we look forward to partnering with you to help us get the word out, promoting the events that we have planned, and yeah, we always look forward to educating the student population and community at large about the way folks who are living with their own limitations, challenges, obstacles, will work to overcome those, and will do it with pride and dignity and determination. So we always, we, and y’know you all are in the business of telling stories and so are we, when it comes to putting those events on. We look forward to folks sharing their success stories with our students, staff, and faculty.
MF: What are some highlights for, from the last 12 or 13 years?
KP: So we’ve had folks who developed disabilities later in life, we had a former dean from the college actually come and talk about how he had a degenerative eye disorder, and so he was not able to see after being able to see for more than half his life, eventually lost his ability to see, and so, navigating a world as a blind person, it’s just incredible, and, and most of us would feel very sorry for ourselves and get depressed, right, but he was, he was the exact opposite. He was, grateful, his loss of sight allowed him to see differently, so it was pretty metaphoric, I mean, how his disability actually allowed him to see how he was able in so many other ways. So, we’ve done that, we’ve done stories about basketball players who use wheelchairs, and they play in a semi-professional league here in Florida, and so they, they actually put on a halftime show at one of our basketball games, so that was exciting.
LB: Yeah, they were awesome.
KP: Yeah, yeah. We’ve done presentations on different services, fairs and agencies coming together to provide information about what is available. We had a blind movie critic, which was really awesome because you think about,
KP: okay, how are you able to critique a movie if you can’t see it? And so he talked about how he would wait for the music to cue him in ways that would indicate that there is a change in the scene, or, maybe danger coming, or a love scene is happening. And he was actually featured on Jimmy Kimmel I think, so it was a pretty big deal to have him on campus. So we’ve done a number of things, I mean we try to keep it interesting.
We’ve had a presentation on service animals. That’s actually really popular, like everybody wants to know, what do we about service animals, and how do we know if it’s a service animal? The long and short of it is, we really can’t require any information on a service animal, we can’t require that they have a vest, y’know, we can’t require that they have paperwork.
But what we can do is ask two questions: is this animal, is this animal required for your disability, and what has the animal been trained to do? So those are the two questions we can ask by law. Excuse me. That, that allows us to acknowledge the animal as a service animal as opposed to a pet. And so, we, we’ve provided presentations for faculty in particular and staff, because we encounter that quite a bit, and a lot of times folks are anxious, they don’t know how to respond, they don’t wanna say the wrong thing, they don’t wanna offend anyone, so we try to provide those presentations during Disability Awareness Month so that everyone’s clear and they have that information for themselves.
LB: Worst part about a service animal is you can’t pet ’em.
KP: I know.
LB: It’s so tempting.
KP: And some of ’em have those signs, please don’t pet me, I’m working, right.
LB: Aw, yeah.
KP: Yeah, but y’know, we’ve had service animals in classrooms where students have allergies, and so they can’t be in the classroom with the service animal, or an instructor has an allergy, right? And so, we have to make adjustments, as a matter of fact I have a mom who, whose daughter is gonna be attending Polk this fall, she called me because she wanted to know about our policy on
service animals, so I explained it, but I did say, if there’s an issue where your daughter’s in a class and there’s another student who has an allergy to animals in the class in the same class, what we do, and, the bottom line is we work with both of them, and we’ll find a way to accommodate them both. So, so yeah, it’s never a dull moment.
MF: You deal with a lot.
KP: Yes, I do.
MF: A constant like, problem-solving like we were saying earlier, it’s like you’re trying to help one person but that could cause a problem for someone else, then you have to keep making accommodations and, but patience–
KP: Yes. Patience.
MF: You definitely seem like the most patient person I’ve met, like ever. Through all your stories, I’m just like oh my gosh, I would’ve lost my mind already.
KP: Yeah. No, I try not to, but yeah, it’s tempting.
MF: But that’s great.
KP: Yeah, but I try not to, so.
MF: Well, where can students find you, your office or maybe on polk.edu?
KP: Yeah, so, my office is on the Lakeland campus, LTB 1273. We are currently recruiting for the coordinator position here in Winter Haven, but that office location is WAD 159, so in the meantime we will have someone there to serve students who have questions or need to drop off documentation, until we can hire someone full-time for that position. And then, by email, folks can reach out to me at kpearsall, P-E-A-R-S-A-L-L, @polk.edu, and then finally my direct number is 863-669-2309, and I actually do welcome phone calls, I think I’m one of those throwback people that I’d rather get on the phone and chat it out.
A lot of students are used to text and email, and mainly texts, but, if you wanna give me a call, I do answer, so, yeah. I would encourage anyone who has any questions about our services to do that. And, our email address, which is sort of underused, so I would encourage students to go to our website, polk.edu/disability-services.
A lot of the information that students have is there, and also on our homepage for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, there’s a lot of information there about disability services, service animals, how the college does it here to the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act, so, but yeah, folks are certainly welcome to contact me directly if they have any questions.
MF: Awesome, well thanks for joining us today.
KP: Thank you for having me, it’s been a pleasure. I’m so excited that I got to be on the show.
MF: Okay, yeah!