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Massey Award: Thomas makes a difference in an accessible campus

This is the second in a series on the four winners of the 1996 Massey Award.

With a “yes, we can” philosophy, Laura D. Thomas has guided the University’s disability services office since she was a master’s student in 1978.

“That’s how disabled students were served then, by using a second-year student assistant studying rehabilitation counseling in what then was called the Department of Special Programs,” she said.

The next year, Thomas assumed the newly created position of coordinator for handicapped student services and assistant dean in the Department of Student Life under Fred Schroeder, dean of students. In 1984, she became the director of disability services, still in the Department of Student Life. Four years ago, her unit’s name was changed to Department of Disability Services to reflect the increasing scope of services provided.

“Mrs. Thomas has directed the provision of services for a population that has grown during the past 18 years from an initial level of less than 50 students to a current population of more than 300,” Schroeder said. “Her work has spanned 24 hours of the day and 365 days of the year.”

Thomas said her department worked with the University to assure that all programs and facilities were accessible to everyone within the University community. The role has changed over the years to include providing assistance to all campus visitors as well as students, she said.

Colleagues say Thomas has adapted her role to the University’s changing needs with enthusiasm and vigor–one reason she was selected to receive a 1996 C. Knox Massey Award for distinguished service.

“She has been the load bearer and the spear point of the University’s facilitative assistance to handicapped persons,” the citation said. “She has done her task with patience, whatever the difficulties, and with a saving wry, self-deprecating humor.

“She has held the institution to proper standards of concern, and she has led those with disabililties to a proper understanding of their opportunities and their responsibilities within the University community.”

To accomplish this, Thomas wears many hats.

As the students’ advocate, she helps disabled students pre-register for courses, making sure classrooms are accessible to the handicapped and that students with mobility problems allow enough time to get from one class to another. She helps them select appropriate housing and works with the University libraries to coordinate student services.

Through the General College, Thomas serves as adviser both to students with disabilities and those without disabilities.

Donald C. Jicha, professor of chemistry and associate dean of the General College, said Thomas always gave 110 percent to the numerous students she advised.

Whenever visitors with disabilities come to campus–as prospective students or their family members, as conference participants or as tour takers–Thomas’ office handles their needs.

Sometimes that requires finding a sign-language interpreter or offering a special tour that approximates the regular campus tour but doesn’t include steps. Other times it involves coordinating TDD services for the hearing impaired.

Whatever the problem, Thomas and her staff tackle it with patience, understanding and perseverance.

“Starting as a graduate student, Laura has been the first and only director for disability services for this campus,” said Edith M. Wiggins, interim vice chancellor for student affairs. “While she is employed in student affairs to give direction to our program for students with disabilities, she has made herself and her staff available to assist disabled employees and visitors.

“She has been an advocate for disabled people on campus and in the community.”

Thomas credits the success of her office with the cooperative spirit of the campus community.

“Our office is interdependent in working with other areas of campus,” she said. “We work with the Physical Plant, Telecommunications, and Facilities Planning and Design as they schedule renovations and repairs.”

For example, she said, when a building elevator is scheduled for repair, Thomas receives a call from maintenance asking which days and times are best for the elevator to be out of commission.

In addition, she said, the faculty, the University’s legal staff and the Equal Opportunity Office all lend their support to provide disability services for the campus.

“I’ve been incredibly impressed and grateful for the University community that has supported our department over the years, both financially and in terms of quick response to problems,” Thomas said. “Without this campuswide support, we would not be able to do our jobs.”

Co-workers say without Thomas’ commitment, the University would not be as effective in meeting the needs of disabled students and visitors.

“I am personally aware of the near limitlessness of Laura Thomas’ will and patience in helping students address difficult situations,” Schroeder said. “She has the ability to assess the circumstances presented, define an appropriate plan of assistance and then to administer that service, quite often on behalf of students whose needs are constantly changing.”

Thomas said her greatest reward was watching the students mature and develop, to become self-advocates who were aware of their independence.

Wiggins called Carolina’s program a model for the entire UNC system and attributed Thomas’ leadership to its success.

“I can’t think of another employee on campus who has had such a tremendous impact on the University, the community and the region,” Wiggins said.

Originally published by University Gazette: May 22, 1996

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