In 1998, Amy Capolupo failed a pre-calculus class. Capolupo had struggled with reading, writing and math her entire life. Words on a page appeared jumbled, math problems were non-sequential. Sometimes she needed friends to read her assignments and edit her papers. Her grades that fall, her first semester at the University of Montana, were so poor she was at risk of losing her financial aid. When Capolupo was told by the university to visit the Disability Services for Students she feared her college career might be over.
"I wanted no part of it. I thought that those services were part of a system designed to keep me down," she says today. "It meant I was a failure. I was stupid for having to go to that office."
Despite herself, she went to DSS, which then was located in the basement of Corbin Hall, a converted dormitory that houses the offices of adjunct professors, teaching assistants and miscellaneous administrators. She remembers exposed pipe hanging from the ceiling, buzzing fluorescent lights and a "weird ominous tapping" (she later learned it was the sound of the then-DSS director using a white cane).
She met with DSS student coordinator Mary Morrison and Capolupo calls the conversation they had eye-opening. "She told me that learning disabilities are a real thing and that there was no systematic plot to keep me down in life," Capolupo says. She recalls Morrison drove the point home with simple questions: "How many hours a week do you spend on your math homework? How many hours did you spend failing?"
Nearly 15 years later, Capolupo calls that day a "life changing moment." She wasn't intellectually less-than. The rules that governed her learning processes were just different. She started to think about learning disabilities not as a category of limitations but as a matter of civil rights. Capolupo says that day set her life on a new trajectory. On March 17 she was named the director of DSS.
Capolupo made the transition from DSS student to staffer 10 years ago. In 2003, she applied to the UM School of Social Work. Her GRE scores were poor (the GRE, she says, has some catching up to do when it comes to disability services), and, despite a marked improvement in her grades since her first semester, her undergraduate transcript was less than stellar. She was waitlisted. But Capolupo remained persistent. She argued with the department chair that her transcript reflected a lack of access to educational tools, not a lack of capability or hard work. The chair was moved and Capolupo was accepted.
Her graduate school adviser, Charlie Wellenstein, remembers Capolupo as a student whose determination to overcome her challenges doubled as an act of advocacy. "In the past, Amy had a difficult time in school, but once she realized that it was possible, all it took was hard work. And hard work never bothered Amy," he says. "She's a strong personality, and she's not going to back down."
In 2004, during her second year at the School of Social Work, Capolupo worked as an intern at DSS as part of her practicum. She has been there ever since.
Today, Capolupo feels UM is "on the right track" when it comes to equal opportunity for students with learning impairments, but she says there is still work to be done. One issue has to do with access. Of the roughly 1,200 UM students registered with DSS, Capolupo says that about 400 use "screen reader" software, which reads computer documents out loud (Capolupo herself uses a program called JAWS). But the software is not yet ubiquitous in UM classrooms. Just last fall the Alliance for Disability and Students at the University of Montana, along with a number of individual UM students, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, claiming that large portions of UM course work is inaccessible to students with disabilities. Capolupo says every computer on campus needs to have reader software and that every online assignment needs to be compatible with those programs.
But in terms of problems, access to technology is relatively solvable (she hopes every computer will have "reader" software by next fall). A less simple fix is dealing with what Capolupo calls "attitudinal challenges." She says students with disabilities are sometimes reluctant to use DSS, and faculty members are too often unaware of the services that are available. Capolupo says this boils down to changing the way people think, and as with any civil rights issue, it will take time. "The goal is for faculty members to do what they do best," she says, "but to do it for all students."
Wellenstein agrees that he and his colleagues are "trying hard" to make learning accessible for everyone, but changing UM's culture will be a slow process.
At the beginning of each semester, Wellenstein hands out a syllabus that includes a paragraph explaining that if any student requires special accommodations to let him know. He says UM still has work to do until such a paragraph is no longer necessary. "It should just be there. A student with those needs should be able to come into a classroom without ever having to ask for accommodations. The process should be seamless," he says before admitting, "but I have no idea what that will look like. That's Amy's job."