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AIKEN, SC (09/28/2018) A longtime supporter of the University of South Carolina Aiken partnered with a fellow champion for persons with disabilities to provide a haven on campus that is singularly focused on student success.

Louise Skalko, a former Aiken resident who now lives in Johnson City, Tenn., has committed her time, talent and resources to ensuring students with disabilities have the tools they need to reach their educational goals. To that end, she has worked closely with institutions in at least three states, creating educational spaces that meet the unique needs of students with disabilities.

Most recently, she funded the establishment of the Louise Skalko and Sam Creech Disabilities Services Center on the USC Aiken campus. For many years, the university has provided a center dedicated to this student segment. With Skalko's investment, USC Aiken has increased the space and expanded the services provided to assist these students in their academic pursuits. When it came time to open the newly named center, the longtime educator and advocate for persons with disabilities insisted the center include the name of her colleague, fellow champion and friend, Sam Creech.

Creech, an alum of USC Aiken, was bound to a wheelchair for his entire life due to cerebral palsy. The two met when they were faculty members at Augusta Tech.

Both believed it important to provide the services and considerations unique to persons of disabilities.

The director of the center at USC Aiken campus can now enhance the support she and her staff provide almost 200 students with documented disabilities. This resource is available to both graduate and undergraduate students.

"Each year, we are seeing more and more students in higher ed who have benefited from equal access," said Dr. Claudette Palmer, director of the Dr. Louise Skalko and Sam Creech Disabilities Services Center.

"In the past, many students were not able to make it to the university because of their disabilities, but now, with accommodations, they are able to be very successful. Our numbers continue to grow each year."

Palmer says colleges and universities provide accommodations and facilitate access so that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate in and enjoy the benefits of all programs, services, and activities offered by the institution. Offices like the one at USC Aiken help ensure institutions provide reasonable accommodations in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act that prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability.

"The Office of Disability Services works with students and faculty members to coordinate accommodations and services in the classroom," she said.

Some of the services provided include: proctoring exams, writing accommodation plans to address a specific disability, use of technology as well as other aids and equipment to assist with "leveling the playing field." Extended time for testing and a distraction-reduced environment are among the most commonly used services.

"At times, they need a more quiet atmosphere where they have an easier time maintaining focus," Palmer said. "The services provided to students with disabilities are designed to accommodate a specific disability.

"Accommodations are tailored to the needs of the student addressing the nature and characteristic of their specific disability. At times, they may need access to specific hardware or software that is not available in other areas."

Additionally, thanks to the commitments of Skalko and Creech, Palmer now has a separate office space for private conferences with parents, visitors and students.

"The gift from the donor has allowed me to provide a place that is conducive to the needs of students and guests as well as ensure a greater level of confidentiality by having a separate office outside the busy Assistive Technology Center," Palmer said.

"This gift has also allowed us to move to a space that provides a quieter location and a layout that will allow for fewer distractions when students are testing."

The intangible benefits are just a valuable as the educational advantages. The center's open-door policy allows students to bond with one another as well as provide them with a "safe haven" to unwind, do homework, take exams and communicate with peers and staff.

"The center, as well as Dr. Palmer, has provided support for my educational goals by working with me to succeed academically by ensuring that my accommodations are fulfilled in the center as well as in the classroom," said Destiny Willis, a graduate student in the applied clinical psychology program.

"Disability services has been helpful for me to accomplish and overcome my academic struggles while providing a nonjudgmental and stigma-free atmosphere, which has been extremely relevant to my professional goals as a future mental health provider.

"I am proud to use the resources provided from the disability services office and hope that other students who may need academic accommodations to take full advantage of this amenity."

One special education major has found a home away from home in the newly minted center.

"This enables me to complete homework, study for, and complete exams in an atmosphere that is quiet and conducive to these activities, and this has enabled me to complete these tasks in an effective and thorough manner, and enabled me to excel academically," said Tim Jackson, Class of '20.

"The disability services office has provided me with opportunities to interact with my peers, who, like me have a disability. I have met some exceptional people who have proffered me sage advice on topics ranging from which courses to take, to the best way to take notes in classes, and how to advocate for the accommodations that I need.

"Finally, the disability services office has provided me with a 'home-away-from-home' here on campus. Dr. Claudette Palmer, who serves as the disability services coordinator, Ms. Sandra Robinson, who serves as her full-time assistant there, and the student employees who work there are never too busy to speak with, or assist students who utilize this center."