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A reader writes … By Dean A. Leptich

April 23, 2001

Imperial Valley College had the first comprehensive disabled student services program in any college or university in the United States.

Until the mid-1970s, there were limited opportunities in higher education for persons with disabilities. In 1972, IVC led the way.

As a typical American college or university, IVC had no program or understanding of people with special disability needs. The campus was not wheelchair-accessible. We could identify no student or former student who was wheelchair-bound, vision- or hearing-impaired.

The student body at IVC was a microcosm of college students everywhere in the late 1960s. They were restless and wanted to express themselves during the "days of student unrest" and Vietnam; and we, the administration, were looking for a program to create student focus.

As a student personnel administrator, I was helping the staff "brainstorm" ideas to involve our students, when, as if by magic, in 1970 the federal government offered a national grant opportunity for new and creative programming.

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I hoped to make magic happen by writing the first grant ever written by any member of the IVC college staff. We applied for a staff position to work with "handicapped" students. It was not funded, but the concept was in place. Luck was with us!

The California Legislature had recently structured the first California Community College Board of Governors and my morning coffee friend, Bill Dillard, was selected to serve on the board. I had his ear, particularly since I had suggested his nomination by our college Board of Trustees. We then invited the newly appointed chancellor to be our college commencement speaker, and he invited us to rewrite the federal grant as a proposal to the Board of Governors. I was invited to attend and testify at one of their first meetings and, among their initial new programs, they established a funding base for handicapped student programming.

Following my personal appearance at their meeting, the college had approval for a full-time professional staff member.

We quickly had everything in place and in 1972, we hired Mel Wendrick to become our first director. He was a polio victim and with a strong understanding of the new educational and social issues. He served in that capacity for 26 years. With his leadership, we created an outstanding comprehensive disabled students' program. Now, at the turn of the millennium, every public college and university in the nation has some type of program for disabled students.

IVC's commitment has been to enhance the college experience through the commitment to Disabled Students Programs and Services providing individuals with disabilities the opportunity to participate in a broad range of educational activities. IVC offers a comprehensive program of support services, as well as accessible facilities to meet the students' needs. Students receive assistance from specialized personnel for a physical disability, visual impairment, deafness and the services can include counseling, pre-registration, career exploration, note takers, interpreters, tutors, proctored exams and specialized equipment.

Everyone agreed that the IVC disabled students program, developed in the 1970s, focused around Bertha Melgoza. Bertha, our first blind student, was so outstanding that in 1973 she was

selected as student of the year in the California community colleges. She is now Dr. Bertha Melgoza, Yale Medical School-trained and a clinical psychologist practicing in La Jolla.

The successes of Bertha helped us understand that every current and prospective student, at all levels of education, has the right to receive an education. When you accept this premise, magic can happen for disabled people.

DEAN A. LEPTICH is a retired IVC teacher and administrator now living in La Mesa.

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