In more than 12 years at NIU, Debra Miller, the outgoing Director of the Disability Resource Center has seen a lot of dramatic, positive changes in how the university supports students with disabilities. Her accomplishments, and those of the center under her leadership, are reflected in her selection as this year’s winner of the Presidential Commission on Persons with Disabilities Together Forward Award. The award recognizes an NIU faculty or staff member who has demonstrated leadership, advocacy and awareness for persons with disabilities.
“Disability doesn’t discriminate at all,” Miller said. “Anybody can join our club. Anybody can be a person with a disability and join our team. So, it’s been very rewarding for me to empower students who in the past have been very marginalized. Our work is to level the playing field for them and give them the same shot at whatever their next opportunity might be, whatever their career goals are. It’s been fascinating to see the numbers of students coming into higher education who decades ago wouldn’t have been prepared for college, much less graduate school. It’s what keeps me going.”
The DRC was not new to NIU when she became director, but Miller knew that to continue to rise to the challenges of the work they were charged to do, she would need to advocate for more and better space and more staff.
“We were working from 8 a.m. until eight or nine at night, five days a week to accommodate everyone,” she said. “We were relying on a lot of student workers, which could put us in the situation of students coming in with their documentation of a medical disability and giving it to another student. We were just doing everybody’s job because we didn’t have enough people. And, we were growing. We were getting more and more students enrolling for services and we literally had no place to put them. It got to the point where we had to tell students coming in for their exam that they couldn’t come early because we had no place for them to be. Nobody likes to take tests anyway, and we were telling them that you’re going to have extended time for the exam, but you can’t come early to relax. It was horrible.”
In time, Miller worked with the administration to allocate more space and resources for the center. They were able to add staff and to expand to take over the entire fourth floor of the Health Sciences Building. The space, originally created to resemble a hospital wing, and reliant on working elevators, was not perfect, but it was an improvement.
And then, in late 2019, the center was relocated to an ideal location.
“We moved to the Campus Life Building, where we have a student lounge and we welcome students to come early, come with their friends, study before their exams, or just come hang out and have lunch,” she said. “It’s a welcoming space and we added comfortable furniture and lamps instead of fluorescent lights. It’s just a very nice space.”
In addition to improved space, the new location provides for an enhancement of services. “We doubled our testing rooms and students have more choices when they can take exams,” she said. “We have added staff and are no longer reliant on the more costly method of contracting out services. We have a full-time American Sign Language interpreter, CART providers and we can do our own Braille work and video captioning. I would say I’m a troublemaker but in a good way. I don’t make enemies. I like to build bridges.”
That “troublemaking” has always been with the benefit in mind of the more than 800 NIU students who rely on the services of the DRC each semester. Miller says students with disabilities are better prepared than ever as they enter the university. “More and more services for students with disabilities are excellent in K-12 in most places,” she said. “Those students are as well-prepared for higher education and graduate school as anyone else.”
Miller got her start as a special education teacher in Ann Arbor, Mich. She’s a certified teacher for the visually impaired and has been working with students with disabilities her entire career. And though she’s retiring from NIU this week, it does not mark an end to that career. She’s starting a new position at Loyola University Chicago. It’s not even the end of her work as a Huskie. Miller will continue to teach as an adjunct in the College of Health and Human Sciences.
As she looks back on her time at NIU she’s proud of the improvements in facilities and services the university can offer students, and she’s appreciative of the hard work that goes behind it all. She’s also thankful to have had support from multiple administrations.
“The students have the right place and the right support, now. It’s always been about the students.”