People with disabilities of all kinds represent nearly 1/5 of the US population. Regardless of the visibility of their condition, the size of your university or classes, or whether you are an instructor or a student, you will at some point share a classroom with someone who is disabled. Census data reveals that up to 15% of graduate students have reported some form of disability, so an important topic in academia in STEM and across all fields of study is accessibility in the classroom. I attended a fantastic seminar hosted by the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) about disability in education and it really got me thinking, so this will be the first of a series of posts that discuss various aspects of accessibility in a classroom setting.
A primary bridge to accessibility for the student is requesting accommodations. It might seem pretty straightforward – if you’re a disabled student in need of accommodations, just speak with the professors, and if you’re the one teaching, modify things as needed when a student comes to you to discuss their needs. If only it were that simple. With something as sensitive, complex and variable as disability, the bottom line is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to making a learning environment accessible. Something that is accessible for one person may not be for another; you could talk to a hundred people with the exact same diagnosis and every one of them could need different accommodations. To improve classroom accessibility it is critical that underlying accessibility issues are understood.
For one thing, students may be afraid to go to the professor and ask for accommodation, especially if they are first year or first generation students. It can be intimidating to approach a complete stranger who is in a position of power to discuss ones need for assistance. Even if it is not intended, a student may feel pressure to disclose more information about their conditions than they are comfortable doing so because they worry about whether they will be believed or taken seriously. Additionally, a disheartening reality is that some professors do not take accommodations seriously, make the student feel bad for asking, and even refuse to provide them. In the past I have been told by professors not to sign up for a class without even discussing ways to try and make the class for me, which is incredibly frustrating and demeaning.
A second issue is that students requesting accommodations don’t want to be treated differently or viewed as getting special attention or advantages by their peers or professors. Social repercussions may surface if a student’s peers feel as though the accommodations are giving the student an unfair advantage. The main reason this
problem exists is because most people have a distorted view of how accommodations work. To improve clarity and transparency, consider the graph to the right. We are going to pretend it represents a common accommodation, such as extra time to take an exam. If a typical student only gets 60 minutes to take and exam and a disabled one gets 120, many would view this as an unfair advantage. In reality, a disabled student may have decreased fine motor skills, difficulty with reading and comprehension, or vision impairments. This means not only that their baseline or starting point to complete the exam is lower than in a typical student, but that the 120 minutes they get to take a test are equivalent to the typical students 60. Accommodations don’t provide an advantage, but rather level the playing field so all students, regardless of ability are able to succeed.
A third issue involves the resources provided by the university itself. Most universities have some form of student disability services program, where they are able to formally request accommodations and are backed up in case there is an access issue. The only downside to these programs is that the process of establishing formal accommodations can often be lengthy or difficult. Many universities require documentation from doctors, which may be hard to get if you can’t get an appointment or if they take a long time to return it. Additionally, this imposes a major issue for students without health insurance; if they’re unable to see a doctor because they can’t afford it, they aren’t able to establish accommodations. Because of these issues one of the best things you can do if you’re teaching is being open to providing accommodations even if they aren’t formally reported.
So with all these considerations, how can you improve classroom accessibility? A simple first step is an accessibility statement. Just like a syllabus has sections about the course material, expectations and lab safety, you can include a statement about your approach to providing accommodations. One of the most important parts is making it clear that you are open and inviting to providing students with the help that they need and that
you are willing to solve problems as they appear. This past summer I took a field mammalogy course and inherently, any field course is going to have limited accessibility. But I emailed the professors teaching it, Dr. Phil Myers and Dr. Joseph Bump and they were 100% on board for figuring out a way to make this course a possibility for me. They went to great lengths to assure that my experience was the same as the able-bodied students I shared the class with. This is the type of inclusion that I challenge any professor to achieve – it makes a huge difference.
Another critical component of an accessibility statement is assuring that the students’ privacy will be respected. Some students may choose to share more detail about their conditions and needs while others may simply state that they have a condition and need accommodations for it. They are under no obligation to disclose their medical history, and even paperwork from a disability services office doesn’t typically list specific conditions. Yes, there is the chance of people abusing this approach to not requiring paperwork and giving the students privately. A student could ask for things like the extra test time even though they aren’t disabled. It simply comes down to whether you want to risk denying accommodations to a student that is disabled simply because other students have cheated the system. Trust in the fact that the people who take the time to discuss accommodations are the ones who truly need them.
An accessibility statement tells students from the first day of class that you are dedicated to assuring that all of your students succeed, regardless of their ability. There are a lot of ways that you can improve classroom accessibility but this is a good place to start. So next time you are preparing a syllabus, consider adding an accessibility statement, and stay tuned for future posts about access in the classroom.