Today’s guest post is by Sandy Olson, a scientist, disability activist, and freelance writer.
Accessibility is important to create a welcoming environment for learning for all people. While aimed primarily at people with disabilities, accessibility options can benefit everyone. They can help students who do not, for whatever reason, identify as disabled. They can also help create a more comfortable atmosphere for discussion and learning. To learn more about accessibility, and accessibility statements (AS) in particular, I interviewed a number of teachers and students in the US and Canada.
Who qualifies for accommodations?
In order to get accommodations for disabilities at colleges and universities, many students need documentation from a medical doctor. Seeking documentation adds a burden on students with disabilities, who are already expending more time and energy just to attend school. Some students may not have easy access to medical care, or may have an uneasy relationship with doctors. Seeing a doctor may present a burden on finances, time, energy, and emotions. Some illnesses and disabilities are not taken seriously by the medical community, or can be difficult to diagnose, but can easily be addressed by simple accommodations in the classroom. For example, people with dysgraphia may have trouble writing longhand but have an easier time typing on a laptop.
More than one person said that working with the disability services office can be difficult. Patty, the parent of a college student with a disability, said, “it is clear that whoever is at the helm of disability services can influence services [my son] receives. Several of his teachers this semester (who already knew him) allowed him some accommodations he had had in the past but were denied [by the disability services office] this past semester.” In this way, professors and teachers can directly help students who are facing obstacles with the disability services office. Having disability services deny Patty’s son accommodations “added a layer of incredible stress for him and then us.” She notes that the institution also requires documentation in a specific format, often from an medical doctor, who is not best qualified to address issues of accommodations.
A., an undergrad at a research institution, had this to say about her disability services office: “There is one person in charge of accommodations, who can refuse them at will… The professors essentially have veto power over accommodations; if the professor says something isn’t appropriate, there is nothing a student can do to get said accommodation. The person in charge of disability services will, in my experience, always support the professor rather than the student.”
Hadassah pointed out that having a visible disability helped her get accommodations, but that being a woman, an immigrant, and disabled meant that she had to see three different people in the office of “access and diversity” at her school. Alyssa also noted that privilege matters, saying that the disability office is friendly to sier*, but “I’m white, I’m in STEM, and I do well in my classes, sometimes even without the accommodations.”
Kate, a deaf graduate student, asked for CART (live captioning) as an accommodation and had this to say: “Initially the department was hesitant but then worked with [the disability services office] and gave me a person. However, this person was not very good and couldn’t keep up. At the end of my first semester, I asked for another person and explained why. I found out later that my chair complained about this and told other faculty that he thought I didn’t need services because my grades were high. He also told them he thought I was ‘too picky and needed therapy.’! I pushed back and was eventually given a different CART person. This woman was terrific and stayed with me for the next four years.”
Some students may not even think to go to the disability services office because they do not identify as disabled, or because of stigma associated with the label, or simply out of ignorance. RHD said, “It never occurred to me to ask for accommodations when I was diagnosed with first one and then another chronic illness that hampered my ability to do my work in grad school. I never went to the disability services office. I should have. My therapist and doctor, at the university health centre, never suggested it either”. A student with a temporary problem such as a broken leg might not consider his problem a disability, even though he has trouble with the stairs and icy sidewalks, and elevators are difficult to locate, causing him to be late for class and may need different seating. Furthermore, pregnancy is not a disability, but pregnant students and those with infants can benefit from more accessible classrooms.
Given these difficulties, many students who could benefit from increased accessibility in classrooms may not have official accommodations through the disability services office. To help these students succeed teachers could increase accessibility in their classrooms, starting with creating a thoughtful, welcoming accessibility statement on their syllabi. Many institutions have a “boilerplate” statement that teachers are encouraged or required to use, but some of the people I interviewed expanded upon required language to create wonderful and welcoming AS on their syllabi. Ashley Shew said: “I usually put something about religious observances that might need accommodation” and “learning styles or unusual needs even if they are not documented with Services for Students with Disabilities.”
Dr. Alexis Lothian’s excellent AS for LGBTQ studies is available online. It states in part
I believe in the principles of universal design, which state that maximizing accessibility for participants with disabilities improves learning environments for everyone. I try to minimize barriers posed by course structures and materials, and I will do my best to work with any student who requires specific accommodations for a disability.
Here is an example of a well-thought out disability statement, submitted by Teacher RHD (I have edited it slightly for length).
We all require accommodations to make our class space accessible, because we all learn in different ways. Please feel free to manage your classroom experience in the way that is best for you. You may make audio recordings of lectures, take pictures of the board, sit wherever you like in the classroom, use a laptop or other device, bring in food or beverages, leave the classroom when necessary, etc. The [disability services office] website has resources and technologies to help you manage your learning environment. If you believe that I should know about your disability status, please feel free to discuss it with me. I will notify you in advance if any of our assigned course readings/viewings contain images or discussion of sexual assault or graphic violence. Students who want transcripts for audio/visual material should let me know asap so that I can make them. If there is something I can do to create a more comfortable learning environment for you, please never hesitate to ask (eg, “can you speak slower/louder/more clearly?” or “can you make the image brighter/more high-contrast?” or “can you ask Jack to wear less cologne in class?”), even if you’re not registered with [the disability services office]. Please be respectful of your fellow students. Avoid interrupting your classmates, bringing strong smells or common allergens into the classroom, and blocking the aisles or doorway.
Having an accessibility statement and policies can also benefit the teacher. RHD said “It makes me aware and reminds me that students don’t all come to my class with the same history, abilities, sets of tools, or standards of behaviour, and that helps me shift my response to what would traditionally be called “problem” students (students who interrupt, who aren’t aware of how much space they take up in class discussion, who don’t focus on the assigned work, etc.) from annoyance to a recognition that the classroom environment isn’t currently giving them what they need.”
Accessibility options in classrooms
Professors and teachers can make their own classrooms more accessible using fairly simple methods. As I have found in doing access work, the most important aspect is attitude. Are you willing to at least try and accommodate people’s requests? Most people have to screw up their courage to ask for something like a change in seating, an extension, or to ask to record a lecture. As noted above, disability services offices can be unhelpful or even hostile places. If a teacher establishes herself as a friendly, accommodating person, this barrier to asking will be lowered, and more students will end up succeeding in the classroom.
Two teachers noted that the one accommodation they struggle to provide was captions or transcripts. RHD said, “It’s a lot of work to make subtitles for every audio/video clip I play, since I like using contemporary, up-to-date pop-culture-y references to help introduce or explain a given lesson, and thus have to make them a lot.”
I would argue that this is something that should be institutionalized or paid for by the university. Disability laws already require that creators of source material include captions; unfortunately there are no teeth to these laws. This remains a problem in need of greater advocacy and activism.
Neil Simpkins said that having a accessibility options “has helped me understand the lives of my students–disabled and not–in a very different way. With the extension policy, for example, I’ve had more than one student say, ‘You’re the only instructor I’ve had who openly offered extensions, and since I had a huge Actuarial Science exam the day before the paper was due (or something like this) it really helped me do my best work.’”
When I asked people where they had learned about accessibility, Neil mentioned the work of disability scholar Margaret Price, specifically the book “Mad at School”. Alexis Lothian also cited Dr. Price and credited WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention that she and I both attend. She said, “I changed the name of it from “disability” to “accessibility” and started adding my own language after attending the feminist science fiction convention WisCon a few times. Disability access is central to every part of the way WisCon is organized, and seeing how that worked – how making room for members’ diverse access needs created a space that was more welcoming and open to difference than any I had encountered before. I wanted to bring some of that openness into my classroom, and I wanted my students to feel that their participation was welcome regardless of their particular needs or learning styles.”
I had the opportunity to hear Margaret Price speak at the Society for Disability Studies conference in 2014. She uses an accessibility statement in her talks that encourages people to do whatever they need to do in order to make themselves comfortable and able to concentrate: this can include stimming, playing games on a laptop, moving around, etc. It was amazing to hear this, even at a disability conference. I feel strongly socialized not to do such things while listening to a talk; we are culturally expected to sit still and quiet, even if that makes our symptoms worse. At SDS I felt more comfortable to do things like move a chair in front of me as a foot rest, and wear sunglasses to guard against fluorescent lights, but it is amazing to hear such a statement spoken aloud from the speaker you are listening to. Some of the people interviewed pointed out that it is best to cover the accessibility statement during class, so that students are sure to notice it.
Some professors and teachers may worry that students will take undue advantage of generous accessibility policies; however, this skeptical attitude towards students has led to a generally unfriendly and even hostile feeling towards disabled students, who are told that they have to prove they are disabled in order to get accommodations that they need, and even then, may not get them anyway. RHD says, “I have encountered many professors who believe that students with disabilities are just being lazy, or aren’t trying hard enough, or deserve to be reprimanded or yelled at.”
It is actually radical to believe people when they say that they need something or can’t do something. If a teacher feels that students are taking undue advantage of accessibility policies, I suggest that be managed on a case-by-case basis.
I encourage professors or teachers to adopt accessibility statements and access-friendly attitudes in their classrooms and workplaces. If you would like to share your own accessibility statement, or a story about how more accessible policies have benefitted you, please do so in the comments. You can learn more about accessibility at the Geek Feminism Wiki or by contacting me (sandphin at gmail dot com).
*“sie/sier/siers” are Alyssa’s pronouns.
Thank you to everyone who agreed to be interviewed for this article, and thank you to @TheoriesofMinds, Mellivora, and Jesse the K for help with editing.