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Dropping the Ball on Disabilities

April 2, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS -- New college students with disabilities are often insecure. Navigating a complicated bureaucracy for the first time with far less institutional support than they had in high school, these students often must overcome stigma and ignorance surrounding their disabilities and advocate for themselves, which they're often not used to doing. The alternative: risk not getting the tools they need to succeed academically.

That's difficult enough. But some people make it harder.

"I literally had a professor say, 'Well, I've never had a student of that kind before, so I don't know what to do,' " one college employee said here Tuesday at the American College Personnel Association's annual conference. "But the student was standing right there ready to take their test. It felt so violating."

At a session here exploring what students with physical and psychological disabilities have to say about their collegiate experiences, it was clear that professors have a lot of learning to do.

"I have faculty who are more dismissive of something like bipolar disorder than they would be of something like cerebral palsy," one attendee said. Because the affliction is psychological rather than physical, she said, "they don't see it as being as challenging."

But the student affairs and services staff in the room blamed themselves, in part. One person admitted it's "embarrassing" that his small private college does not offer any disabilities service training to workers in the campus writing center.

The situation is so bad on some campuses that one student said it feels like "a luxury" when professors and staff actually work with them. Other times, students will simply go without the necessary accommodation, whether it's extra time on an exam or keeping a therapy dog in the dorm.

"Learning should be a right, not a luxury," said Jackie Koerner, the Saint Louis University graduate assistant who presented a literature review and some of her own dissertation research at the session. "Many faculty members say they would love to present these options to students, they just don't know what's appropriate."

The siloed, dispersed nature of higher education institutions means getting students with disabilities the accommodations they need can be complicated. So rather than a professor approaching the disabilities services office every time he or she needs, say, a textbook converted to digital, campus staff should work to make sure everything is accessible to everyone. (It's called universal instructional design.)

That way, there will be no more requiring disabled students to move to the front of the classroom when a lecture starts, or asking in front of everyone whether they need email versions of today's lecture (to use two more examples from Tuesday). Just always use a microphone and make sure (as Koerner does) that all the text is on Blackboard already.

It'd be a good way to help those with disabilities, of course, but also might not be a bad idea from the institutional liability perspective. In a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department last year, Louisiana Tech University agreed to stop using and purchasing learning materials that limit access for students with visual disabilities. Experts said the conclusion of the lawsuit, which alleged that the university violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, signaled a broader shift in the extent to which colleges are expected to address accessibility. (The ADA doesn't require that students with disabilities receive accommodations, just that they have equitable access.)

Students with disabilities report having a rough first year academically as they transition to a new learning environment, Koerner said, but also have trouble making social connections with professors, staff members and peers. They worry that others won't -- or don't, as the above examples demonstrate -- accept their needs as a learner, and often they end up moving closer to home or to another, perhaps two-year, institution.

Two-thirds of college students don't receive accommodations simply because their colleges don't know about their disabilities, according to studies Koerner cited.

Many ACPA attendees were surprised to learn that the law does not require medical documentation of a student's disability in order for the college to provide an accommodation, and speculated that the misconception might contribute to students' unwillingness to disclose.

"You don't just take someone's word for it -- the documentation is the interview process for classroom accommodations," one person said. But if the need for accommodation isn't clear through the interview alone, the college may request documentation.

Joint initiatives between offices and departments could help disseminate information more efficiently and effectively, Koerner said. She also suggested creating "safe zones" where students can go to relax and talk to a counselor if they feel overwhelmed. The concept has been popular for gay and lesbian students and those with autism.

"If we just provide the information, they will come," Koerner said -- and in turn, lighten the load for the practitioners. "The disability services offices on our campuses are so overwhelmed with accommodation requests, and they are small offices. They cannot possibly support the needs of training the entire campus."

 

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