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5 Suggestions Concerning Disability, Accommodation, and the College Classroom

Over the last several weeks, as part of a research project on braille literacy, I’ve been talking with various people who are visually impaired or completely blind. I’ve learned a great deal about living with a disability, and because many of our conversations have covered classroom experiences, I’ve also learned some things about what it’s like to be a student with a disability.

This is not to say that all disabilities are alike, mind you, or that all people with the same disability experience life in the exact same way. However, I’m pretty sure there are enough common elements to allow us to make a few general observations.

Below, I suggest 5 ways in which we can better meet the needs of our students with disabilities.

1. Try to understand more fully what it’s like to have that particular disability

Specifically, what is it like to be a student with that disability on your campus? Talk with your student(s), talk with your office of disability support services, and talk with your library staff. There are a handful of really simple things to keep in mind.

Get a better understanding of what it takes for your students to get from one classroom to the next. Braille signage is important, for example. (Have someone proofread the braille. Trust me on this one, okay?) Students who use canes, or wheelchairs, or leg braces, or who have asthma might need a little extra time, so be tolerant of chronic tardiness in these situations.

Blind or visually impaired students need access to course texts in a format that will work with a screen reader (software that reads aloud electronic text) or with screen enlargement software. Note that scanned PDF’s will be useless with a screen reader; publishers sometimes provide these PDFs, but if they’re just images (rather than text) there’s no easy way to turn the written words into sound electronically. You should also know that BlackBoard is all but impossible to use for people who access the web with a screen reader. And Flash animations are not recognized by screen reading software, so any publisher sites that have quizzes or other information delivered through Flash aren’t going to be helpful to your blind students.

Deaf students need sign language interpreters, and you’ll need to position yourself so that the interpreter can hear you clearly and (perhaps) so that the deaf student can see your lips move as you speak. If possible, make sure any videos you assign (or show in class) have captions.

Students with mobility issues will often need a special desk or more room around their desk than your other students. Ideally, disability support services will make the necessary adjustments, but in case they don’t you should be aware of these needs.

2. Don’t expect anything less from the students with disabilities

It’s important for us to abandon the idea that students who claim to have a disability (documented or not) are somehow trying to scam us or get by through doing less. Again and again, the people I’ve spoken with about braille literacy have told me how much they’ve disliked being treated as any different than the other students with whom they’ve taken classes. It’s awkward, and it feels patronizing. Instead, they just want an environment that meets their needs as well it meets the needs of other students.

That said, sometimes you’ll be asked to provide students with additional time to complete an assignment. Why? Consider the standard research paper assignment. Your library may or may not be equipped with the assistive technologies that students with disabilities need, which makes using academic databases and other digital resources difficult. For the sighted student, finding and reading an article from JSTOR (to pick one example among many) is not especially time consuming. For the blind or visually imapired student, however, every step takes significantly more time: a PDF image will have to be read aloud and recorded by someone else or else be OCR’ed, then proofread, then converted to synthezized speech by a screen reader.

So recognize that students with disabilities will not necessarily complete the assignments in the exact same way as other students, but they should still be expected to complete the assignments. Anything less is condescending.

3. Think creatively about how best to respond to the students’ needs

Maybe you could come up with assignments that fulfill the same learning outcomes but through different means. Talk with your office of disability support services, your colleagues, and your students to see if they have ideas for alternative assignments. For example, could you partner a sighted student with a blind student to make the research process go more quickly? Could you partner a hearing student with a deaf student and ask them to share their notes from class lectures and discussions?

4. Stop worrying about the “documented” part of the disability

This is the suggestion I’m least confident about because I think you could get into trouble if you take it too far, but here goes. Usually, the campus office of disability support services will require official medical documentation from students who make use of their services. This is good institutional practice, certainly, but it rubs me the wrong way even as I understand the necessity.

Not everyone can afford the kind of medical coverage that will result in an “official” status as disabled through the testing and diagnosis provided by a medical professional. This is especially true when it comes to cognitive disabilities like dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and affective disorders like depression. If we only accommodate the needs of students with “documented” disabilities, then we’re not accommodating the needs of our students from certain socioeconomic background where such documentation is out of reach.

Speaking only for myself, I’d work with any student who came to me, regardless of their “documented” status, and asked to have their needs accommodated within reason. For the most part, I believe, we do this anyway: extending a deadline here, allowing an extra revision there. But I expect all students to tell me up front and at the beginning of class about what kinds of accommodations they need; I am less tolerant of last minute (or after-the-deadline) explanations or requests.

5. In some situations, have fun learning about all the cool gadgets

My research into braille literacy has opened up an entire world of hardware and software I never knew existed, and much of it is pretty darned cool. If asked just to name two, among many, I’d point to the KNFB mobile devices (essentially cellphones that do a great many useful things for blind users) and refreshable braille displays.

In the video below from DingoAcess, Bruce Maguire demonstrates a refreshable braille display and explains why it’s his preferred method for experiencing electronic text.

For a geek like me, this is heaven.

What about you?

How would you rate your campus office of disability support services? Does your library have adequate assistive technology? What suggestions do you have for how to better meet the needs of your students with disabilities?

[Creative Commons licensed image from http://icons.anatom5.de/]

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