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Accessibility in Education
Can We Give Too Much?
For students with disabilities in college and universities, where do we draw the line between providing them support services and teaching them to be independent, asks Lucy Greco.
This month's topic is extraordinarily sensitive and delicate. I want to start by saying that I'm only expressing my opinion in this piece and not the opinion of anyone with whom I am affiliated.
I graduated from California State University Hayward in 1997. The ADA was only six years old and assistive technologies were nowhere near as extensive and capable as they are today.
Graduating from university seemed to be an extremely elusive target at the time. Every semester I was only able to take three classes. Two or three times I enrolled in a fourth but was never able to complete all four. I was an extraordinarily independent student according to the staff at the disabled students’ programs at the various schools I attended. They said this because I rarely went to them to find readers or for exams. When I consider the services offered to students today from various universities, I realize that if I had those types of services while in university, I could have finished much faster and possibly even gone on to earn a second or third degree.
Disabled students in postsecondary education in the United States have fantastic opportunities that nobody would have imagined 20 years ago. Almost every private and public school has staffing to support students with disabilities throughout their education. Some schools have additional resources to support students even beyond legally-mandated services.
Students with disabilities now have basic rights protected by law. A student with a reading disability is guaranteed access to their texts in a format tailored to their requirements. Students with mobility impairments are guaranteed access to classrooms and other facilities at a school that they need to use. Students with cognitive disabilities can receive accommodations that will allow them to complete their education.
I am proud to work at an institution that has always embraced its students with disabilities and helped them achieve what they want. The institution I work for receives additional funding from the Department of Education to provide non-mandated services for our students. I would argue that many of the services provided by this funding should be mandated by law. Although they are currently not, I appreciate our ability to provide these services.
Colleges provide the opportunity for young students to make the transition from childhood to adulthood. Many incoming freshman are shocked and overwhelmed by the level of Independence college demands. Few students adapt easily to the change. By graduation, most college students have not only adjusted to the independence and freedom but have become independent adults. However, students with disabilities are at a higher risk of not achieving the same independence as their peers.
Students with disabilities can become as dependent upon a disability services program as they were to their parents and the support network they had through grade school. Disabled students programs help their students negotiate their accommodations, such as accessing course materials or facilities.
Disabled student services are there to guarantee the students access. In my opinion, sometimes these programs may cause students to miss out on some of life's valuable lessons.
My philosophy when working with my students is that students should be served as efficiently as possible, with support that is effective. But the students should be deeply involved in every step of the process. This is known as the interactive accommodation process.
The interactive process fails when students are not given the ability to contribute as much as they can to the process. For example, if a disabled student services office automatically distributes accommodation letters to faculty, students can very easily avoid communicating their needs directly. By being able to effectively communicate with their faculty, students can learn how to communicate effectively in other life situations. A student who has never had to explain what accommodations they need may not even know how to clearly describe those needs.
I'm not saying that students’ instructors should not be automatically informed with an accommodation letter, but that disabled students also have the responsibility to work with their instructors to see that their needs are met.
For example, if an accommodation letter states that a student needs a room alone, I believe that the student should be responsible for working out the exact specifics with the instructor. At some point well in advance of the time when the need must be met, the student should sit down with the instructor and explain what a room alone might consist of in their situation. Can the room alone be in an office? Can the room alone have a window? Both these factors are very important. If the room alone is in an office with a ringing phone, that may be acceptable for some students but not for others. Some students may be highly distracted visually, so a window may cause problems. Others may need natural light in addition to or instead of artificial, may prefer fresh air if possible, etc., in which case a window may be preferable.
Students receiving their course materials in a specialized format should also be highly involved in the process. A disability service provider can only really determine, by using students’ documentation, what types of accommodations may be effective. However, the disability service provider needs to directly engage with the student to be sure of how that accommodation is realized.
A student with a learning disability that affects their reading may benefit from one of several assistive technologies. Only by closely working with the student to try a variety of products can the best fit be found. For example, does the student need to hear the text, do pictures distract from the content, how should mathematical formulas be represented, does the student want the footnotes in-line or somewhere else? These are just a few of the questions that must be addressed to successfully establish an accommodation.
If an alternative media center creates only identical alternative media for all students, they can't hope to serve all the students who require alternative media. Even students with the same disability may have extremely diverse needs. Students must always be directly involved with this process.
Students should also learn how to create their own alternative media. They should be provided the opportunity to experiment with the alternative media tools to create the material. If the student is not provided this opportunity, I feel they are cheated later in life.
If someone has always scanned your books for you, then after you graduate, how will you perform this basic task? The most valuable skill I learned as a student was to create my own electronic texts from hard copies. I admit, I prefer using a human reader for most of my work because I find it quicker and better for me. But knowing how to scan something quickly when no one else is around to read it to me is a skill I wouldn't give up for the world.
Some schools allow students use of assistive technology that the school owns. UC Berkeley helps students find what's best and then acquire their own. I offer assistance to any student I work with in acquiring their personal assistive technology. Students then have the opportunity to use and learn as much about the technology that they can. They are also able to apply what they used in college to their professional and personal lives.
Sadly many students are not offered these opportunities. And others who are offered these opportunities do not take advantage of them. These are the students who become dependent upon the system to provide them with their accommodations.
By learning how to communicate personally and specifically so that their individual needs may be met, and by mastering the wide range of accommodating technologies, students are better able to work and live independently. This independence creates a more fulfilling life for students and allows them greater confidence and freedom in meeting their own needs and contributing both to their own well-being and that of the entire community.
Lucy Greco is a blind advocate for accessible technology. An Assistive Technology Specialist at UC Berkeley, San Francisco Bay Area, Greco is the user of various assistive technologies since the early 1980s. She is passionate about the ways technology makes the world more accessible to everyone but especially to individuals with disabilities.
Related Blog: To Click or not to Click: Use of Clickers in Classrooms. Read here.
Related Publication: Accessible ICTs and Personalized Learning for Students with Disabilities. Download.
Related Event: April 17, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia: G3ict presents at Session "Education as a Human Right: A Conversation".