Exclusive Insights from Author of New Book on Accessibility in Higher Ed 

By: Sarah Roberts
students on campus in the autumn

As the fall semester begins, educators and institutional leaders now have a new resource at their fingertips. Associate Dean of Student Accessibility and Academic Resources at Tufts University, Kirsten Behling, published a helpful book that provides a much-needed template and guidance for how professionals in higher education can better approach accessibility on their campuses and online.  

The book, Disability Services in Higher Education: An Insider’s Guide, was coauthored by experts at Suffolk University, Salem State College, Fidelity Investments and the Association of American Medical Colleges.    

“The book had been a dream for about 10 years,” said Behling. “There was no how-to manual of how to do disability services. The community is so strong, and we’re often all trying to figure it out in the moment. We wanted to create a foundational guide, we wanted documents and resources that people could use today.” 

Verbit’s team spoke with Behling to get insights on her findings and ways to prepare university leaders and faculty as they head back to school and plan for the following semester. 

Highlighting the complex role of accessibility officers 

Behling noted that professionals working in disability and accessibility services need to collaborate with just about every department on campus to be effective. However, coordinating cross-institutional efforts continues to come with challenges.  

“Very few people in your institution truly understand what accessibility professionals do,” said Behling. “We must work across lines at all times.” 

Whether it’s athletics, student housing or university events, accessibility professionals must play a role in making these experiences more inclusive and educating their institutional peers on what they need to do so. There are still real knowledge gaps cross-campus in understanding which accommodations to make and how to make them. 

Behling noted that disability experts shouldn’t shoulder every aspect of this at the university. Instead, the process must involve faculty members who are engaging with students on a regular basis. They must train to learn effective teaching techniques and accommodations. 

“We dedicated a chapter to faculty in the book,” explained Behling. “They are our most frequent partners and they’re incredibly accommodating, almost to a fault.” 

Behling spotlighted one example of how a professor who was being too accommodating needed some helpful coaching. In this example, students asked for more time to complete assignments, the instructor was happy to oblige. Behling noted that teaching faculty about ways to provide extra time on assignments is one area where collaboration is critical. Offers of extra time shouldn’t be open-ended. Assignments must come with due dates, as some students with learning challenges need time-bound assignments to succeed.  

Therefore, when disability and accessibility experts work together with faculty, they’re more likely to find the best solutions for academic success.  

Behling also highlighted that today’s students are asking for accommodations more frequently. Many of these requests are stemming from mental health challenges. As students return to campus, institutions should prepared to handle mental-health related requests and prepare strategies for fielding them. 

students in a lecture hall with a professor at the front writing on a whiteboard

Prepared for students’ mental health challenges 

The complications of pandemic learning continue to affect today’s students, Behling noted.  
“We had students who hadn’t written papers in two years, who hadn’t taken an exam,” said Behling about the return to campus last year. “They didn’t know how to have a face-to-face conversation. Everything is text and emojis.”  

The impact of COVID and remote learning on students lingers even now. One of the ways it’s manifesting on campuses is in the rising number of requests for mental health-related accommodations.  

“The numbers are going up in terms of students with mental health disabilities,” said Behling.  

In addition to mental health, chronic illness is another area where disability offices are seeing more requests. The accommodations that offices are now receiving most frequently are, therefore, excused absences, remote attendance or extensions on their work. Fortunately, professors’ experience with Zoom has helped them better accommodate students asking to attend virtually because of mental health reasons or chronic illness.  

Although instructors are often more than willing to accommodate students, there are situations where Behling has seen pushback. In those cases, being able to think creatively about solutions is more important than ever. 

Why accommodation requests aren’t always easy 

Accommodation requests are rarely one-size-fits-all. Each one involves different parties with their own ideas about how to handle requests or what is appropriate to offer. 

One time, Behling said a student made a legitimate accommodation request for audio recordings of a class, but the professor refused.  

“We were working with a student who was requesting audio recordings of courses to circle back to and to reinforce the learning at a later point in time,” she said. “Based on the disability, the accommodation was appropriate. We shared this with the faculty member, but the faculty member pushed back. The faculty member said this is a class that has a lot of sensitive material and sensitive conversations. If the student is audio recording, the other students will feel less likely to share or the conversation will be stilted in some way.” 

Behling said the response was understandable due to the subject matter of the class. Therefore, the student, faculty and disability office needed to find a workable solution to provide accommodation. 

Together, they asked, “what if we instead taught them some note taking strategies where they could get key things? Or what if we ask the professor to share a copy of their outlined notes for each class?”  

These alternative solutions provided support for the student who made the request without inhibiting other students’ willingness to share and participate in course discussions.  

“Leaders really need to get into the minutia of each request, to find solutions, Behling said. “It can be exhausting to be a disability services provider.”  

The book, which Behling co-authored with her peers Eileen H. Bellemore, Senior Specialist · Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), Lisa B. Bibeau, Director Office for Students with Disabilities at Salem State College, Andrew S. Cioffi, Director of Disability Services at Suffolk University and Bridget A. McNamee, Accommodation Advisor at Fidelity Investments, provides helpful guidance aimed at building a community by bringing professionals serving in these roles together through sharing learnings from their own experiences.  

students walking together in a corridor

Emotional support animals are also a hot ‘back to school’ topic  

Behling also discussed how, as institutional leaders are seeing a rise in mental health-related accommodation requests, emotional support animals (ESA) are coming into question more frequently. Many of these requests are going beyond the traditional support pups and extending to snakes, hedgehogs and llamas. Institutions often don’t know how to respond she said.  

Behling pointed out that ESAs shouldn’t be confused with service animals, which are specially trained to serve as seeing-eye companions, aids for those with mobility-related disabilities, or alert people of an oncoming seizure among other supportive roles that they’re trained to carry out. Campuses welcome service animals, but the rules regarding ESAs are less clear. Making the situation more problematic, ESAs can create problems for others on campus. 

“Many of these original ESAs were not trained to provide service,” said Behling. “You might get a call that the roommate was bitten, or the dog defecated in the dining hall.”  

However, it’s not always clear how the university can respond as the policies related to ESAs are “a little murky right now.” 

Behling says it’s really important to have a conversation with students about what bringing these animals will mean for their campus life. Sometimes, a student might have anxiety over transitioning to campus, but didn’t fully think through the limitations they may face by bringing an ESA. A candid discussion could be enough to settle the issue and convince the student to rethink their request. With the lack of clarity surrounding universities’ obligation to accept such animals, these talks may be the best way to avoid conflict regarding ESAs on campus. 

While ESAs might continue to puzzle disability offices and others in higher education, there are areas where policies are clearer, making accommodations easier to facilitate. Fortunately, there are also tools that allow universities to better meet the needs of their students. 

Greater acceptance of technology is helping universities provide access  

The good news is that technologies, including in-class captioning solutions, which help students who are Deaf and hard of hearing, those with ADHD and others, are becoming more standard. 

“Captioning is much more widely accepted,” Behling said. “When I say to a faculty member, ‘we need to caption your content’ it’s usually ‘oh yeah, that makes sense,’ versus before it was ‘oh that’s too expensive’ or ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ Faculty is much more aware of the power of technology as a teaching tool.” 

Although more individuals understand how impactful tools like captioning and transcription are for supporting today’s students with or without disabilities, there is still some resistance on campuses.  

“The biggest pushback comes from groups that have collections of videos that are historic, and are like ‘Oh my gosh, how am I going to caption these millions of videos?’ Setting guidelines and boundaries for what that looks like is really powerful,” she said.  

Often, this tendency to receive pushback stems from a lack of understanding of tools that are available to make content more equitable. For seemingly daunting projects that involve remediating several files or recordings, companies like Verbit and others can offer scalable solutions that make it easy to complete this work. With a partner like Verbit, institutional leaders can tackle backlogs of uncaptioned videos quickly, so it should no longer instill workload distress among faculty.  

student wearing headphones and studying on a computer

Newer technologies continue to cause some apprehension  

Even with the benefits of technology like captioning for accessibility becoming clear, university leaders are still apprehensive about some forms of technology, like generative AI, Behling said. 

These new tools are making it extremely difficult for professors to determine whether students are completing their assignments legitimately or relying on ChatGPT to do all the work. Despite the clear complications this is creating, Behling says it does have some potential as an accessibility tool.  

“I think for some students who have a degree of anxiety in terms of getting started with something, it [generative AI] could be a sort of a launching point for them,” she said. 

She believes that generative AI may also be useful for students with ADHD. Still, using ChatGPT and similar tools in education is a slippery slope that professors and administrators will need to navigate carefully. When it comes to creating policies around new technology, professionals at universities will again need to work together. 

“It’s really important to learn from what our peers are going through.” said Behling. “For those of us in the field, we need camaraderie. A lot of schools are trying to be proactive and put together policies around procurement, policies around captioning, web accessibility, emotional support animals and these things.” 

If you have questions on enlisting effective accessibility solutions and technology to help your students, you can check out Behling’s book, but also reach out to us. We’re working closely with educational institutions globally, especially as we dive into releasing new technologies like our own generative AI-based tool, Gen.V. You can learn more about Gen.V and what it can do on our site as you continue to explore ways to make your campus and community more accessible this fall.