When it comes to inclusion, effective university leaders are looking beyond making course materials more accessible. Yes, this is an important step and a big focus for Verbit. However, it’s also vital to focus on how changing mentalities and perceptions on campuses can prove equally impactful.
Striving to create a campus where all students can feel respected and included both inside and outside of the classroom should be a top goal of every higher education leader. Students can have a multitude of resources made available to them. Unfortunately, when they don’t genuinely feel equal to their peers or believe their instructors are committed to their success, the investments made to course materials and tech-savvy classrooms are for nought.
Individuals with varying learning needs and those navigating disabilities are three times more likely to drop out of school, according to the NCLD. With these statistics in mind, it’s crucial to remove every barrier that could prevent these students from reaching graduation.
The relationships of students who are navigating disabilities with peers and professors can greatly contribute to their overall experience and ability to succeed academically. It may seem intuitive, but often the best way to fuel a better campus and classroom experience for all is to further educate the full student body.
Unfortunately, students living with disabilities or who have specific learning challenges often experience stigmas and negative stereotypes from their peers and instructors. These occurrences often happen unintentionally, but the resulting impact is the same – students who feel marginalized often drop out.
Instructors should seek to make announcements at the start of a course to encourage students to help their peers whenever possible. Simply planting the seed that students living with disabilities are also taking the same course can help to shift mentalities.
Ableism is a term that many students are not aware of. The term ableism refers to discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities or who are perceived to have disabilities. For instance, ableism occurs when people are ‘defined’ by their disabilities and labeled as inferior to non-disabled peers.
Vanderbilt University notes that microaggressions in classrooms are often commonplace for individuals living with disabilities. Peers may make comments on another’s ability to participate in the same class with phrases that aren’t necessarily consciously malicious. However, such words can give off negative connotations.
Source: Vanderbilt University
Professors should consider intervening in these situations. Approaching students who are heard using these phrases in private in order to educate, not embarrass them is best practice. The majority of the time, students are not actively aware of how these phrases come off. Many likely would appreciate further knowledge and education on proper terminology to use or phrases to avoid.
Additionally, many professors themselves need further communication on red flags to watch out for. Professors’ attitudes and values can also subconsciously (or consciously) affect the way they teach. Making assumptions about students and their capabilities can often lead to unequal outcomes for students. It’s best to approach each student individually to explore their specific needs rather than make general assumptions.
The disability department, and other university leadership, could consider hosting educational sessions for faculty each semester to update them on new disability or diversity developments. These sessions can also serve as forums to share changes in terminology to be aware of, and campus experiences or classroom occurrences that other educators can then prevent in the future or learn from.
Adopting a Social Model vs. Medical Model
Most colleges and universities currently approach disabilities within a ‘medical model.’ This involves making accommodations for disabled students who ‘prove’ that they have a diagnosed disability or make special requests.
When these accommodations are made, but not instituted properly, they can end up making those with disabilities feel ostracized. As a result, students often refrain from reporting their disabilities and then miss the benefits of helpful resources, such as captions or transcriptions, which can easily be provided to them and aid in their success.
Universities could instead consider approaching disabilities via ‘social models,’ which look at disabilities as differences to be embraced. This approach provides opportunities for increased accessibility for all students, regardless of whether they have or have reported a formal diagnosis.
For example, adding closed caption functionality to every lecture allows for materials to be made accessible to all learners without ostracizing anyone. This social model fuels the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach, which accounts for the fact that every student learns differently. As a result of these, all students, regardless of disabilities or specific learning challenges, can benefit from the range of education technology tools available.
Overall, the mentality should no longer be to rely on students to self-advocate for their learning needs. For universities to adopt effective inclusion plans, they need to look at the campus experience as a whole. From sporting events to class trips to guest lectures to the ways students interact with each other, many cultural changes and educational technology tools can be provided to make the general campus a fully inclusive environment.
Universities should seek out ways to educate the student body, as many students may have never taken courses with peers navigating specific learning needs before. This process involves arranging time to hear from many subsets of students (should they feel comfortable sharing). It’s also important to hear from students with a range of other hurdles, disabilities aside, who may also benefit from more resources. Full-time professionals, commuters, international students and many other subgroups can also greatly benefit from inclusion plans.
With more open dialogue and education, students and professors can embrace and fuel more diversity on campus. Also, they can increase feelings of acceptance despite differences. Fortunately, peers and educators can serve as true support teams that drive all students to swim, not sink in the college environment. Students can carry these lessons beyond and into the professional world.