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Is Your Campus Physically Accessible?

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Welcome back to part three of our blog series on increasing campus accessibility. So far, we’ve covered the importance of both inclusive academics and online accessibility. In this latest chapter, we will delve deeper into the many facets of physical accessibility, and its key role in the bigger picture.

“In case of fire use stairs”. Plastered on walls in most public buildings, it’s a familiar sign that many of us pass by without a second glance.

But, for individuals with disabilities, this can serve as a constant reminder that most buildings are not built with accessibility in mind. Often, college campuses are no exception.

lack of accessibility

Since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, U.S. schools are responsible for making their courses, campuses, activities and services accessible to people with disabilities. A major component of this is physical access to college buildings, transportation, housing, and other facilities. This is especially critical given that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 6% of college undergrads have some kind of physical disability, translating into thousands of students that require accommodations.

Inclusivity in Action: The University of North Georgia has a dedicated ADA committee that includes students with disabilities as key contributors to determine priorities, provide direct feedback and help implement changes quickly and effectively on campus.

Students with disabilities require physical access to classrooms, libraries, dining areas – basically, everywhere a student would want to go. Plans for access should be included in building and landscape architecture, including ramps and doors with automatic openers, countertops at various heights in student service areas, and dorm rooms with accessible bathrooms. The condition of these facilities should be continuously monitored, as something as small as a broken button or handle can mean all the difference to a person with a physical limitation.

Here are some other important factors to consider:

  • Modified elevators
  • Curb cuts along sidewalks
  • Lowered water fountains
  • Lowered toilets, sinks, and other restroom features
  • Audible crossing signals at intersections
  • Accessible van parking spaces in parking lots

Inclusivity in Action: Hofstra University in Long Island, NY was specifically designed with wheelchair users in mind. They are renowned for their unique disabilities program and campus, which features a wheelchair-accessible transit system in addition to academic and career coaching, assistive technology, and accessible housing.

 

Universities, particularly those in smaller towns, aren’t just places where students engage in higher learning. They are often central to the entire community, with libraries, coffee shops, and concert halls open to the public at large. It is especially important for accessibility to trickle down to all locations on campus, not just those involved directly in academics, as these schools are venues for community gatherings, speakers, performances and other events. Beyond just school, physical accessibility to campus facilities affects the quality of life for entire communities.

 

We’ve discussed the importance of inclusive academics through universal design, and we’ve taken a deep dive into the most crucial aspects of both online and physical accessibility. Up next, we’ll conclude our blog series by discussing how to implement these changes at all organizational levels. Coming soon!

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How to Create Real Change on Campus

You’ve officially made it to the final chapter in our blog series on campus inclusivity. So far, we’ve explored the areas of academiconline and physical accessibility. In this last section, we’ll dive deeper into how to truly put words into action and engage the entire university community to create positive changes on campus.

Many colleges and universities make grand statements about diversity and include students with disabilities in their promotional materials on official websites, syllabi and in student handbooks. Buy, in order to go beyond the surface level, change must occur at all tiers of the institution, to foster an inclusive climate.

 

Administration

As is often the case, change must begin at the top with those who hold the most power and authority to become difference-makers. Student affairs professionals can play an important part in holding students accountable for being accepting and open to difference. They can impact the entire college community by spearheading initiatives, modeling openness and developing inclusive and accessible programming.

 

Faculty

Classrooms are at the heart of student learning, and faculty members play key roles in promoting inclusion on campus. It’s especially important for professors to understand the perspective of students from underrepresented groups, such as those with disabilities. As the demographic composition of campuses continues to change, it will become even more important for faculty to teach in more inclusive ways and hold each other accountable for these efforts.

Many schools already offer a variety of services like academic and career counseling, tutoring, alternate exam formats, additional exam time, sign language interpreters and transcribed or captioned video content. But to fully commit to a culture of inclusivity, professors and staff must buy in, as they have direct and consistent contact with students. Some small steps forward include attending attending conferences on the subject of increasing accessibility or by introducing inclusivity as a criteria in teaching evaluations.

Inclusivity in Action: The Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University has created guidelines for educators teaching in diverse classrooms, which include tips on course design, teaching tactics and strategies to overcome biases.

 

Students

Students who have significant influence among their peers have the power to shape a culture of inclusivity. To foster an open and accessible university environment, collaboration between student clubs and groups must be encouraged so that students from all walks of life mingle with one another and learn that their similarities far outnumber their differences. Some colleges provide diversity training for the incoming first-year class, or create mentorship programs where students can discuss their experiences with upperclassmen of a similar background.

DREAM (Disability Rights, Education Activism, and Mentoring) is a national organization for and by college students with disabilities. Their mission is to advocate for disability culture and community, and serve as center for students to connect with one another. Starting a DREAM chapter on campus is a great way to foster connections between the disabled community and their allies and peers.

Inclusivity in Action: The Next Steps program at Vanderbilt University is specialized for students with intellectual disabilities and features inclusive academics as well as social and career development. The program is known for its peer mentor system, where participants are paired up with other students to provide additional support and build meaningful relationships.

 

When leadership, faculty, and students alike come together to build an inclusive environment the result is much more powerful than mere statements. Prioritizing accessibility and establishing firm links between all levels of stakeholders are necessary for achieving change and promoting an open conversation around campus.

 

Paradigm Shift

The current prevalent model in higher education views disability primarily as a disservice or inconvenience. The onus is on the student to inquire about services that are offered, and information is not always readily available or clearly communicated. There is often significant associated stigma as well, leading to students not seeking out resources for fear of being labeled or judged.

Indeed, while 94% of high school students with learning disabilities receive some form of assistance, just 17% of college students with these kinds of difficulties can say the same. This dominant pattern must shift in order to provide students with disabilities equal access and opportunity to thrive.

Inclusivity in Action: The DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center at the University of Washington is at the forefront of many positive initiatives. They have developed a list of campus accessibility indicators that span all aspects of university life, providing a measuring stick for schools to determine what they do well and where improvement is needed.

 

The good news is that things are changing for the better, as the number of students with disabilities enrolling in college programs is on the rise. A national study conducted from 2001 until 2009 found that 46% of young adults had enrolled in a postsecondary institution, compared to just 26% in 1990. As more students with disabilities seek higher education, universities are responding by making inclusivity a major organizational priority.

One particularly promising factor is the key role of technology in enabling accessibility. As eLearning and audiovisual content become the norm in universities, tools like academic transcription and captioning solutions that provide equitable access are allowing more students than ever before to engage with course materials and succeed academically.

But, to truly get to where we want to go, all stakeholders need to be on board to enact lasting change in all aspects of university life. By focusing on accessibility in academics, online and the physical environment and promoting this idea at all levels, universities can take positive steps towards cultivating a truly inclusive campus that empowers all students to succeed. After all, isn’t that what college is all about?

That does it for our blog series. We hope you’ve enjoyed the read and that you’ve picked up some valuable tips along the way!

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