College is a time when students get to taste independence, living away from their families and the familiar confines of their hometowns for the very first time. This can prove especially demanding as they become immersed in a more rigorous and often less personalized academic environment. These circumstances can feel even more taxing for students with disabilities, who have an extra set of challenges to contend with on top of the difficulties that come with adjusting to a brand new environment.
Universities usually provide accommodations for students with disabilities through a designated disability services office. The flaw in this model is that it tries to fit individuals with disabilities into a system that may not be well-designed for them, often to unsuccessful results. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with a disability are less likely to have completed a bachelor’s degree than people without. Among Americans aged 25 and older, only 16.4% of people with a disability had completed an undergraduate degree, compared to 34.6% of people with no disability.
To improve, accessibility must be integrated into every aspect of the university experience, starting with academics. Facilities and academics should be constructed with this concept in mind, rather than it being relegated to a consideration after the fact.
In this blog series on increasing campus accessibility, we will take a deep dive into four key areas that are critical to breaking down the barriers, both physical and digital, to enable a truly accessible campus environment, where all students have an equal opportunity to succeed. Since academics are at the core of the university experience, this will be our starting point on our journey toward total accessibility.
The Importance of Universal Design
At all academic levels, instructors encounter students with a variety of backgrounds, learning styles and abilities. Some students learn best visually, others are auditory learners and some prefer to absorb information by reading. Maybe English isn’t their first language. Or, perhaps the student has a physical, sensory or learning difficulty. The goal of higher education is to maximize learning for all students, and incorporating the principles of universal design into instruction helps achieve this objective.
Here are the four main principles to keep in mind:
1. Be proactive
Professors should anticipate student needs and plan for individuals with diverse characteristics by putting together an inclusive curriculum, rather than accommodating students after the fact. Course content should be built with accessibility in mind from the very beginning, rather than making the materials accessible later.
2. One size doesn’t fit all
All students have their own unique learning style, so it’s important to diversify teaching methods using auditory, visual and kinesthetic techniques to appeal to all types of learners and subvert the typical lecture format. Incorporating interactive elements like class discussions, audiovisual materials and even movement exercises all involve different skills for all kinds of students.
3. Flexibility is key
Curriculum materials should be accessible in multiple ways in order to reach all students. Because audio and video materials have become mainstays of the modern learning process, academic transcription is now a must. It’s critical to provide transcripts and captions for students with hearing impairments, as well as for those who prefer to learn by reading. In particular, live captioning has the potential to greatly impact students by allowing active comprehension and engagement in real time.
4. Fair Evaluations
Tests and exams should include questions that require a variety of types of responses, such as multiple choice or essays. It’s important to consider modified testing methods as well, such as having questions read aloud to students or alternative testing locations. Employing different kinds of questions and testing styles appeals to all students’ strengths and ensures a fair balance during decisive evaluations that affect student grades and GPAs.
Inclusivity in Action
The University of Colorado Boulder has implemented a Universal Design service as a resource for implementing best practices in course design. They offer educators workshops, one-on-one consultations as well as a detailed accessibility checklist.
Beyond the classroom, the philosophy of universal design should extend to all educational activities such as tutoring and learning centers. This way, no one is left behind and students of all abilities have an equal shot at success.
While enabling accessible academics is a key first step, it cannot operate in isolation, as other elements are critically important toward the overall goal of complete accessibility. The next chapters in this series will explore these other elements in greater detail. Stay tuned!