Summary: Nienke’s impressions on improving accessibility

Access is a complex, difficult and multifaceted topic in particular in relation to teaching and learning.  I was so engrossed in our recent conversation that my notes are rather sketchy. Rather than focusing on concise details and demographics of the student population who experience various types of disabilities, for this post, I have decided to give you a sense of our conversation, my impressions and the questions we raised about the challenges faced by students as well as instructors in dealing with access and accommodations in the higher ed environment. Barb has found some good resources to support learning among all students through the practice of “universal design”. Let’s keep the conversation going on these very important topics. What is your experience with these issues?

Mitchell Stoddard, Director for Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD), was our guest for the January 2, 2012 FHS teaching conversation. He is a pretty intense individual, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and a wealth of clinical experience. He is passionate about his position and assisting students to provide ‘equivalent access’ so that they have an opportunity to excel. According to Mitchell, about ~20% of students at SFU are learning disabled; this is less than other institutions. The CSD helps ~600 students per year seeking accommodations and this is lower than the expected number, suggesting that not all students who could benefit from the services of the CSD are accessing the resource. Reasons include self-exclusion, stigma and financial barriers.

What are some of the tensions?

i) Students coming into university from high school want to ‘try it on their own’.

ii) In some cases, students are uncomfortable approaching faculty with the CSD accommodations.

iii) There may be limited access to referral resources (especially for international students).

iv) Registration with the CSD requires documented assessment.

The assessment process creates barriers for students since it requires a fee (1000 – 2000$), and an appointment with a specialist. For example, learning disabled assessments are completed through the UBC adult assessment clinic and mental health assessments require appointments with a registered psychiatrist. Although the CSD will assist students in gaining access to these services, these are not small barriers to overcome and as a result many students may not seek help.

To ease the stress experienced by students, CSD has instituted an anonymous email mechanism to notify instructors of students requiring accommodations in their classrooms. I will probably view the pink exam accommodation paper, with sometimes odd requests a little differently now.  I have gained much more appreciation of what a students has to go through to acquire that paper, First they have to acknowledge their situation, seek help, seek assessment, register with CSD and determine their specific accommodation. They then have to face their instructor (an intimidating task for many students regardless of circumstance) with these requests. These are not trivial forms.

What are the options for supporting learning among all students?

There are approaches that instructors can use enhance learning for all students regardless of whether or not they can acquire a specific diagnosis. Mitchell says that accommodations are the worst way to address these issues. An accommodation helps a single student with a single solution, it costs money and yet many students who require assistance miss out. His ultimate goal would be to eliminate the need for a CSD. Instructors can undertake this by incorporating  diverse teaching and flexible assessment methods. For example, universal design principles consider the impact of specific assessment strategies on a broad continuum of learners. This could be as simple as a increasing writing time on exams; the most common accommodation at CSD is increased exam time since it addresses a whole list of challenges. This could be taken further by allowing students to choose their preferred assessment tool. Thus they would be able to represent their mastery of knowledge in a format with which they are most comfortable rather than be limited by a single assessment approach.

What is universal design and how is it applied in instructional contexts?

The notion of universal design is really about inclusivity and access to all opportunities for learning and realizing human potential. The principles can be applied in all instructional contexts and in making curricula more accessible. Check out the following and let us know what you think: