Success in STEM
Accessibility in the Classroom
Now that we have outlined the process of ensuring that students with disabilities are accommodated in post-secondary education, we will look at what sorts of accommodations are available in the classroom, and in what ways they can best be taken advantage of. In this section, we will be discussing types of accommodations and how they can best be used, rather than discussing specific products. Those who are interested in learning more about Accessible Technology (AT) and what types of devices and training are available can visit the following two resources:
1) The website for the Canadian Assistive Devices Industry has links to numerous databases of AT products, venders, and organizations who may be able to give you more specific information about the best AT for a given disability and situation. The extensive and comprehensive site can be found at www.at-links.gc.ca/AS/zx22000E.asp?t=4
2) The Adaptech Research Network, based out of Dawson College in Montreal, conducts research to assess how post-secondary students with disabilities use accessible technology, as well as how mainstream technologies can be used accessibly. It also provides links to informative videos on AT and has a database of free or low-cost pieces of accessible software: adaptech.dawsoncollege.qc.ca
Where Does Accessibility Begin?
When most people start to think about educational accommodations, they immediately envision technologies that allow people with certain impairments to adapt to the rest of the world, such as screen reading software or wheelchair ramps. But technology is only one aspect of accessibility. Without an environment that is conducive to learning, students will have a hard time succeeding even with the best technology money can buy.
So, from the student’s point of view, the first step to accessible educational experience is the first step made on campus and ultimately through the classroom door. The concept of Universal Design (UD), which considers the accessibility of a physical environment, is more of a concern now than it ever has been. But there are still buildings on campuses across the country with inaccessible or awkward stairways, hallways that are too narrow for comfort, and inadequate accessible washroom facilities. If nature calls and the closest washroom you can make use of is half way across campus, even the most interesting lectures can seem excruciatingly slow. Only so much can be done about pre-existing buildings, but this shortcoming spells opportunity for any students with disabilities to advocate for universal design on their campus. If there is a committee on your campus which discusses and oversees UD efforts, join them; if one does not exist, a brief conversation with the Disability Services Office and the campus department of architecture and planning should make the need for such a committee obvious. Quality education requires that students’ logistical concerns be looked after.
An important consideration to accessible spaces is appropriate signage. Much confusion and frustration could be avoided if signs were designed and placed to be as widely visible as possible. This includes considering placement of building, event, and campus restaurant signs, as well as classroom and office numbers and notices that may be posted on bulletin boards. Using high contrast colours and large, easy to read fonts, and minimizing potentially confusing graphics could allow students with a wide range of visual, perceptive, and cognitive issues to more easily find the information they need to make their way around campus. All of this brings us to the classroom door.
When any student enters a class before lecture, the first thing he or she does is find a good seat. Is there enough legroom? Will I be able to get a left-handed desk? Do I need to plug in my laptop? Will I be able to hear the professor? These are concerns shared by students with or without disabilities. However, additional considerations can make finding a good seat all the more difficult for students with disabilities. Will I be able to see the board or display? Will I be able to read the professors’ or teachers’ lips? Is this a good spot for recording? Will my wheelchair fit anywhere at all? A student’s disability can very easily limit their seating choice to only one or a handful of options. It is necessary to try to arrive early to stake a claim on a seat that may be required to take part in the class at all, and if this is impossible, then a student with a disability must make others aware of their situation so that a friendly classmate may volunteer to save a seat on a regular basis. Universal Design both on campus and in the classroom, along with the understanding of fellow students and staff, can make accommodating one’s education much less difficult.
How a student with a disability chooses to work within the lecture depends on their disability as well as their personal learning strategy. The professor has one main goal in any course: to get a certain amount of information into students’ heads. They may choose to do this in a variety of ways, such as by conducting a more traditional “chalk and talk” lecture, employing more modern technologies such as PowerPoint slides or other digital presentation systems, or drawing on overhead projector sheets. Any of these formats may be appropriate depending on the content of the course. Similarly, it is up to the professor to decide if they want to post lecture notes or recordings online on a course website or to make use of a textbook from which to assign readings. On the other end of this exchange, it is up to the students whether or not to attend the lectures, how to take notes most effectively if at all, how to best work on any assignments the course requires, and whether or not to record the lecture for later review. Hopefully, after all of these decisions have been made by both parties, the students and professors will be satisfied with the results obtained from their individual efforts.
A variety of technologies exist to help students with disabilities get the most out of lectures. Students with visual impairments have an assortment of magnifiers at their disposal for examining objects and text that are both close up or far away. Students who are hard of hearing may benefit greatly with an assistive hearing device or a short range FM system if their professor is willing to wear a microphone during lecture. Several companies develop software that allows computers to be effectively used by people who are blind, visually impaired, or affected by a number of learning or cognitive disabilities. If a student’s disability prevents him or her from taking notes in class effectively for any reason, it may even be advisable to recruit or hire a note-taker. This can either be done informally by seeking out willing classmates, or formally through contact with the campus Disability Services Office. For a more complete overview of the types of technology that are available for people with disabilities, please refer to the “Technology by Disability” matrix after this section.
Accessibility Outside the Classroom
Much like in the classroom, how a student handles his or her own needs with regards to accessibility and accommodation outside the classroom is entirely up to them. First, the student must know their own limitations and needs. If they need an isolated study area, for example, then it is important to find out where one can be found on campus or at home. If a student needs recommendations as to what sorts of adaptive technology would be best for them, it may be advisable to see if the campus’ Disability Services Office has an adaptive technology specialist on hand. It also wouldn’t hurt to check out the Canadian Assistive Devices Industry website mentioned earlier in this section. If a student requires course materials in an alternate format, the easiest way to take care of this would be to register with the Disability Services Office so that they can make the necessary arrangements through whatever process they may have already worked out. However, if the student would like to have a little more control over the process, it might be more suitable to either contact the publisher of the material directly and enquire about their process for obtaining material in alternate formats or simply scan the document and magnify the image or process it through an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) piece of software.
Of course, a disability is not an excuse for failure to complete assignments on time. However, it can limit a student’s ability to do so for all assignments. Keep the lines of communication with professors open and transparent. If a problem arises and you aren’t able to finish an assignment or project by the deadline, there is no harm in asking for an extension for personal or medical reasons. It won’t be the first time such a thing has ever been asked for, so don’t let pride get in the way of better grades. Accommodations are very much a personal choice, and only the individual student knows their own abilities and limitations. Once the student understands what they need and realizes that help is available for the asking, the road to quality education is all the more smooth.
What About Exams?
Nearly every course of post-secondary education has a midterm or final exam. This is when accommodations need to really be taken seriously by the institution. To be effectively examined and given a fair mark for the course, special considerations must be taken into account so that a student with a disability can take the exam to the best of their abilities and be on an even footing with their able-bodied counterparts. Depending on the student’s needs, exam accommodations may include a private exam room, the use of a computer with assistive software on it, a reader or scribe, having the exam adapted to an alternate format such as large print or braille, specialized seating, and extra time. These accommodations are typically orchestrated by centralized Disability Services Offices, and it is always a good idea to check in with them early regarding their exam accommodation policy and schedules, as exam heavy periods of the semester can be tough to manage. It would be wise to consult with both your professor and the Disability Services Office regarding exam accommodations for each course so that the process can run as smoothly as possible. If you plan to use exam-related accommodations, it is important to assure that you follow whatever formal process is in place at the school.
Organizing adequate accommodations for an entire post-secondary career may seem like a daunting task for any student. On top of the lectures, assignments and exams, a student with a disability has to worry about coordinating their timetable with professors, other students and the Disability Services Office, just to ensure that they are getting as much as possible out of their classes. Fortunately, there are many technologies available to help with productivity, and the procedures associated with accommodations are fairly well established. Also, the use of available accommodations and the feedback obtained from disabled students about them is crucial to helping improve these services for future students.