Ensuring your university or eLearning experiences are accessible surely doesn’t happen overnight. Providing inclusive experiences to different stakeholders on the student, faculty and admin levels is ever evolving, and it comes with an array of challenges. To provide much-needed insights, AST hosted a live webinar with three experts from Disability:IN, Old Dominion University and the American Association for Access Equity and Diversity (AAAED). They gathered to share tactics on supporting students’ remote learning needs, coaching faculty and staff on the importance of accessibility and more.
Here are five key takeaways from Sharron Gatling, Diversity Officer, Space Telescope Science Institute and Vice President, American Association for Access Equity and Diversity, Veleka Gatling, Ph.D., Director of Diversity Initiatives, Old Dominion University and The Honorable Katherine McCary, President, C5 Consulting, LLC and CEO, Disability:IN DC Metro.
1. These conversations can’t wait. You should be having them right now.
VG: “People don’t understand that if we don’t create accessible opportunities and space that means that people can’t be actively engaged. We want people to be actively engaged in whatever way that they can.”
SG: “COVID ends up being the perfect storm for us and it actually has caused us to bring accessibility and disability back into the conversation and not let it be hidden anymore. We can’t continue to table the conversation around these important things because when you look at the data and the statistics – the number of people – there are millions of people with disabilities. It is a part of their experience, their way of life and they need to be seen as critical individuals in society and not as ad-hoc.”
KM: “As a person with a disability, as a parent of adult children with disability, having been a caregiver, it’s always been important to me. Today, with COVID and add on the Great Resignation, how are we going to find talent if the education piece isn’t there? We need to make sure that all students with disabilities have the same accommodations to be successful as those without disabilities. Today, we need to prepare the next workforce. We cannot let people be lost or left behind. When talking about accessibility, it’s also a real legal concern these days.”
2. “If you embrace diversity, but ignore disability, you’re doing it wrong.” – Corinne Grey, Co-Founder, Uncomfortable Revolution
VG: “When we think about diversity, initially people think about what we look like. People’s natural inclination is to default to black and white or whatever the majority or minority statuses that are a part of their community – it could be Hispanics and not Hispanics. When we think about diversity, it’s multidimensional. You have to consider disability in that. It has to be at the beginning. It can’t be oh, by the way we’re having a presentation and oops, we did not provide for an accommodation for our employees or our students. It has to be at the beginning. Posing the question that in order for everyone to be successful or to be actively engaged, what do they need? We have to think about that first. When we’re creating training, it is first. Professional learning – it is first. We all grew up learning that golden rule of treating people they want to be treated, but I subscribe to the platinum rule – treating people the way they need to be treated.”
3. Faculty often have the most difficulty wrapping their minds around accessibility.
SG: “The academic environment related to faculty is – they think about their role in the classroom and the standard that has been set in academia for the professor. For a K-12 teacher, you go through all of these certifications and processes. You learn how to teach a variety of individuals with all types of abilities. In the professor realm, you are trained to be a researcher, but that’s not a part of it. Yet still you’re in the classroom with these students where about 50% have some type of disability or accessibility needs, but our professors, our faculty are not equipped because not even in the program, in their curriculum, has been used to develop them as teachers and what that means to be a teacher in that classroom. What that means is to ensure that everyone in their circle of influence has what they need to flourish, to learn, to belong, to be engaged and to be empowered. That I think is a critical piece that’s missing in the grand scheme of an entire curriculum for faculty. We don’t teach them how to teach.”
The fix: Now, at most institutions and organizations there is diversity training, Sharron Gatling said. When the semester begins, the faculty comes back before the students and a lot of the training and core pieces about DEI and accessibility and webinars are done during that time so they can have understanding. More flexible training, such as over Zoom started happening over COVID, but is continuing to be offered now, which is encouraging more participation as well.
4. It’s essential to promote a culture of collaboration and knowledge sharing on campus.
SG: “One of the things we do well in higher education, we will get a new center or area to do this or to address a particular issue, but it is critical that those offices come together at some type of cadence – quarterly or monthly – to make sure that they know the same information. That can end up being a barrier in terms of accessibility when you’re getting so many different answers from the various different offices and it causes a level of frustration of what is the best way for our environment or our institution to move forward with that. Making sure the piece about IT is there, that their presence is there in those conversations. A lot of times in higher education they can be decentralized. This school is doing something different than the Arts & Sciences. We’re not maximizing resources. We can be doing greater things in terms of accessibility when we pull those resources together. Making sure that the software has all of those accessibility features and that they can interact with other types of software – that conversation needs to constantly have representation from the IT area there all of the time. I’ve seen a waste of resources we could be utilizing elsewhere when we don’t come together as a collective to tackle some of the concerns.”
5. Consider the ongoing impact of COVID on mental health and how to provide accessibility for students, but also staff and faculty.
SG: “Universities have counseling centers. Making sure when you talk about ableism and mitigating the bias there and discrimination there and making sure that the counseling services are accessible to them when they have a need and it won’t be a stereotype, even if there’s something happens during the classroom time that they’re able to go ahead and reach out and get the services they need at that moment is critical. In terms of hybrid and technology being accessible to them, but when someone has a mental health issue and they’re not able to physically pull themselves together to go to class, being able to click on a link and just listen in when they’re in bed or lying down or whatever they need to do for their own personal self care – that’s important and a moment’s notice. We have to develop our classroom structures around the ability for them to do that. Again, that ableism comes back in place and we’re used to doing it a certain way, and it’s hard for us to change our thinking about these issues… Counseling services aren’t usually geared at supporting faculty and staff. That needs to evolve.”
KM: “Faculty have these same situations. Mental health affects every one of us.”
VG: “Counseling for students on-demand – one of the successful things that I experienced was with a student who had a graduate assistant who was working with a class and had information with counseling center opportunities. They were able to provide the student with the link to the counseling center on-demand, and then they were able to pop into the Zoom with just one person and then they were able to put them in a breakout room with a counselor. Having that particular resource created a bridge, an initial opening.”
Ask for help & look for resources to create impact
Ensuring access for students, faculty and staff is an evolving process due to greater online experiences, the ripple effects of the pandemic and other factors which have changed the education sector and learning delivery as we know it. Leaders who want to drive meaningful change within their institutions can start by leaning on essential partners like AST to best practices on delivering more accessible learning, campus events and online experiences to students, faculty and administrators alike. As Sharron Gatling noted, “When we pull resources together, we can do greater things for accessibility.”
To dive deeper into this conversation, watch the video of our speakers on-demand or to learn more about AST and its solutions for greater access, including captioning, transcription and audio description, reach out to us today.