Cartoon graphic about universal design

This is the third article in a week-long series of posts written by and for graduate students navigating grad school with disabilities.

Liz Homan is a doctoral candidate in the Joint Program in English and Education at The University of Michigan. This post is adapted from one she posted on her own blog in October 2013. You can find her on Twitter at @lizhoman or on her blog, Gone Digital.

I am an able graduate student. In other words, I do not need many accommodations to be made for me as I go about my graduate work. “The way things are” in our ableist society works for me pretty well in most circumstances. For example, I am able to:

  • take the stairs
  • see small text
  • hear a student whose voice is quiet from the other side of the room
  • communicate in my native language
  • access and comprehend texts
  • see the entire color spectrum
  • sit at any desk
  • sit in any chair
  • look at a computer screen
  • ask questions when I have them
  • ask for directions when I need them
  • carry on a spoken conversation
  • relate to my colleagues
  • read the cues of my audience during a presentation

…and the list goes on. My goal here is not to brag – hey, look at all the stuff I’m able to do! – no, not at all. My goal is to prompt personal reflection about those things we are able to do: those things that our colleagues down the hall, at the desk next to us, or the students in our classrooms, might not find so easy. My goal is also to articulate ways in which we might make university spaces more accessible for everyone.

Since I started graduate school, my approach and perspective on so-called “accommodations” – those things we need to do to adjust our “normal curriculum” or “regular instruction” by adjusting our approach for a student with a disability – has shifted. Instead of asking how I can make my teaching (and my collaborations with colleagues) more accessible whenever someone needs an accommodation or has a disability, I have started thinking about how to make my teaching and collaboration approach more accessible, period.

Here are just a few ways I’ve increased the accessibility of both my teaching and my collaborations, in an effort to challenge some of the ableist “ways things have always been done” in academic institutions:

Provide modality options. People prefer to access information in different ways.

  • In my teaching, this means my writing students are often given options related to what modality (verbal / sound / visual) or media (digital / written / painted / etc.) in which to compose.
  • In my collaborations, it sometimes means people send me an audio file of their thoughts on a project, or I provide hyperlinks and screenshots in an email to help them access resources. Other GradHackers have offered advice for working in digital classrooms and working in various modes and media (see this post on teaching with music, this one on teaching with Twitter, or this one on teaching with Storify).

Allow for multiple “ways into” a conversation. Regardless of whether they have a diagnosed “disability,” all people have unique preferences for engaging with others. Some are more comfortable voicing their opinions, some are more comfortable dealing with emotional or controversial topics, and some are more comfortable sitting back and soaking it in.

  • In my teaching, I accommodate this by mixing individual/pair/group/whole class work, and try to integrate each of those into every single class meeting (it is sometimes quite a challenge!).
  • In my collaborations, I try to offer options in early meetings for workflow: do we want to operate online via email, in f2f meetings, using productivity apps like Trello, or maybe in Google Drive and Hangout? Do we want to divide the work, co-create, or some combination of those?

Learn, ask, and share. When I was in the second year of my program, a student who is deaf joined our community. Determined not to let anything stand in the way of making new friends (and equipped with only my girl-scout-badge knowledge of the sign language ABCs), I decided to learn sign language. My friend has been incredibly patient with me, correcting my signs when I mess up and teaching me about the different types of sign language. I’m pretty sure my sentences are only marginally intelligible most of the time, but my willingness to learn – and hers to share and teach – has been an invaluable experience and has led to a strong friendship.

  • In my teaching, I ask my students multiple times each semester: is the way I am teaching helping you learn? What could I change?
  • In my collaborations, I share my experiences, am honest about what perspectives I don’t know or understand, and ask for clarification whenever I need it.

Don’t get offended. Yeah okay, this one’s easier said than done. But if we are to “learn, ask, and share,” we need to be able to be honest and to hear honesty without taking it (too) personally. An example: I talk fast. I mean, fast. I’m working on it.

  • In my teaching, I once had a student come up to me after class and tell me he was having trouble following my instructions, because I spoke so fast my words sometimes ran together. Many students would not have the courage to mention something like this – but I am glad he did, even though at first I was a little surprised and embarrassed.
  • In my collaborations, I try not to take it personally when someone calls me out or critiques my approach to collaborating; instead, I use their criticism as fodder for reflection. Also, I try not to talk so fast.

Follow universal design principles. You can learn about the principles here, but basically, these are a set of guidelines for designing learning experiences that cater to the diverse learning styles and needs of students.

  • I use these in my teaching to help you consider how I meet, or maybe don’t meet, the needs of my students.
  • They also apply in my collaborations as I consider how/where to meet with colleagues (GHangout? Phone? F2F?) or how I record and disseminate notes for the meeting.

Over the past few years of graduate school, I have come to redefine issues of disability, thinking instead of accessibility. I sometimes make assumptions about the abilities of others, and the accessibility of my courses, that are unfair or inaccurate. Disability is not always visible, nor is it always officially acknowledged or given a name, and accessibility measures stand to benefit just about anyone, regardless of age, race, ableness, SES, culture, you name it.

What measures have you taken in your teaching and collaborations to increase accessibility?

[Image by Flickr user Giulia Forsythe used under creative commons licensing.]

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