Accessibility in the Classroom

Access should not be viewed as a constraint on architectural design but should be conceived of as a ‘major perceptual orientation to humanity’ (Davies & Lifchez, 1987, 49).

The above quotation comes from Rob Imrie’s article, “Oppression, Disability and Access in the Built Environment,” and it frames this week’s readings on physical barriers. Goldstein, Imrie, Strange, and Wilson and Lewiecki-Wilson all address physical barriers that range from inaccessible campuses and classrooms to disablist environments to limiting perceptions of disability itself. By positioning access as an orientation to humanity rather than a retrofit—a component that is added to an already-built space—the authors articulate a number of ways to make classroom (and other social) spaces more universally designed and accessible for students.

Crippen accessibility cartoon, "Polling": Staircase retrofitted with two planks of wood to create an "accessible ramp."

"Polling" (via crippencartoons.co.uk): A building retrofits a staircase with an "accessible ramp," while the man talking symbolizes a disables attitude toward accommodation.

Elisabeth Goldstein argues for the importance of implementing UD in higher education because of the diverse group of people that access campuses: “a widely diverse group of people (students, faculty, administration, alumni, visitors), with varying ages and physical and sensory abilities, makes up the campus community” (199). Goldstein considers a number of places that would benefit from UD, including building entrances, classrooms, furnishings, and sound and lighting. I am particularly drawn to her discussion of building entrances. She describes a building entrance as “the first impression one has of the site and orients the visitor the spaces within the rest of the facility” (200). If a building entrance is inaccessible to particular bodies, then, those bodies are marked as disabled—as unable to use these naturalized features in the ways they were intended (which, I think most of us agree, were ill-intended). Even if a classroom inside an inaccessible building is inclusive and welcoming, the message received from the building itself—Some bodies were not intended to use this building—can impact how a student engages within the classroom.

Rob Imrie argues that this received message, the idea that some bodies simply are not considered, is indicative of a larger “able-bodied” society (129). Imrie writes, “This has led some commentators to regard the built environment as disablist, that is, projecting ‘able-bodied’ values which legitimize oppressive and discriminatory practices against disabled people purely on the basis that they have physical and/or mental impairments” (129). Inaccessible buildings and classrooms reinforce this disablist environment. When Imrie discussed the able-bodied workforce, I immediately thought of how that translates to the college campus environment. Many campuses still create barriers for students with disabilities because college campuses were originally designed for able-bodied students.

This is where Universal Design can begin to play a role in creating built spaces that are more flexible and more accessible. However, UD cannot necessarily change the disablist attitudes Imrie discusses. UD cannot only influence physical environments: it must also affect attitudes. If a space is redesigned to be more accessible, this change inevitably has to reflect some changes in attitude and thinking, as well, because if a space is redesigned without critical understanding and respect of persons with disabilities, I’m not sure it could successfully be universally designed.

Carney Strange acknowledges the importance of understanding, arguing that instructors need to understand not only students with disabilities but also the larger social and physical conditions of the larger environments they inhabit (20). This is not a passive understanding, though. Strange argues that, through understanding, we can begin to create environments that are safe and inclusive, promote involvement, and offer full membership in the “community of learning” (23). Necessarily, this shifts away from acknowledging the inaccessibility of physical environments, moving toward a broader understanding of the inaccessibility of spaces and policies and practices. Spatial inaccessibility, then, becomes tied up in larger social structures.

Though Strange briefly mentions policy and practice, James Wilson and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson take them up in more detail. They describe disability law as a marker: “[T]he law writes on particular disabled bodies, no two of whom have the same needs, a generalized grid or map labeled ‘disabled student’” (298). Wilson and Lewiecki-Wilson argue that this is a homogenizing attitude, that instructors must do more than what disability and accommodation laws can provide. For them, this seems to come down to flexible pedagogical practices that require instructors to be comfortable discussing difference, to understand the many differences between students with disabilities, and to “be willing to assist each (disabled) student to coconstruct the best individualized learning relationship” (300). That is, supporting students with disabilities in the classroom moves away from legal accommodations to constructing and negotiating a collaborative plan for what that student wants and needs.

Crippen accessibility cartoon, "Homework": Teacher asks blind student to read chalkboard.

"Homework" (via crippencartoons.co.uk): The teacher asks a blind student to read the chalkboard, an example of how accessibility is also pedagogical.

I appreciate this shift in accessibility from the physical to the pedagogical, because, as Wilson and Lewiecki-Wilson argue, instructors often cannot change the physical environments. However, instructors can make their classrooms more accessible through their pedagogies—through adaptation, flexibility, and open discussions of disability. Addressing accessibility as implicated within larger structures—physical environment, social construction, policy, and pedagogy—becomes more critical and holistic. Depending on how much power we have over the physical design of our classrooms, it also becomes more action-oriented because we can address accessibility through the choices we make within our classrooms.

 

 

Goldstein, Elisabeth. “Applications of Universal Design to Higher Education Facilities.” Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice. Ed.  In Sheryl E. Burgstahler and Rebecca C. Cory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2008. 199-212. Print.

Imrie, Rob. “Oppression, Disability and Access in the Built Environment.” Ed. Tom Shakespeare. The Disability Reader: Social Science Perspectives New York: Cassell, 1998. 129-46. Print.

Strange, Carney. “Creating Environments of Ability.” New Directions for Student Services: Serving Students with Disabilities. Ed. Holley A. Belch.   San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2000. 19-30. Print.

Wilson, James C., and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson. “Constructing a Third Space: Disability Studies, the Teaching of English, and Institutional Transformation.” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities  Ed. Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. New York: MLA, 2002. 296-307. Print.

Collaborative Pedagogies

This week’s readings on higher ed focus on the way different collaborations can create richer pedagogies. These collaborations occur disciplinarily (Knoll), between students and instructors (Knoll and Harrison), among instructors (Bernacchio et al.), and between faculty members and other institutional organizations (Harrison).

In “Feminist Disability Studies Pedagogy,” Kristina Knoll pays particular attention to collaborative disciplinary work, focusing on how Disability Studies and Feminist Studies can inform each other, providing richer and more accessible pedagogies. Though she acknowledges the benefits of Universal Design, Knoll argues (from a feminist standpoint) for foregrounding individual experiences (122). That is, Knoll advocates a pedagogy that uses both accommodation and UD, arguing that both reproduce oppression and privilege when used on their own (124).

“Feminist disability studies theory and pedagogy urge us not only to take into account the many and varied bodily, mental, and psychological differences, but also to consider how race, class, sexuality, religion, nationality, and so on, can intersect with the disability experience” (Knoll 122).

Knoll also looks at the collaborations that occur between instructors and students when promoting a pedagogy that explores accessibility, ableism, sexism, and privilege. She practices what she calls “interdependency,” which demonstrates to students that not only are they dependent on the instructor, but the instructor is also dependent on the students in order to create a learning environment where everyone can succeed (129). Some examples of this are asking students to read materials aloud, placing students in control of particular activities, and asking students to work together to make the class accessible (such as having notetakers). Knoll writes that “when multiple individuals work together to make the environment accessible, it suddenly becomes significantly easier to meet all the various needs in the classroom, including the instructor’s needs” (129). Thus, collaboration not only becomes an integral part of the classroom, it is the driving force for creating an accessible learning environment for everyone involved. I definitely agree with this because if we try to employ UD practices yet don’t create a participatory learning environment, students still don’t have full access to the learning environment.

Bernacchio et al. move us toward the collaboration that occurs among instructors, reflecting on their Critical Friends Group processes in order to “model a learning community, develop habits of mind, and make graduate school accessible” (56). That is, in order to brainstorm ways to make their own classrooms more equitable, accessible, and flexible, these five faculty members met in a group to discuss their pedagogies through the combined theoretical lenses of Universal Design for Learning and McIntosh’s Interactive Phase Theory. Though this almost just sounded like a group of faculty members brainstorming in very structured settings, the major takeaway here for me is that these faculty members chose to collaborate outside of school to share and collect a “repertoire of instructional tools, strategies and practices that support equity and access” (65). This is an incredible testimony to the desire of instructors to go “above and beyond” traditional pedagogies and what sounds like a really useful collaboration.  I wonder if something with the same goals as the CFG could be adopted departmentally? My master’s program required a certain number of professional development hours each semester, and many of my peers participated in (less structured) collaborative groups where they discussed pedagogy successes, failures, and potentials to do more.

Lastly, Elizabeth Harrison looks at the collaborative efforts between faculty members and institutional organizations, such as Disability Service Offices, in order to better advocate for Universally Designed Instruction (UDI). To frame this collaboration, Harrison focuses on learner-centered education: “what the student is learning, how the student is learning, the conditions under which the student is learning, whether the student is retaining and applying the learning, and how current learning positions the student for future learning” (Weimer xvi qtd. in Harrison 153). This student-focused learning asks teachers to do more with teaching, which is where the collaboration comes in. UD requires Disability Service Professionals to engage in a collaborative relationship with instructors, consulting them in disability-related issues that allow instructors to better identify and dismantle learning barriers (154). Harrison provides a series of pretty great worksheets that instructors can use to 1) identify their goals, 2) determine their learning objectives, and 3) design assessment activities. By going through these processes, then, instructors can move toward UDI that “support[s] the learning of all their many, different learners” (162). I really enjoyed this worksheets because the framework provided is very rhetorical: It asks instructors to reflect on their goals and motivations, what they value in their pedagogies, and investigate the accessibility of their own classroom spaces and practices.

This set of readings really emphasized the importance of collaboration within a variety of contexts and with a number of different collaborators—all with the intention of creating accessible pedagogies that can better serve our students. The only thing I didn’t see in these readings was attention to the collaborative efforts among students themselves. That is, no one was really focusing on how students could collaborate with each other in order to support each other’s learning processes, though Knoll does mention it briefly in her discussion of “practicing interdependency” (129). In Comp/Rhet, collaborative pedagogies often focus on how students collaborate with each other: to brainstorm, draft, and revise together; to compose/create knowledge, and to supplement each others’ strengths and weaknesses. However, Davidson was fresh in my mind during these readings, and I heard her arguments for 21st-century collaborative pedagogies echoed (quietly) within these readings: “Where they perceive the shortcomings of the individual, I sense opportunity for collaboration” (3) …

 

 

Bernacchio, Charlie, Flynn Ross, Kimberley Robinson Washburn, Jean Whitney, and Diane R. Wood. “Faculty Collaboration to Improve Equity, Access, and Inclusion in Higher Education.” Equity and Excellence in Education 40.1 (2007): 56-66.

Davidson, Cathy N. Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. New York: Viking, 2011. Print.

Harrison, Elizabeth G. “Working with Faculty toward Universally Designed Instruction: The Process of Dynamic Course Design.” Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability 19.2 (2006): 152-62.

Knoll, Kristina R. “Feminist Disability Studies Pedagogy.” Feminist Teacher 19.1 (2008): 122-33.