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 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 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.