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Disability Access in Higher Education

Heidi Seabrooks-Smith | Recent Masters Graduate Student and Previous Student Coalition Member

Accessibility in higher education increases equity for everyone regardless of ability, which is critical for student success. According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institution (PNPI), in the 2015-2016 academic year, “19% of all enrolled undergraduates reported having a disability, compared to 12% of all enrolled post baccalaureate students.” According to the PNPI Students with Disabilities in Higher Education fact sheet, students report learning challenges such as:

  • Classroom and instructional environment barriers, which includes faculty being unaware of disability accommodations, faculty who push back against accommodations, and instructors who do not respond to requests for accommodations; and

  • Negative interactions with fellow students, the stigma of disability, and the added work of seeking support and accommodations for their disability.

I recently completed a graduate program where I studied adult and higher education. I was introduced to a different, more in-depth concept of accessibility than I was previously aware – specifically, non-mobility accessibility as it relates to educational and professional environments. My previous accessibility experiences had been about a person’s need for mobility assistive devices such as wheelchairs, walkers, canes, crutches, and similar appliances. However, the course that I was enrolled in changed my perspective on disability access.

This course provided overviews on assistive technology devices such as screen readers, speech-to-text apps, text-to-speech reader apps, captions, and more. This new insight gave me an awareness of how devastating the impact could be on students when assistive tools are absent. The lack of consistent protocols for students to obtain assistive technologies or fear of discrimination often dissuades students from seeking assistance and therefore hindering student success, furthering inequities for disabled students.

There is still a substantial portion of the disabled population that is being disenfranchised through an inadequate system of support in higher education institutions. These systemic barriers have historically led to high levels of drop out rates from the disabled community. “Only 34% of students with a disability complete a four-year degree. While students with disabilities face added hurdles, using modified teaching techniques, technological enhancements and dedicated professionals, means they don’t have to be part of this statistic” (Access to Higher Education for Students with Disabilities). The data demonstrate how important it is to ensure access to higher education for all students by guaranteeing that equity in accessibility exists for the entire student population. That is done by creating a support structure in higher educational environments that promote successful educational and personal outcomes for all.

Institutions can take proactive steps to begin creating successful learning outcomes for all students. This sentiment was echoed by Kyle Shachmut, co-chair of the EDUCAUSE IT Accessibility group and Assistant Director of Digital Accessibility Services at Harvard University. “Educators need to think about accessibility at the origin of content creation. Otherwise, you’re reporting on inaccessibility that already exists, as opposed to preventing it,” said Shachmut (Rethinking Technology Accessibility in Higher Ed). Institutions should proactively seek to supply and increase assistive technology in physical and virtual classroom environments and be receptive to students voicing their assistive technology needs. One recent report from 2020, which surveyed a group of 111 students found that affirmative outcomes resulted from the inclusion of assistive technology (AT). “AT use was found to have a positive psychosocial impact in the areas of competence, adaptability and self-esteem. Those whose AT needs were fully met scored significantly higher on academic self efficacy, well-being, and on 4 of the 10 educational engagement subscales compared to those who had unmet AT needs,'' (Assistive technologies, educational engagement and psychosocial outcomes among students with disabilities in higher education). Additionally, we can take steps individually to ensure a more inclusive educational environment for ourselves and our peers by incorporating techniques like multiple modes for course materials, accessible fonts, confirming contrast and color ratios, adding hyperlinks with descriptive titles to documents, adding captions, and providing transcripts for presentations and videos to enhance accessibility.

Reflect on the challenge of being a student asked to take a test without first having access to required resources for adequate test preparation. Envision being a student who relies on corrective lenses, but you're made to sit farthest from the blackboard to take notes. Without proper resources and changes in institutional awareness and action, these students lack the supports needed for postsecondary success. How can we expect students with disabilities to be successful without ever giving them the tools to learn?

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