How Can Teachers & Professors Help Students With Disabilities?
One of the things we often get asked after one of us, or a guest poster, makes a post about education and accessibility is to tell teachers and professors what they can do to ensure their classes are accessible. I understand and appreciate the motivation for this question, but the problem is that we can’t really answer it with any usefulness because it depends too much on the location you’re in, the access to resources you have, and the flexibility of your educational institution.
There are two things that teachers and professors can do to have their classroom be as accessible to students with disabilities as possible.
1. Learn what your educational institution can do for students with disabilities.
One of the things that student accessibility services often do is ask students “So, what accommodations do you need?” While this is helpful for getting a conversation started, it’s not necessarily in the best interest of the student to have them just come up with a few suggestions and then focus on those. Frankly, most students won’t be aware of what accommodations are available for them, which someone working in student accessibility services would be aware of. (To give an example, I only learned recently that the university that Don dropped out of due in part to difficulties in getting accommodations had the option of adjustable tables for students with disabilities. Having never encountered them before, he never thought to ask.)
As a teacher or professor, being aware yourself of exactly what accommodations are available, and what is required to get them, will allow you to work with your students to ensure that they get the best aid possible. It will also allow you to know what you can do for any students who may be temporarily disabled due to injury or accident.
Last year I was part of a review committee for the university, and learned that none of the professors I asked had any real idea of how they would assist a student with disabilities in getting accommodations, or how they’d need to adjust their academic advising for a student with disabilities. Being that there are whole buildings on my campus that are not accessible to someone who can’t walk up a flight of stairs, which actually prevents students with mobility-related disabilities from taking any classes at all in certain disciplines (a fact that always seems to surprise people when I point it out), this strikes me as something professors, especially those who do academic advising, would need to be aware of.
2. Let students know that you’re aware that accommodations may be necessary and that you’re open to discussing those issues. Let students know how they can contact you if they need accommodations – whether you prefer email or coming by during office hours, or both.
One of the things many universities require students to do is go up to strange professors that they’ve never met before and start discussing their disability. While on the surface this probably looks like “a reasonable amount of self-advocacy”, the students with disabilities I’ve talked to often describe this as the worst part of getting accommodations. They have no idea what they’re going to face. Will it be someone who grudgingly agrees to something, obviously irritated? Will it be someone who rolls their eyes and suddenly starts talking about how easy it is to fake being disabled? Will it be someone who gives them a little “Everyone’s a bit disabled!” speech? Or will it be one of the many professors who are very accommodating and happy to make their class as accessible as possible?
(I assure you, there are many many professors who are happy to help! But, of course, the stories most passed along, and the ones that worry students with disabilities the most, are the ones where something terrible happens.)
Having this conversation also gives you the chance to let any students with disabilities know that you don’t know everything, and that you’re willing to learn what you can do to best assist them.
I believe that a lot of professors and teachers, just like a lot of the staff that works with students with disabilities, really want what’s best for their students, and want them to be able to do well in school. I know that a lot of times there’s only so much they can do, due to lack of funding or lack of assistance from other people in an educational institution. Knowing what you can do can be endlessly helpful to assisting students with disabilities in your classroom.