Last month, I had the privilege of attending the national conference of the Association of Higher Education And Disability (AHEAD). The three-day conference was a time for staff, faculty, and students who work in disability services and accessibility to meet and share their knowledge, experiences, and stories. I had the opportunity to present on the Distance Learning department’s efforts on web accessibility and share our processes and guidelines with other institutions. I also attended numerous sessions and learned a great deal about accessibility, disability services, and disability culture. Here are five of the many, many takeaways I brought back from AHEAD.
Focus on tearing down barriers.
A key theme throughout the conference was the idea of tearing down environmental, structural, and systemic barriers that prevent people with disabilities from fully and easily participating in society. Accommodations are only necessary because our institutions are designed in a way that excludes some people at the beginning, requiring later workarounds to bring them in. This cartoon was used as an illustration of the idea:
As people working in higher education to support all students, we should be working to remove barriers wherever we can.
Intersectionality must be part of the disability conversation.
It’s common, especially in higher education, to attempt to segment off various identities into different offices. Racial and ethnic concerns go to Multicultural Student Affairs; students who want support for LGTBQ+ issues go to the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center; students who need accommodations for a disability go to AccessibleNU. But what if a student is a person of color, queer, and disabled–such as the opening keynote speaker, Kay Ulanday Barrett? Kay spoke about the importance of recognizing all aspects of a person’s identity and, rather than demanding that students fragment themselves into small, department-specific pieces, faculty and student services staff should look at all aspects of a student’s identity and experiences and let the student share what the whole of their identity means to them.
Disability must be part of the diversity conversation, too.
When someone mentions diversity, most people (especially in the United States) immediately think of racial diversity, often followed by gender, sexual orientation, and religion. Disability tends to be an afterthought, if it’s included at all. Mary Bonderoff of Morrisville State College and Craig Levins of Broward College spoke about this extensively in their presentation “Disability is Diversity: Creating Campus Partnerships.” Diversity is vital to any strong community, including universities, as it brings a wider variety of perspectives and experiences that enriches the community as a whole. And the perspectives and experiences of disabled people must be included when talking about diversity. This also spreads the responsibility for accessibility out from just the disability services office–just as all faculty, staff, and students are responsible for making sure that the campus is a welcoming space for (for example) immigrant students and first-generation students, everyone should be responsible for making sure people with disabilities are welcomed, too.
Community is crucial.
A number of the presentations talked about the importance of community. Angela Moreau of Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) talked extensively about how she built campus partnerships to support her office after a campus reorganization led to a huge increase in the number of students she served. Building connections with people who understand the importance of inclusion and who are in a position to advocate for it was crucial to her office’s success. She also said that, by reaching out to other offices, she increased awareness of disability and accessibility issues across campus, and many offices began taking steps to improve their disability support independently.
Online education is causing big changes.
As more and more schools begin offering online classes and online degrees, web accessibility will become a bigger part of disability services. But many disability services offices lack the training, resources, and staff to support web accessibility in online education (though some schools, like Portland Community College, invest heavily in it). This means that distance learning offices have a major role to play in carrying the mission of accessibility and disability support into the online education world. In partnership with disability services offices, distance learning teams must ensure that the courses they build and the content they share is fully accessible to all learners.