Across the United States, at colleges and universities, 12-13% of undergraduate students are registered with their educational institution as having a disability.
But, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, that 12-13% represents only about one-third of students who actually have one.
Which means that many American college students attend classes, turn in homework, and take exams at a disadvantage to other students due to barriers within the higher education system.
With so many students who have diverse ways of learning, including many that professors don’t know about, how can faculty ensure their teaching is reaching all students effectively?
Through the CLAS Accessibility Fellow program, during the 2022-23 academic year, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences supported the first work by College faculty to study disability and improve accessibility issues at UConn, and generally in higher education.
The projects’ outcomes led to several new changes and programs, including a workshop course for faculty to improve the accessibility of their pedagogy and course delivery, advocacy for more resources for video captioning, and efforts to empower graduate students with disabilities.
The programs are just one way that CLAS is working to elevate accessible educational delivery to accommodate all students, regardless of whether or not they’ve disclosed a disability.
“People want to be inclusive and accessible and are willing to do the work to make things better,” says Erin Scanlon, assistant professor-in-residence of physics and CLAS accessibility fellow.
The idea for the program started in Spring 2022, when Associate Dean for Humanities Lyn Tribble and Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Collaborative Programs, and Faculty Development Kate Capshaw saw a need to fill an institutional gap.
At UConn, about 20 percent of students receive support from the Center for Students with Disabilities, says Scanlon; but about 30 percent actually have a disability, she says. Speculation varies about why students don’t register their disability: fear of stigma, belief they can “do it” themselves now that they are in college, and other social reasons.
While UConn’s Center for Students with Disabilities (CSD) provides excellent resources for students with disabilities, says Scanlon, there are far fewer paths for instructors to understand student needs, let alone to create the time and space to improve their curricula based on inclusive best practices.
Although CSD works with faculty to help improve their courses, their main purpose is to help students.
“The Center for Students with Disabilities is charged with supporting students, and they do their best to also support faculty within the university,” Scanlon says. And yet, the disciplinary-specific resources that instructors really need aren’t there, Scanlon says.
“People want to be inclusive and accessible and are willing to do the work to make things better.”
Scanlon herself, who is based at UConn Avery Point, teaches undergraduate physics courses such as General Physics, Elements of Physics and Physics of the Environment at the regional campus. But her research isn’t focused on physics itself; it’s on how to create better experiences for STEM students with disabilities.
Her recent publications include research on how to support students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the physics classroom; how professors can prevent physics web pages from creating barriers for people with disabilities; and how to plan for diverse learners when developing curricula.
Scanlon has long sought a way to share her research findings more broadly with her colleagues; but, she says, different fields can have different issues.
“I have a lot of experience with the sciences, but that doesn’t look the same as accessibility in, for example, political science,” she explains.
The CLAS Accessibility Fellowship allowed her to look further into the accessible teaching literature in other fields, so she could better integrate her own knowledge with other fields into a broad workshop, which she honed and offered over the 2022-23 academic year. She calls the program a faculty learning community.
Faculty from 19 different departments in the College signed up to participate in her online program, and the participants met weekly throughout the academic year.
The workshop began by discussing disability justice, the social justice movement that spreads awareness about prejudice against and oppression of people with disabilities. Participants learned about Universal Design for Learning and how to apply it to their specific area of expertise. Finally, they critically examined their courses and course materials, and implemented what they’d learned into updating and improving their curricula.
Scanlon says it’s very important to note that although she has heard that her workshop certainly helped faculty better approach their teaching, it in no way solves all of their problems.
“The struggle is that many professors think they have to change everything and solve all accessibility problems at once, and that’s just not feasible,” she points out.
“Nobody has infinite time or resources to change everything. The workshop encouraged faculty to pick one aspect of their course to focus on, analyze it, improve it, and implement it in a future semester.”
For example, large classes that are offered only in lecture format put Deaf and hard-of-hearing students at a distinct disadvantage in the absence of accessibility practices. Even discussion sections, which are typically smaller than lectures, are a challenge.
Smaller group discussions and flipped-classroom models, as have been integrated into UConn’s introductory physics courses in recent years, are one method of accommodating students with hearing challenges. Faculty in the workshop took similar approaches to altering their lecture courses, Scanlon says.
But what many faculty found most helpful was an invited panel of students with disabilities, who spoke about their experiences and how faculty can better help students like them. The students spoke about their experiences with accommodations that don’t actually meet their needs, and how faculty can advocate for more targeted support of both their students and themselves in working together to create the best accommodations.
Alexia Smith, professor of anthropology and participant in the learning community, said the workshop was a great opportunity to connect with other faculty across the University and explore ways to better serve students, in particular, neurodivergent students.
“Through simple course tweaks, we were able to brainstorm ways to efficiently serve our students,” she says. “I am glad that UConn is at the fore of these really important conversations.”
While Scanlon worked directly with faculty to improve course delivery, two other CLAS Accessibility Fellows worked with campus offices to improve support for faculty and graduate students.
Professor of Psychological Sciences Holly Fitch worked with the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) to advocate for more funding for professional captioning of course video content. UConn currently only supports professional captioning for courses that have a student registered to need that accommodation with CSD.
She is also working with a former UConn Ph.D. student, Emily Tarconish, now a faculty member at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, on simple video lessons and student perspectives that can bring accessibility topics like those in Scanlon’s course to more faculty in the form of short, impactful video lessons.
Associate Professor-in-Residence of Political Science Kimberly Bergendahl has also worked with El Instituto graduate student Josh Hinostroza and found that graduate students are less likely to request accommodations for a documented disability when compared with undergraduate students.
With the input of Aetna Chair of Writing and Professor of English Brenda Brueggemann, Bergendahl and Hinostroza have worked on improving accessibility support for graduate students at UConn, including programs on accessibility in information technology, events that promote acceptance and disclosure of disabilities, and resources on employment rights for graduate students making the transition into the workplace.
In the coming months, Scanlon will be featured in the edited volume “The International Handbook of Physics Education Research.” Her chapter will review the literature on disability and physics education, along with her recommendations on how to move into the future of accessible learning.
In the coming year, Scanlon will serve as a common curriculum committee (CCC+) faculty navigator, to create an accessibility checklist for all syllabi in the 2023-24 academic year. She looks forward to this expansion of her work outside of CLAS.
The groups will also work in the 2023-24 academic year to develop more centralized and more faculty-facing resources on the web. They are considering advocating for a Senate committee or working group, which would reach all of UConn rather than just CLAS.
“I want to make things better,” says Scanlon. “We all want to help UConn become a more inclusive, accessible, just place.”