Our Time to Swim: The Undertides & Undertones of Accommodation Facilitation
Our Time To Swim is a week long series that takes you inside the high-stakes, rewarding work of making education accessible to all students. Learn how and why disability services support is so important—from legal, ethical, and moral standpoints—and look to the future of disability support at Ryerson and across Ontario and what will be needed to remain relevant, supportive, and prosperous to students in the coming years.
Academic Accommodation Support (AAS), Ryerson’s disability services office (DSO), is grounded in an anti-oppression, social justice framework. What we do is to promote “socially just” pedagogy “to increase disadvantaged learners’ capacity to exercise learner agency” (Hempel-Jorgensen, 2015, p. 531). The undercurrents of our work include:
- combatting instances of ableism (Mladenov, 2016);
- posing questions about who gets to participate in post-secondary education, and do so fully;
- ensuring disability is present and considered in conversations about intersectionality;
- creating programs to support students with disabilities as they transition into, through, and out of their post-secondary experience, as well as into flourishing employment.
The frontline AAS team comprises accommodation facilitators (disability advisors) and specialists in intake and triage, assistive technologies, mobility- and sensory-related disabilities, and learning strategies for complex learners. Daily, this team faces paradoxes of decision-making. Often, we are caught amidst a multifaceted landscape of maelstroms and squalls, spillways and levees: we are more than just service providers and yet are in the work of high stakes service provision.
The AAS team, and facilitators most of all, walk a tightrope between academic integrity and essential course requirements, individual accommodations, and hoped-for aims like high-touch, proactive advising. We are also caught between paradigmatic tensions; between believing in a social model of disability, which emphasizes contextual barriers, yet require students to provide medical documentation to register. To shed light on these intricate, in-between spaces, we want to share with you the undertides and undertones of facilitating academic accommodations.
We embrace the view of disability as “situated in culture and context” (Cory, 2011, p. 33). This is the heart of the social model of disability. A person with a disability does not have a “problem” or “deficiency”; instead, it is the culture, context, or environment that is problematic or deficient. According to this social model view, “We [a]re not disabled by our impairments but by the disabling barriers we fac[e] in society” (Oliver, 2013, para. 1). To give an example, “the problem…is not that a person using a wheelchair cannot walk, but rather that the designers of a campus space failed to put in adequate ramps and elevators. The solution is no longer focused on an individual but is systemic” (Cory, 2011, p. 33-4). And in this lies another tension: working to overcome barriers within a larger system fraught with barriers.
One way we try to reduce barriers is to teach and model shifts in language, aligned with Words With Dignity. You will often hear AAS staff remind, “It’s not AAS student, but AAS registrant.” After all, registering with our services is but one characteristic of a student’s experience. We most often will also say, “Student or person with a disability” instead of “disabled.” Yet this too is not without tensions and complexities, paradoxes even. A push back to the social model of disability is that it overlooks the individual experience. Some people living with disabilities explain how embracing language like “disabled” is truer to their experience, as disabilities are individually experienced, felt, and lived through. In every interaction, however, we create space for students to choose and use the language that’s best for them, chosen by them. The social model ultimately helps to guide our work in that it urges blame or fault not be placed with the person, but rather with the context.
The social model also underlies why we believe in Universal Design of Learning (UDL). How, with increased funding and more facilitators, AAS could participate more robustly in UDL conversations and curriculum on campus and beyond . UDL arose from “the disability rights movement, which began in the 1960s” with the aim of “ensuring equal opportunity and eliminating discrimination based on disability;” for “people with disabilities the actual design of built environments and information technologies is a part of the discriminatory practice” (Maisel, 2012, p. 15). A pillar of UDL is its intention of non-discrimination. Another is the reduction of barriers. If services, practices, places, and spaces were designed with the priorities of non-discrimination and reducing barriers that limit access, then functionality would improve for most people; “a usable world for people with disabilities would become the norm” (Maisel, 2012, p. 28). UDL can enable all students—all people—with disabilities to participate, and in ways that “reduce stigma and the need for accommodation” (Cory, 2011, p. 33).
Universal Design of Learning is commonly defined as the “design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design,” (Mace, 1985) and emerged within the context of architecture and physical design (King-Sears, 2009). But this definition has evolved; the European Institute for Design and Disability (EIDD) offers Design for All (DfA), promoting “design for human diversity, social inclusion and equality”. Effectively designed universal solutions do not call attention to themselves as being anything more than easier for everyone to use, which is exactly what they are. Designs that were developed with consideration for the needs of a diverse population work for men and women, children and elders, small people and large, and people with temporary or longer-term disabilities. They work when it’s dark, noisy, wet, or when we’re tired. Everyone benefits. (Story, 1998, p. 4)
There are some individual needs—some disabilities—that come with localized experiences, like pain. Others come with adaptive requirements; for example, blind students or those with low vision and the use of braille or the software JAWS that can read out text, just as sign language interpreters for students who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing. But ramps installed before doorways, a frequent example of UDL, benefit not just those with mobility devices but also those pushing strollers, holding bags of groceries, or holding the hand of another. In a parallel way, professors who electronically post their lecture notes benefit not just those students who require notes for disability reasons, such as those with dyslexia, but all students requiring help to see and learn from model notes. In the classroom, assessment situations, and in practicums, when UDL is prioritized barriers diminish, the need for individual accommodation minimizes, facilitator intervention fades, and a student’s access to their academic experience broadens. UDL in the teaching environment looks like inclusion to the greatest extent by which particular accommodations are considered beforehand and implemented for all. To design according to UDL is to imagine “the greatest diversity of your student body, with regard to race, class, gender, sexual orientation or identity, religion, ability, and age—and designing for that” (Cory, 2011, p. 33) rather than a so-called “typical” learner. Curricular UDL—broadening course goals, instructional methods, planning, and assessments—fights against this notion of an average student (Meyer, Rose, Gordon, 2014). UDL moves the locus from average to all, or as many as possible, after which adaptation or accommodation is necessary.
A student may never be aware of what’s underneath the surface of facilitating academic accommodation, and if we are able to do our best work, they won’t, instead able to focus on their studies and academic success. They will remain supported, yet blissfully unaware of the tensions, paradoxes, and paradigms; the ebbs, ripples, and crosscurrents that define their postsecondary experience: the social model of disability, Universal Design of Learning, equality and equity, accommodation and accessibility, and the spirit of social justice at the heart of DSO work.
Continue reading Our Time To Swim tomorrow, when Sarah Kloke contextualizes staff burnout in disability services in higher education; and if you missed it yesterday, read Christina Halliday’s introduction to the critical juncture of Ryerson’s disability support service.