What students with disabilities wish their instructors knew

***Note: the images embedded in this article are images of presentation slides, the content of which is discussed in the text of the article.

I work as an instructional technologist in the New York University Faculty of Arts & Science Office of Educational Technology. In effort to keep in line with the University’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, we organized a panel on accessibility for classrooms and course materials. Our lineup included:

  • A faculty member who has a disability, and who has effectively provided accommodations to numerous students with disabilities;
  • A key stakeholder from NYU IT who is spearheading university-wide initiatives for digital accessivility;
  • The director of NYU’s Center for Multicultural Education and Programs, who provided a disability justice framework for our conversation;
  • A representative (and accessible tech aficionado) from NYU’s Moses Center for Students with Disabilities;
  • …and myself.

I came to this discussion from a unique perspective, having been an undergraduate student at NYU before starting my work here as an instructional technologist. As someone with anxiety and depression, I really could have benefitted from learning accommodations while I was in school, but the prospect of navigating bureaucratic process and encountering unsympathetic instructors was too daunting. The end result? I did just fine. I graduated with honors. But I probably could have achieved a lot more in my time as a student — and many students aren’t as lucky as I was.

That’s why, when I became an instructional technologist, I made accessibility a passion project of mine. My thinking was that creating content with accessibility in mind could lead to fewer requests for accommodations — and fewer administrative hoops for students to jump through. As it turns out, there’s a community of instructional designers who agree with me!

Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, is based on that very idea. There’s no way we can account for every need of every possible student — humankind is too diverse for that to be feasible. But we can design things that will work for as many people as possible by removing common barriers to access.

Today, I gave a brief overview of UDL and how faculty can apply best practices to their courses and course materials. Then, I shifted the conversation to the student perspective — hence the title of this blog post.

In my experience, there seems to be a giant disconnect among institutions, instructors, and students. None of these agents knows how to talk to the others. Students don’t understand when instructors can and can’t act outside of institutional policy; institutions don’t understand how frustrating the bureaucracy is for students AND instructors; and instructors don’t know how to accommodate their students without catching flak from the institution.

While I am not in a position to change university policy, I am in a position to foster dialogue between faculty and students. So that’s what I aimed to do today. I thought back on my own experiences as a student, and talked to some current students with disabilities. I asked the question:

If you could say just one one thing to university professors, what would you want them to know?

I paired the students’ answers with UDL principles and best practices to highlight how a little bit of empathy — along with a commitment to working toward a universal design framework — can turn instructors into allies rather than barriers to learning.

“It can be difficult (and expensive) to get a diagnosis.”

It’s true that UDL seeks to reduce the number of interventions and accommodations for students with disabilities. It’s also true that these design practices often lead to a better experience for all students. Too often, accessibility is framed as a “niche” concern, but allowing for flexibility in the learning process is good for student motivation in general because it appeals to different learning styles and preferences. But removing barriers for students with disabilities does present a significant advantage — for students, instructors, and administrators — in terms of time spent engaging with bureaucratic processes.

Though students may receive “reasonable” accommodations without medical documentation (at least at NYU), there’s often a mismatch between what academic institutions deem “reasonable” and what students actually need. That’s when students are forced to obtain a diagnosis and a doctor’s note, which can be a timely and costly endeavor. Furthermore, many students (particularly those who have mental illnesses) have past trauma from harmful interactions with the medical community.

If a student approaches you directly rather than going through the university, it’s not because they are trying to “get out of” complying with procedures. It’s probably because they feel defeated by those procedures and are hoping you’ll work with them individually.

“I hate feeling like a burden to my professors.”

As someone who works very closely with faculty, I know how busy instructors are. Adjuncts in particular end up spending so much time on the courses they teach that their earnings average out to less than minimum wage. But when a student presents a need for accommodation to you, consider that this might be the fourth or fifth time they’ve had this conversation today, and that their other instructors might not have responded kindly. Yes, having to rework course materials or adjust your in-class activities will present “more work,” but think about all the time, energy, and possibly money the student has already spent, just to get to this conversation. Also, remember that your school probably has technologists (hi!) and specialists on hand to help you through this process.

Including a simple statement about accessibility in your syllabus can signal to students that you’ll be receptive if they talk to you about accommodations, and gives you a chance to communicate any institutional policies and procedures that you are beholden to. If a student asks for something that your institution won’t let you provide, be sure to explain that the policy is the problem, not the student or their disability. You could offer to appeal to your institution’s center for students with disabilities on the student’s behalf. If you present the request as an instruction-related need rather than a student accommodation, there might be another way to obtain that accommodation.

“I don’t necessarily want to ‘out’ myself to my peers.”

Students don’t always want their peers to know that they have a disability, which is understandable when we consider that no other students are required to share the details of their medical histories with their peers. This is not to insinuate that disabilities are shameful or something to be hidden — it’s just not something a student should have to share with anyone if they don’t want to.

Some processes for accommodations by definition result in a student’s disability status being revealed to their classmates. For example, it’s common at NYU for the Center for Students with Disabilities to announce to the whole class when a classmate needs a designated note taker for the semester. Sometimes, that student also requires extra time on exams and is required to sit for those exams at a different location. If the rest of the class knows a designated note taker was required and one person doesn’t show up to the midterm, they’ll be able to infer that student’s disability status.

Another scenario that students with disabilities often encounter is ableism in classroom discussions. If an instructor uses ableist language, or lets ableist language from other students go unchecked, a student may not feel comfortable speaking up, as it might result in needing to disclose their disability.

A less obvious but incredibly common occurrence is the discussion of disability in the abstract, as though no one in the room has one. Keep in mind that students with disabilities do not always need accommodations in the classroom, or sometimes they believe it’s easier to overcome learning barriers than to go through the accommodation request process. It’s likely that you have at least one student with a disability in your class, even if you’ve received no accommodation requests.

“Similar impairments do not always mean similar accommodations.”

Obviously, people with different disabilities have differing experiences. What many don’t realize is that those with the same (or similar) disabilities can have widely different experiences as well. Intersections like gender, race, socioeconomic class, and nationality may affect how a person with a disability goes about their daily life, and disabilities can manifest in different degrees and manners from person to person.

As an example, “blind” often turns out to be a pretty vague descriptor of how a person interacts with the world — it’s a spectrum rather than a discrete state of being. People who are on the same part of the spectrum may even need different accommodations. Not every blind person can read braille, or listen to a screen reader, or read a computer screen after adjusting color contrast and font size.

If a student requires, say, 5 medical absences for chronic pain, and another student requires 3, don’t assume that the first student is trying to “get away with something” or ask for “special treatment.” They just have needs that differ from your other student’s, because they are a different person.

“I don’t want sympathy — or an ‘easy way out.’ I just want to learn.”

In my opinion, the most important thing to remember about students with disabilities is that they want to learn. They enroll at prestigious universities like NYU to get a rigorous education and to do work they’ll be proud of. Accommodations are not “special treatment” or a way of “making things easy” for students with disabilities — accommodations are about removing barriers to learning so that all students are on the same proverbial playing field.

As an instructional designer, I would never want a professor to change or “level down” the learning objectives for a unit or course in the name of accessibility. I do, however, want to make sure that all students have the tools they need to learn and that they can demonstrate what they have learned. That’s why my preferred approach is “strong on objective, flexible on pathway.”

Asking yourself some simple questions can often lead to a more accessible method of instruction. Some examples include:

  • What role does a time limit play in this assessment?
  • Do students really need to be in the classroom, writing an exam, in order to demonstrate this knowledge?
  • What “lower-level” skills can I scaffold to allow students to spend more mental energy on higher-order tasks?

…where do we even start?

Many of the instructors I talk to want to create a more inclusive, accessible space for their students, but they’re intimidated by the idea of retrofitting all of the course materials they’ve ever created. My advice is always to start small. Here are a few things you could try:

  • Keep editable versions of all of your documents going forward. PDFs are often unreadable by screen readers and require conversion. Docs (whether from Word, Pages, Google Docs, Libre Office… etc) can be easily formatted to work well with screen readers
  • Make lecture notes available to your students. Perhaps a pair of students can be responsible for posting lecture notes after each session — no extra work on your part!
  • Use built-in headings and styles when creating documents, writing emails, or adding information to course websites. Instead of making headings bold and increasing font size, use those built-in “Header” styles in Word/Docs/your email client. Portland Community College has some helpful step-by-step guides for this.
  • Continue to educate yourself. Reading this is a good start! So is talking to your students and asking what they need. NYU’s Center for Multicultural Education and Programs offers a training called Disability Zone, which is open to NYU students, faculty, and staff. They also have all of their materials available via Dropbox. Attend trainings, do some reading, and recognize that there’s always room to learn.

If you’re interested in seeing the rest of the slides from my presentation, you can view my presentation here.