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General Guidance

In this section, we explore how our values and core beliefs translate into practice.

Promoting Disability as an Aspect of Diversity

Button that reads Same struggle, different difference with images I have a dream, symbol for women, rainbow flag, access symbol

To view disability as an aspect of diversity is to recognize that Disabled people experience marginalization and oppression that differs from the experience of nondisabled people.

  • This oppression is specifically referred to as ableism.
  • Ableism is defined as discrimination against disabled people. Ableism also refers to attitudes, beliefs and practices that promote stereotypes and position being nondisabled as preferred over disability.
  • Ableism takes many forms—both overt and subtle.  It occurs on individual levels, organizational levels, and societal levels. It is pervasive and systemic. Some examples are:
    • A nondisabled person assumes that a wheelchair user needs help opening a door.
    • An economics professor makes the statement that someone who is blind cannot possibly succeed in his area of study.
    • An administrator says disability inclusion is important to her because her sister has a disability, and this taught her that we all should be caretakers.
    • A service provider tells a student that the school does not have the resources to produce an accessible textbook and that this is an undue burden.
    • A website is designed in a way that requires the use of a mouse for navigation.
  • It is the role of disability resource professionals to learn to recognize ableism.

Disability is the claimed term used by disability activists and scholars.

  • Avoiding the term disability by using euphemisms such as “differently abled,” “special needs,” or “ability” sends the message that “disability” is a bad word.
  • We follow the lead of activists and scholars in using the terms disability and disabled (while also respecting individual differences).
  • The term “special” specifically perpetuates the idea that disability is not normal and keeps us stuck in a mindset of segregation and separateness.
  • Using the term disability in phrases such as “everyone has some type of disability” or “the only disability is a bad attitude” perpetuates confusion about what disability is and minimizes the experience of disabled people.

We have a responsibility to represent disability as an aspect of diversity both directly and in how we frame the work of the office.

  • Examining and re-examining the unintended messages we send through our language and practices is a critical part of our work.
  • The problem is not disability, but the fact that environments are not designed with all people in mind. Our work should be framed in a way that reflects this.
  • The existence of disabled people should never be represented as the problem.

Promoting Equity and Challenging Ableism

Ableism written with wooden cubes

We need to be especially cautious not to perpetuate the oppression or ableism that disabled people have experienced.

  • This requires an ongoing exploration of our own implicit biases, privilege and assumptions about disability.
  • Because disability resource professionals have significant power to influence perceptions of disability, we also have an obligation to educate ourselves and our campus colleagues regarding disability history and ableism.
  • Basically, our jobs exist as a result of the marginalization and oppression of disabled people.
  • By perpetuating policies and practices informed by a deficit model of disability, disability resource professionals create and maintain barriers that lead to marginalization, oppression, and exclusion of disabled people.
  • We must be committed to working to right these wrongs by challenging ableism where we see it.

We take a “nothing about us without us” approach to our work.

  • Typically, in diversity work, people who do not have the particular identity do not take the lead in equity work but are instead guided by those who claim that identity.
  • It seems appropriate for those of us who are nondisabled professionals to position ourselves similarly—to listen to and be informed by the voices of disability activists and disability studies scholars. 

Removing Barriers to Access

A wooden figure representing a person is inside a box while 3 others are outside the box

To the extent possible, access should be seamless.

  • Focusing solely on accommodation provision and not working proactively to improve access maintains the status quo. As a result, disabled students are required to go through additional steps to obtain access.
  • An important goal for our offices is for disabled students to have an experience that is identical to that of nondisabled students.

Access for disabled students extends to all of the benefits that students in general enjoy—both academic and co-curricular.

  • This includes, among other things, social activities, study abroad, and athletic activities.

Access should be provided in a manner that is effective.

  • Access should be provided in a timely manner.
  • Access should be provided in the most integrated way possible. (Separate is rarely equal.)
  • Accommodations, alternate access, or policy modifications should effectively remove the barriers that disabled students experience.

Approaches to access should not problematize disabled people, but the design.

  • Accommodations and policy modifications are an effort to accommodate environments that are designed in ways that do not fully include everyone.
  • When courses are designed with access and diversity in mind the need for individualized accommodations is generally reduced.

Disabled students should not be overburdened by the accommodation process. 

  • Information about campus accessibility and the process of requesting accommodations should be easy to find.
  • The process for requesting and implementing accommodations should be as simple, intuitive, and require as few steps as possible. (Asking ourselves “How many more steps does it take a disabled student to have access to books, exams, etc.” can help us see how we are doing.)
  • Requiring students to have a certain number of meetings with the disability resource office just because it is policy places an unnecessary burden on the student. Policies are a part of the design of the office and should be designed with the user in mind, not just the comfort and convenience of the office staff.
  • Requiring students to meet with professors when that is not necessary for the implementation of an accommodation in order to become more skilled in self-advocacy is problematic because it places the burden on the student instead of the institution.
  • Access should not hinge on a student’s ability to negotiate with a professor or other personnel. Even the worst self-advocate deserves equal access.

Accommodation requests should never be dismissed without a process that involves thoughtful consideration and an opportunity for the student to provide more information. 

  • Provision of accommodations and access is not a formulaic process, but requires individual consideration.
  • Students should not automatically receive certain accommodations and be denied others based solely on their condition.
  • We do not determine proactively that a specific accommodation is never provided. Each request must be individually analyzed in context to determine whether it would represent a fundamental alteration of the academic experience or otherwise be unreasonable.

Accommodations provide opportunity for access, not a guarantee of success.

  • Providing a socially just environment means that disabled students have the same opportunities as nondisabled students.
  • When a practice guarantees success or provides opportunities for success that outpace those available to nondisabled students, it is counter to the values of social justice.
  • Saying “no” can be just as important to creating equity as saying “yes.”

Accommodations are provided specifically to people who are disabled—not to anyone who requests them.

  • A social justice perspective does not mean saying yes to everyone. Nondisabled people generally have access by default and are not, therefore, in need of accommodations to remove any barriers. 
  • When nondisabled people do experience barriers as a result of life circumstances, an institution may choose to address them through individual flexibility or services, but this would not be through the use of accommodations and it is not the responsibility of the disability resource professional.

We prioritize the student’s narrative and rely on external documentation only to the degree necessary to establish disability and to clarify effective accommodations.

  • External documentation is used when the student’s condition is not obvious and when the student is uncertain about what solutions might remove the barrier.
  • Professionals should be willing to meet with students even if they do not yet have diagnostic information available.
  • While accommodations are reserved for people who are disabled, we recognize the intersection between disability and poverty and would not want to deny access due to someone’s inability to afford the fee of an evaluator.

When determining accommodations, there are some key factors that should be considered:

  • Is the person requesting the accommodation disabled? Do they have a diagnosis or condition that may rise to the level of disability?
  • Does a barrier exist for this person?
  • Can the barrier be removed proactively by changing the design of the course, assignment, exam, etc.?
  • Does the requested accommodation effectively remove the barrier without altering the fundamental nature of the course or assignment?
  • If the requested accommodation would result in reducing rigor or altering what is essential to the course or activity, are there alternative accommodations that will provide access without a fundamental alteration?

Promoting Accessible and Inclusive Design

Text accessibility loading with an image of status bar

While providing access only through accommodations may meet the letter of the law (in the U.S.), it does not move the needle toward full inclusion.

  • In fact, this perpetuates a segregated approach and problematizes disability.

A proactive approach to inclusion and access begins with the disability resource professional modeling accessible and inclusive design.

  • Processes and policies, digital resources, websites, online forms, the office layout, and presentations should all model accessible and inclusive design.
  • If we, as disability resource professionals, do not invest in ensuring our own websites, forms, presentations and materials are accessible, we will be less effective at influencing others. It begs the question in fact, “How can we expect others to do so?”
  • Even though improving design will not remove all barriers for everyone, it is still worth the effort to try…and to keep challenging the design.

The role of the disability resource professional includes leadership in creating accessible and inclusive environments across the campus.

  • This includes physical or built environments, digital environments, policy environments, instructional environments and the attitudinal climate.
  • Advocating for processes that ensure accessibility in all campus environments and for the provision of adequate resources are a part of the disability resource professionals’ role.
  • Forming relationships and establishing partnerships to accomplish this work is key.
  • While accommodations will still likely be needed in most courses, this recognition is not a reason to avoid challenging the design to be more inclusive.

Access and accommodations are also extended to disabled employees and visitors to the campus.

  • Disabled employees should be able to participate as fully as their peers. Conversations about access often assume that disability and access are only student issues, ignoring the fact that faculty and staff with disabilities are also impacted by inaccessible designs.
  • Disabled visitors should be able to enjoy the same benefits nondisabled visitors to the campus enjoy.
    • This includes disabled parents who may request accommodations for activities such as graduation, orientations and tours, or other campus events.

Each campus should have an effective, easy to use, process for reporting access barriers.

  • This process should be communicated openly and clearly.

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