Shifting practice in higher education disability resources requires that we step back from our current way of approaching and thinking about disability and access.
The Traditional Approach
The traditional approach is to work with an individual student, analyze how the student is impacted by disability and prescribe accommodations. The questions we ask ourselves in this traditional approach are:
- Does the student meet eligibility criteria?
- How does the disability impact the student?
- Is the requested accommodation supported by external documentation?
- Is the accommodation reasonable?
- Will the accommodation provide an unfair advantage?
- Are we in compliance?
We communicate the student’s need for accommodation to faculty and institutional colleagues. We emphasize that disability documentation is on file and stress the student’s responsibility to communicate problems, request services in a timely manner, and follow-up (sometimes every semester).
This practice has indeed resulted in an increase in enrollment and graduation of disabled students. However, it has not produced equity and does not challenge the dominant view of disability on our campuses. It can give the illusion of equal opportunity, while in reality requiring disabled students to accept special treatment and take on burdensome responsibilities. Increasingly, we recognize the limitations of such an approach. Exposed to the social model of disability and universal design, we look to design as a tool for creating access. As we interact with campus colleagues, we remind them of student diversity and encourage inclusive design. However, we rarely look internally at the example that we set or the implicit messages that we send.
Transforming Our Practices
To transform our messages, we must develop practices that truly promote appreciation of disability, equality, and full participation. To achieve this we must:
- Relocate the ‘problem of disability’ from residing primarily with the individual with an impairment to the design of the environment.
- Remove the emphasis on sorting and labeling that currently dominates our practices.
- Promote design that anticipates diverse users and thus minimizes the need for retrofit and individual accommodations.
- Collaborate with and encourage all members of the campus community to share in the responsibility for creating welcoming and inclusive environments.
- Celebrate the rich disability history and culture by including disabled writers, artists and musicians in campus events.
- Be informed by disability activists and disability studies scholars.
This transformation is not easy. Through years of experience, college administrators expect us to attend to issues of compliance and may fear the cost of accommodation as we discuss what we should do rather than what we must do. Faculty expect us to ensure students claiming disability really “deserve” accommodations. Students come to our offices focused on the accommodations they can get rather than on access. We may even feel challenged in our role as expert and uncertain about where to begin.
This is where Refocus 2.0 comes in. The site is a resource for disability resource professionals interested in making this transition. Beginning with core values and beliefs that serve as the “true north,” Refocus 2.0 presents examples of current practice, discusses unintended messages embedded in traditional practice, provides examples of how we might act differently and summarizes the potential impact of a different approach. Practices are divided into four areas: office representation, administration and structure, accommodations and procedures, and outreach. Every aspect of disability resource work offers the opportunity to influence campus thoughts and actions. Finally, the site contains an extensive list of resources to encourage further exploration.
The overall goal of Refocus 2.0 is to model and encourage the development of a critical voice in analyzing the work of disability resource offices. We invite professionals to ask key questions:
- What do I do now? What is my current practice?
- What is the impact of that practice?
- Where are we locating the problem?
- What is the student’s experience? How is it different from other students?
- What is the message it is sending?
- How might it look different?
Transitioning from a service provider to a campus leader is not easy. The shift is subtle and the push back from stakeholders invested in the traditional approach is challenging. Recognizing that it is impossible to provide black-and-white answers for all situations, Refocus 2.0 offers a process for analyzing unintended messages and staying on track toward a long-term goal.
A personal note from the authors
We are all on a journey in this process. This change is incremental and iterative. We have engaged in practices that we now question. And we continue to recognize thinking and practices in our own work that call for further alignment with our values. We have learned that lasting change doesn’t happen overnight but is built upon a solid foundation. We encourage you to:
- Build confidence in using language that is consistent with disability activists and disability studies scholars.
- Become more grounded in disability studies.
- Begin making changes within your sphere of influence.
It can feel overwhelming to imagine that, in addition to identifying accommodations that are reasonable for each student in each context, addressing faculty concerns, and researching emerging issues, we must also be involved in systemic issues proactively. However, we hope the strategies provided by this site will encourage an exploration, not of how we can do more work, but of how we can do the work differently.
It’s exciting work if you choose to do it!