Disability Services as a Resource:
Advancing Universal Design
Karen S. Kalivoda and Margaret C. Totty
The University of Georgia
Many institutions of higher education have established disability services offices to assist in implementing the basic regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA; 1990). This chapter offers a brief overview of the mission of these offices and describes some common ways disability services offices can assist both students with disabilities and the campus community. Suggestions are proposed on how to utilize the support available from these standard service delivery systems and at the same time advance the concept of Universal Design.
Disability Services as a Resource:
Advancing Universal Design
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA; 1990) mandates that institutions of higher education provide equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities. Higher education administrators and student development professionals are faced with difficult decisions regarding how to provide the most efficient and cost-effective access throughout the institution. The law requires a particular person to be assigned to coordinate ADA compliance for the institution, but does not require a specific office to serve students with disabilities. However, most colleges and universities have chosen to establish offices to address specific disability concerns of students (Schuck & Kroeger, 1993).
The purpose of this chapter is to offer practical information for institutions, both public and private, small and large, to assist in implementing the ADA's basic regulations. The authors will offer a brief overview of the mission of disability services offices, describe common assistance available from disability services offices to both students with disabilities and the college or university community, and suggest how to implement Universal Design within the campus community.
Establishment of Disability Service Offices
As early as 30 years ago, institutions were challenged to set up offices through which “all assistance and activities [for students with disabilities] would be channeled” (Pinder, 1979, p. 8). Many institutions established new positions to coordinate equal access needs for students with disabilities and others assigned these extra responsibilities to an existing position such as the dean of students. Program design for disability services programs, whether comprehensive or specific, varies widely just as size and characteristics of institutions vary. With the establishment in 1977 of the Association on Handicapped Student Service Programs in Postsecondary Education, now named the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), disability services providers gained support on how to provide services to individuals with disabilities pursuing postsecondary education. AHEAD is an international organization of professionals with a mission to increase full participation of persons with disabilities in higher education. The growth in the AHEAD membership, from 36 charter members in 1977 to 2,200 in 2001, reflects the growth in disability services offices throughout the nation (J. Jarrow, personal communication, August 24, 2001).
These offices share a common goal of assisting institutions in fulfilling their responsibility to provide equal access to qualified students with disabilities (Kalivoda & Higbee, 1989). The term equal access means equal availability of all programs and freedom of participation for all students with disabilities. Equal access does not guarantee equal outcomes nor does it promote favoritism of one group over another or result in the lowering of academic standards.
Documentation of Disability
Federal statutes require that institutions of higher education provide appropriate accommodations and modifications for students with disabilities. Institutions are not required to provide evaluative testing to establish the presence of a disability (U.S. Department of Education, 1998). However, some institutions do have on-site evaluators that diagnose learning disabilities (LD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD), and psychological disorders. It is a student's responsibility to present current and adequate documentation of a disability. This procedure can be confusing to students who enter college from public secondary special education programs. Public school systems may conduct evaluations as part of students' individual plans for disability-related educational services (Silver, 1992). Should the most recent documentation from a health professional be outdated, students may be required to seek, at their own expense, more current documentation. Many institutions require diagnostic evaluations no more than three years old. Others are more flexible as long as the documentation specifically states the diagnosis and adequately addresses current level of functioning and necessary accommodations. As long as it is current, disability documentation certified by a qualified health professional should not be questioned by an institution. The institution does have the authority, however, to determine the appropriate accommodations that they should provide (Jarrow, 1997).
Health related conditions, such as lupus, cystic fibrosis, Crohn’s disease, and multiple sclerosis may simply require verification from the student’s health care provider. Should the condition wax and wane, the disability service representative may require frequent updates to verify flare ups that functionally limit the student. Students with cognitive deficits due to an acquired brain injury are usually asked to provide the results of neuropsychological testing. A thorough neuropsychological evaluation will provide ample information to determine necessary and appropriate accommodations for the student.
There is considerable controversy over the documentation requirements for ADHD and LD (Zirkel, 2000). AHEAD suggests guidelines to assist institutions in establishing the appropriate criteria and to encourage a general sense of uniformity in documentation requirements across the nation. Most institutions of higher education will require students to provide a recent evaluation conducted by a qualified health professional experienced in the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD and LD. Offering the student a list of qualified evaluators may facilitate prompt implementation of support services. The evaluation should address the specific academic and support service needs of the student. This information is rarely included in an evaluation report unless specifically requested from the referral source. It is recommended that a set of questions regarding the academic needs of the student be sent to the evaluator with each referral.
Dukes (2001) conducted research with 1000 postsecondary professionals at disability services offices in North America to determine which service components they deemed essential to ensure equal educational access for students with disabilities. Nine general categories of service delivery with 27 standards were identified as essential regardless of type of institution, funding source, location, or admissions policy. The AHEAD membership recently approved the program standards for disability services offices in higher education and they are briefly described below (Shaw & Dukes, 2001).
The first category consists of consultation, collaboration, and awareness. It includes
advocating for students with disabilities and ensuring their adequate representation on campus committees. Disability personnel may find that they provide the only voices that speak to the needs of this population on campus. This makes the development of good working relationships with key departments around campus critical to the enhancement of equal opportunity. Providing academic departments with disability awareness training and information about disabilities and resources available to assist them can decrease attitudinal barriers that result in stereotyping and discrimination toward people with disabilities.
The second category, information dissemination, promotes equal access by informing the campus community about the availability of services for students with disabilities. To promote equal access to the campus community, it is important that disability services offices coordinate and provide auxiliary aids such as alternative print, interpreter services, and adaptive technology. Auxiliary aids, not limited to the college classroom, should be provided at all institution-sponsored activities and programs (Kalivoda & Higbee, 1994).
Faculty and staff awareness, the third category, involves consultation with faculty, staff, and administrators regarding appropriate academic accommodations for students with disabilities. Faculty are chiefly responsible for providing academic adjustments for students with disabilities in their classes. Instructors are not asked to lower academic standards or to provide adjustments that are excessive, but they are expected to make reasonable accommodations. If academic adjustments are not provided by faculty, students with disabilities will be at an academic disadvantage.
Academic adjustments, the fourth standard, establishes the responsibility of determining the appropriate academic adjustments with the disability services office. This is based on student interviews, analysis of appropriate documentation, consultation with health professionals, and legal guidelines.
Disability services offices are also encouraged to be actively involved in instructional interventions, the fifth category. Shaw and Dukes (2001) state that this involves encouraging institutions to provide “instruction in learning strategies (e.g., attention and memory strategies, planning, self-monitoring, time management, organization, problem-solving)” (p.85). Most institutions have an academic assistance program or learning center where students can either take classes or attend workshops on learning strategies or work one-on-one with a counselor for coaching. Hand-in-hand with this category, the sixth is counseling and advocacy, through which disability specialists help their students to learn how to advocate for themselves.
The seventh category addresses the importance of developing policies and procedures. Written policies and procedures may cover issues such as student rights and responsibilities, institutional rights and responsibilities, confidentiality, formal complaint guidelines, and the determination of reasonable accommodations (Shaw & Dukes, 2000). Jarrow (1997) states that the development of written policies and procedures is critical to “demonstrating a good faith effort on the part of the institution to meet its responsibilities to persons with disabilities in an equitable and consistent manner” (p. 7).
Following up on the importance of having an effective program, the eighth category involves program development and evaluation. Frequent evaluations to obtain student feedback on satisfaction with services will help in identifying ways to improve the program. Schuck and Kroeger (1993) emphasize the importance of a comprehensive evaluation plan that includes data on students served to justify the need for fiscal resources. The final category of standards involves the training and professional development of disability services personnel.
To guarantee students with disabilities equal access to higher education, many institutions have or are establishing support services that uphold the nine categories of AHEAD program standards. Marion & Iovacchini (1983) assert that basic services to assure program accessibility were provided by most colleges and universities in the early 1980s. Necessary accommodations and services will vary from student to student and across institutions. The following, however, are common services available to students through disability support offices: (a) weekly meetings with a counselor or disability specialist to maintain support, monitor academic progress, and provide an early warning system so that the student receives additional services as needed; (b) time extensions on tests and assignments when appropriate; (c) adjustment and restructuring of class assignments as individually warranted; (d) test taking in a separate and quiet location to reduce distractions commonly associated with the classroom environment; (e) note takers in the classroom to supplement the student's notes; (f) the provision of assistive listening systems; (g) document conversion (e.g., from print to Braille) services; (h) sign language interpreters; (i) real-time captioning; and (j) assistive technology, which will be discussed in the final section of this book.
Additional services provided are often above and beyond legal requirements and are made available as resource allocations permit. Programs that have acquired ample financial support from the institution, federal grants, or private development activities, may develop exemplary programs and services for students with disabilities. These services constitute “best practices” in disability services offices and are offered in efforts to enrich the lives of students with disabilities who seek the goal of higher education (Shaw & Dukes, 2001). Services may include the following: (a) student support groups; (b) priority registration to ease initial frustration and tension and to enable the student to select classes at times of optimal concentration or to allow for scheduling of regular medical appointments; (c) curriculum counseling regarding course selection and scheduling; (d) written contracts to assist the student in achieving academic or personal goals; (e) academic support groups for review and discussion of barriers encountered on a college campus; (f) orientation to classrooms, buildings, and the campus, and (g) coaching to help students stay focused on specific goals, and overcome disability-related challenges (e.g., organization, prioritization, follow-through).
In an ideal world, Universal Design would provide access to all people in advance rather than after the fact. Aune (2000) states, “In universal design, environments and activities are designed in such a way that they are accessible to anyone, regardless of the person’s functional limitations” (p.57). The following case study is offered to describe the application of Universal Design to a college setting.
Ideal Case Scenario
Caroline is a sociology major at a large public university. She is blind and obtains most of her texts and other reading assignments electronically. All her texts are available on e-text and her instructors use accessible web designed course materials. Caroline scans last minute reading assignments handed out in class at various computer labs on campus. She has a computer and scanner in her residence hall room but she often prefers to use the computer lab with her peers. Once the material is scanned and saved onto disk, Caroline uses a computer workstation at the sociology computer lab that is equipped with speech output software. This allows her to listen to the printed material independently at her preferred time and pace.
Caroline independently navigates around campus. All crosswalks have audible signals, drivers announce each bus stop, and all facilities have signs in raised characters and Braille. Campus lectures and programming sponsored by campus activities have handouts prepared in Braille to provide Caroline the opportunity to fully participate along with her peers. The university offers audible display for all visually oriented communication (e.g., maps, computer terminals, posters, newspapers, fliers, overheads), which makes Caroline feel welcome and included in university-sponsored events.
Shared Responsibility for Equal Access
In this scenario, there is little need for disability services offices. Unfortunately, Universal Design is still an aspiration and disability services offices are continually relied upon to coordinate and provide routine equal access requests. Establishing separate administrative units to assist students with disabilities helps meet legal requirements of equal access, but may also enable others to abdicate responsibility for interacting with students who have disabilities and providing equal access. Pinder (1979) cautions institutions about relying excessively on disability support offices:
Special, separate offices such as these also tend to reaffirm the old standards of segregation on the campus because faculty, students, and administrators are simply not used to routinely dealing with disabled students--and it is much easier to delegate this responsibility to a special office . . . . However, it is natural for people to be reluctant in dealing with new and different things. The separate, special bureaucratic units provide anyone looking for such avoidance with the perfect method of dealing with disabled students while not having to deal personally with them. (p. 9)
Hall and Belch (2000) concur that these special offices can serve a well-needed role of easing students into the college or university and helping them feel that they matter, but they also have to consider the unintended consequences, “. . . special programs and centers also relieve staff who are not located in those centers from acting on their responsibility to understand and address the diverse needs of under represented groups” (p. 13).
This dilemma demands that disability service professionals increase education about the responsibility of each faculty and administrative unit in providing equal access. There are several steps that administrators, faculty, and staff members can take to reduce or eliminate potential blocks to equal access. The top administration should publish and disseminate a policy statement regarding the legal mandate to provide accommodations. The policy statement should clearly state that the administration encourages and supports accommodations for students with disabilities and that the responsibility for providing access to all programs and activities resides with each department. For example, the administration could mail out a brochure to all faculty and staff, accompanied by a letter from the president's office. In addition, the institution might sponsor professional development workshops to educate faculty and staff regarding how to best meet the needs of students who have disabilities. Prior to scheduling such workshops, it would be helpful to survey potential attendees regarding their knowledge of legal and educational issues. This will enable workshop facilitators to prepare to address pertinent questions or dilemmas from workshop participants. Staff and faculty may also provide scenarios for role plays or small group discussion that would offer practical solutions to common problems.
Obstacles to Universal Design
The true concept of Universal Design is to create at the onset an educational environment to meet all learners’ needs. In reality, however, many institutions are firmly established and have facilities and programs that do not meet this ideal. Practical suggestions for architectural and program access needs of students who have disabilities are addressed below.
Many older institutions have facilities that were constructed before the implementation of federal and state requirements for architectural accessibility. The ADA does not require the installation of elevators in all existing facilities; therefore, access to older structures may be limited to the main floor via a lift or ramp. Programs or departments located on inaccessible floors must find alternative methods of providing accessibility. The law requires what is termed "programmatic access" (Office of the Attorney General, 1991). This means that the program may be moved or the information requested (e.g., financial aid forms, admissions applications) may be brought downstairs or sent directly to the student. Equitable service needs to be provided for students with disabilities; this may require extra time and patience from program staff. Suggestions that may assist in providing programmatic access for programs and services located in facilities that are architecturally inaccessible are listed below (Kalivoda & Higbee, 1994):
1. Advertise in all publications and announcements (e.g., campus newspaper, newsletters) that programmatic access is guaranteed for people with limited mobility. Provide the name of a contact person and telephone number for obtaining information about access. A general access statement communicates to people with disabilities that they are welcome to participate in the program. The statement may read "Alternative access will be arranged for people with limited mobility. Call (person or office) by (date) for specific requests."
2. Equip the accessible floor with a campus phone for students to use to call offices located on inaccessible floors. Assure that existing and newly installed phones are at the appropriate height (48" forward approach, 54" side approach). Include the location of the phone on the building directory. Post phone numbers of offices located on inaccessible floors both on the building directory and next to the telephone.
3. Provide accessible locations for offices and services that meet important student needs and require personal rather than mail or telephone contact. Examples include counseling, career planning and placement, academic advising, multicultural affairs, language laboratories, tutorial services and disability services.
4. Provide internal and external signs to direct people where to go to obtain services or get the information they need. Buildings where there is access to at least one floor must provide accessibility information about the program on existing building directories. Buildings without a directory should request that one be installed in order to comply with the ADA. Buildings with no access should provide outside signs directing people either to an outside phone line or to an accessible building where they can obtain the information they need. The phone line should automatically ring in a designated office in the inaccessible building. A representative from that building would then meet the person at an accessible location.
5. Request a multi-use conference room to be made available on the first floor of any building that is otherwise inaccessible. If this is not possible, network with offices on the first floor of the building and with offices in accessible buildings in the vicinity to arrange for an accessible and private meeting room.
6. Forward requests for modest renovation projects (e.g., signs, curb cuts, door handles, grab bars) to the institution's disability resource office or physical plant.
7. Relocate programs and events that are scheduled in buildings that are architecturally inaccessible.
8. Provide access to all departmental information and resources, e.g., books, bulletin board notices and information on the internet or web sites. This may entail sending a catalogue of resources to patrons.
9. Communicate to faculty and staff in each department their responsibility to provide equal access to all people, even if it poses an inconvenience. (pp. 135-136)
Providing Program Access
Removing architectural barriers is of great importance, but it is only one of the commonly recognized barriers to access for students with disabilities. The removal of concrete and obvious physical barriers only affects a small subgroup of the disability population. Commonly overlooked obstacles that impact students with a wide variety of disabilities are programmatic access barriers. Although these are critical to ensuring equal access, they are often overlooked because they are not the easiest to implement (Jarrow, 1993). The ADA requires us to move beyond the obvious needs of students with mobility impairments and to address the highly individualized needs of the entire population of students with disabilities (Office of the Attorney General, 1991).
Kalivoda and Higbee (1994) provide suggestions that may help in making programs accessible:
1. Include a general access statement in all publications and announcements. This communicates to people with disabilities that they are welcome. The statement may read "Access provided for people with disabilities. Call (person or office) by (date) for specific requests."
2. Offer printed material in alternate forms. Taped versions, large print and Braille copies make visually oriented material available to people with limited vision. Be aware of resources for Braille printers in the community or geographic area.
3. Communicate the availability of Assistive Listening Devices (ALD) for people attending programs. One common ALD, the FM System, is a small transmitter that amplifies the speech of the speaker while eliminating background noise. An FM system can be purchased for under $1000. Several can be made available for check out through a centralized campus audiovisual service.
4. Advertise that a sign language interpreter is available upon request. This offers people who are deaf equal access to programs. Major campus-wide events should recognize the need for an interpreter and arrangements should be made well in advance. The presence of an interpreter also enhances awareness and acceptance of students with disabilities. Interpreters can be scheduled through the institution's resource office if one exists, or assistance in locating a qualified free lance interpreter is available through each state's Interpreter Referral Service.
5. Relocate programs that are architecturally inaccessible. Develop a close working relationship with the office on campus that assists in space allocation. Identify one of the most modern and convenient buildings on campus for a possible meeting site. Assure that accessible parking spaces are readily available.
6. Secure accessible transportation for programs that are reserving university vehicles. Contact the campus department responsible for transportation or the off-campus contractor to request a lift equipped van or bus. (pp.134-135)
These suggestions are not limited to academics. Noninstructional activities are a vital aspect of college life and critical to the development of the student as a well-rounded individual; therefore, students with disabilities should be incorporated into programming available for the rest of the student body. Nutter and Ringgenberg (1993) emphasize the importance of the above activities for student affairs units to successfully invite, involve, and retain students with disabilities.
Suggestions to Enhance Learning
Functioning successfully at an educational institution can be difficult for students who have disabilities that impact learning, organization, and social interaction. Students with head injuries, for instance, may have problems with communication, memory, comprehension (especially learning new information), organization, decision making, and flexibility. This can affect registration, study skills, meeting class and administrative deadlines, and establishing relationships with faculty, staff, and other students. The following strategies are offered to assist faculty, counselors, advisors and student development professionals:
1. Try to learn more about the needs of students who have disabilities. In-service workshops conducted by campus and community disability professionals can enlighten both you and your staff.
2. Communicate your willingness to work with students’ different learning and organizational needs. Express your support both in writing (e.g., on a course syllabus or in a brochure) and orally. Allow students to identify themselves as having a disability in writing rather than having to say it in the presence of their peers.
3. Attend to a student’s concerns carefully and repeat back your understanding of the student’s situation. When approached with a student problem, choose a quiet place to meet. Try to work through some alternatives and consequences in a systematic way. Use your expertise to make suggestions for solutions.
4. Meet with students you are instructing, counseling, or advising within the first two weeks of the academic term to determine necessary accommodations.
5. Give students step-by-step written information about your program or policy and allow an opportunity for questions or clarification of procedures.
6. Learn what your campus offers for students with disabilities. Acquaint yourself with other campus resources and key people to contact so that you can offer clear and specific referrals. It is helpful to supply the name of a contact person and location of the office or department and phone number, so that the student can schedule an appointment.
7. Post notices announcing deadlines for advisement, registration, or various student activities in strategic places well before the deadline, but also communicate these deadlines to all students via e-mail if possible.
8. Be flexible with students who might need alternative avenues for meeting class requirements. For example, students with disabilities such as visual impairments, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, learning disabilities, acquired brain injuries, or psychological disorders might need to have their tests provided on disk so that the printed material can be converted into an accessible form such as large print, Braille, digital format, or audiotape.
8. Put together a mediation program using someone who understands disability access issues and is interested in working out amicable solutions. Students who have disabilities that affect communication, flexibility, and organization sometimes encounter difficulties with other students in group activities due to their disorganization and poor communication skills.
9. Keep in mind that although students with disabilities are subject to the same standards as any other college student, they may need to take an alternative route to achieve those standards.
This chapter provides a brief overview of the mission of disability services offices, describes typical ways these offices assist students with disabilities and the campus community, and proposes suggestions on how to advance the concept of Universal Design. Universal Design considers the needs of all learners prior to the beginning of classes rather than trying to accommodate the needs of students on a case-by-case basis when requested. Regrettably, Universal Design is still an ideal. Until it becomes reality, institutions must assure that students with disabilities are provided equal educational opportunity. That is why colleges and universities have established separate administrative units to ensure that legal requirements of equal access are met.
This chapter identifies and describes common standards for disability services offices and offers practical information for faculty and administrators in the hope that they will step up and meet the challenge to enhance learning for students with disabilities. The information this chapter provides can help alleviate common concerns and questions about how to provide equal access to all programs and activities. In the meantime, both students with disabilities and their nondisabled peers will benefit from an ongoing discussion about Universal Design at institutions of higher education. Perhaps in the not too distant future, college and university representatives will assume the responsibility for meeting the needs of each individual learner rather than relying on disability services offices to accommodate students with disabilities.
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