WUD Society and Politics Committee discussed a troubling approach to accessibility for disabled students at UW-Madison and other universities during its first “Mythbuster Monday'” event on Oct. 30.
Disability accommodations don’t often cross the minds of those students who are not disabled. But the discussion outlined most people will eventually need accommodations in their lifetime.
“Everyone becomes disabled if you live long enough,” said host Gabriela Puma, a special education PhD student.
This leaves a gap both for disabled students and those who become disabled temporarily. While it may seem like an issue that only affects some, Puma said, increasing accessibility can have positive effects for everyone, and decreasing accessibility can have negative effects for everyone.
The discussion began by framing the issue of accessibility through its universal benefit to both those who are able-bodied and those who are disabled. Throughout the talk, Puma asked the group to consider whether they found UW-Madison’s campus accessible or had noticed problems.
“Many apartments around campus are not ADA accessible,” one student said. “It’s not something that you think about until you need it.”
Systemic issues across the university became apparent as the discussion turned to disability access. Schools like Madison use an accommodations system to support students with disabilities that requires them to provide documentation and apply to receive help for their disabilities.
Another option, one of universal design, provides accommodations for all students regardless of need. This would include automatic captioning on class lectures and online content, more flexible attendance policies for everyone, access to recorded lectures and alternate ways of accessing class content.
“There's a lot of reliance on these traditional tests that I don't think are a great representation of what students do,” Puma told The Daily Cardinal after the discussion. “Thinking about how to incorporate universal design would make college a more meaningful experience for all students.”
Puma also shared videos of disability advocates talking about many facets of accessibility, including how to describe images for those with vision issues, types of accommodations and experiences with universal design. These videos, most of which were TikToks, showed real-life experiences of disabled students in higher education.
Participants also deconstructed aspects of education which appear normal when uninterrogated but are major barriers to accessibility for disabled students, like perfect attendance. For disabled students, the expectation of perfect attendance and consequences for missing class creates barriers to achievement as some disabilities prevent consistent class attendance.
This has consequences for able-bodied students, too. The expectation of perfect attendance encourages people to come into class when sick and can further student burnout and mental health issues, according to Forbes.
The group agreed removing these barriers would make life better for all students, improving academic outcomes and student mental health. It also applies to physical accommodations like more ramps and elevators in school buildings, something the group said would benefit all students.
The experiences of disabled students is what's missing from current disability policy, Puma said.
“Not hearing from disabled students specifically about the challenges they're having will not lead to the best and most appropriate solutions,” Puma added.
Gabriella Hartlaub is an arts editor for the Daily Cardinal. She also reports state politics and life & style stories. Follow her on Twitter at @gabihartlaub.