It’s been a year in a global pandemic. Depression from isolating, anxiety from the state of the world and a general sense of being stuck has thrown even the most able individuals off-balance. Though everyone is experiencing the same events, it doesn’t seem as though everyone is handling them the same way. Some have found they’re able to adapt, while others are drowning in responsibilities they previously were able to handle. People have reached their limits and are expected to operate as normal — and this has created a strain that many haven’t experienced before.
But this type of exertion is one people with disabilities encounter throughout their lives. Our world is designed for able-bodied and able-minded people. This means that something as seemingly simple as navigating a building or attending classes can provide countless obstacles. When society is designed without disability in mind, doing anything can be strenuous.
Higher education is a prime example of when the set expectations can be extremely stressful. With the transition to remote learning this past year, additional problems arose and put faculty and students at University of Oregon at a loss when faced with making academics accessible and working with accomodations. One response to some of the challenges with technology use, course design and ability to participate in class was the addition of closed captioning for lectures and videos — but it wasn’t the whole solution.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) found that 36% of disability resource providers indicated an increase in new student accommodation requests.
With remote learning presenting a challenge of accessibility in higher education, universities and faculty are turning towards disability resource providers for guidance. The answer: Universal Design for Learning.
Universal Design for Learning
Universal design is defined by The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." Universal Design for Learning (UDL) takes this and applies it to the classroom. The goal of UDL is to design teaching to be flexible so as to remove as many barriers to learning as possible for all students, eliminating the need for accommodations in the first place.
The conversation around accessible design was spearheaded by disability activists in the 1980’s. As a result of this movement, the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, promoting equality for people with disabilities. Since then, programs founded to create accessible environments have worked hard to level the playing field. One such program is the University of Washington’s Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology — or DO-IT — center. DO-IT has been creating blueprints for UDL since 1992.
University of Washington’s DO-IT center and its affiliates were developed as a way to look at how emerging technologies could allow for more accessibility in education. Since its founding, it has developed techniques and resources to incorporate universal design into learning and support for students.
Kayla Brown, a Program Coordinator for DO-IT, has been involved with the center and its affiliated programs since 2006. Brown got involved with DO-IT when she found her physical disabilities prevented her from getting jobs as easily as her peers could.
“I would have done anything. I would have bagged groceries, you know? All my friends were getting those kinds of jobs and I just felt so disheartened because I couldn't. I can't lift things. I can't do a lot of physical things,” Brown said.
Soon after, she joined DO-IT’s Scholars program. Then, when entering college in 2008 with next to nothing on her resume proved difficult for job opportunities, she found that DO-IT could fund her internship and has been working with them since.
Brown now works to set up students for success using the DO-IT center’s principles.
“Many students regardless of disability status fall through the cracks, but especially our students with disabilities,” Brown said.
DO-IT has become a resource that promotes and advocates for accessible and universal design in education. And when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, UW faculty looked to DO-IT and its associated programs to guide them in the transition to remote learning.
“We've definitely got a lot of questions about, ‘what does universal design look like?’ Because I thought it was just physical spaces, not necessarily online spaces,” Brown said. “And so we've had to do a lot of assisting people in understanding what universal design looks like in an online learning environment.”
It’s not just program leaders advocating and creating more accessible environments during these times, but also disabled students. Part of DO-IT’s model is peer mentoring, making sure that people with disabilities are not only centered in conversations, but are the ones having them. Brown experiences disability and, having gone through the program before becoming a team member, she knows the impact this can have.
“We want people with disabilities to see other people with disabilities and support each other,” Brown said.
The peer-led model for disability and accessibility support systems exists in many forms. Another program led by people with disabilities uplifting themselves and their peers is Brown University’s Project LETS.
Project LETS, another example of creating accessibility in higher education, was founded in 2013 as a way to push past the stigma around disability and mental illness and provide community and advocacy for disabled individuals. One of their primary values is peer support — a way for mentally ill and disabled people with lived experiences to guideand assist their peers. Project LETS does this through the Peer Mental Health Advocates(PMHA) model.
The Project LETS website describes PMHA’s as “students who have lived experience of mental illness, trauma, disability and/or neurodivergence, and work one-on-one with students in long-term peer support and advocacy partnerships.” This model functions to remove hierarchy in discussions around disability and help students navigate higher education with disability and mental illness. Students who are part of the program often become involved past participating, much like the opportunities provided by UW’s DO-IT program. Yema Yang is one such student.
Yang attended Brown University from 2015 to 2019 and became involved in Project LETS during her freshman year. Though she started as a peer-supporter, the program helped her tackle her own struggles with mental illness.
“One of the things that made it stand out the most was how it was really unapologetic in being mentally ill or speaking more frankly from mental illness,” Yang said. “It was only because of the community and the candid conversations and unconditional support that I had from LETS members that I feel comfortable in saying I’m mentally ill and identifying as psychiatrically disabled.”
The program has since advocated for more accessibility at Brown and supported students as they move through higher education by providing resources, community and support.
Where Does This Work?
To make higher education more maneuverable for all, both the DO-IT center and Project LETS have developed extensive resources to assist others in establishing accessibility and support programs.
Since its conception at Brown University, Project LETS has opened chapters in 22 universities nationwide. These chapters are run by students to provide support and education. The PMHA model developed by Project LETS can be implemented without state or federal funding, which is often difficult to attain.
The DO-IT center provides education, training and resources for institutions and individuals alike and has created replication models to allow for easy partnerships. Despite this, the DO-IT program has only been replicated once so far. The University of Tokyo established their DO-IT program in 2007, making DO-IT an international project. As for the United States, similar programs use the UDL resources provided by DO-IT and centers like it.
Though Project LETS was created independently of state funding, DO-IT operates on state grant money which isn’t always easy to obtain. And with both models operating on peer-to-peer support, there can be some challenges.
Yang said that the peer advocacy model can be difficult to sustain due to the program leaders needing to manage their own mental illness. “I think Project LETS is more limited by its capacity than anything else,” she said. Because the project was based around disabled people guiding other disabled people, the model can sometimes create strain on program leaders.
There can also be strain in constantly having to advocate for yourself and your community with little outside support. Programs based on peer support are often saturated with people within the communities seeking education while more awareness is needed by able-bodied and able-minded people to help create more inclusive and accessible environments.
At University of Oregon, the struggle to gather support is at the forefront. What’s going on at UO
Currently, the programs that exist at UO are limited. The Accessible Education Center (AEC) is the longest standing resource at the university, providing resources for faculty and students.
Hilary Gerdes has been working for the AEC since the ‘80s and is now the director of the center. When she started at the AEC she reported the center assisting “about 34 total students who experienced disabilities” in comparison to over 2,000 students now. “I think the real shift we've seen is in students with non-apparent disabilities, so learning disabilities, ADHD, autism and then mental health.”
A 2017 study by the American College Health Association (ACHA) found that a significant number of students report psychiatric conditions having a significant impact on their academic success. The same year, 36.2% of students who were registered with the University of Oregon’s Accessible Education Center required accommodations for psychiatric disabilities.
Gerdes has found that many students don’t realize that mental illness can be a disability. Even those who know this might struggle to ask for help. “There’s still that gap where we know there’s students who, you know, say they experience disability, but aren’t working with our office,” she said. “That could be because they either don’t need it, they don’t know they need it, they don’t know about it, they’re afraid to ask for help or they feel like there’s a stigma.”
To help break some stigmas at UO surrounding disability, Professor Elizabeth “Betsy” Wheeler created the UO disabilities studies minor in 2016. Disability studies is a lens through which scholars can look at society, much like ethnic or women’s, gender and sexuality studies. Wheeler hoped that this would encourage a larger conversation around accessibility on campus.
Wheeler believes that her program can contribute in the form of disabled time — the idea of slowing down and being productive at a healthy pace instead of focusing on speed and constant work. “I think for both students and faculty, we’re all being asked to do more faster and that’s just not the model of education that I think has been the most productive,” she said.
To accomplish this, Wheeler has looked to the DO-IT program and programs like it for inspiration.
Wheeler and Gerdes expressed the limitations of the AEC in being able to guide professors in making their classes more accessible. The training the AEC provides on UDL is optional and often attended by the same group of faculty members.
Gerdes and Wheeler hope to expand this group with the Accessibility Ally program, which launched March 2021. The program is a new way to educate faculty and staff about universal design but will eventually be open to all.
Kayla Brown discussed how UDL isn’t a one-stop solution.“People don't really understand what universal design really entails. It's a way of doing things,” she said. “It's a lifestyle, right, like when you are just thinking about reducing barriers for not just necessity or type of person but any circumstance.”
Increased demand for accommodations during the pandemic has highlighted the need for higher education that values its students and is accessible to all — and UDL is a good starting point. With more than a third of students requesting accommodations through the AEC, UO has the opportunity to change what our academic environments look like and the foundations to get it done.