This week’s reflective journal focuses on engaging students with disabilities. The chapter defines disability as, “how society responds to people with impairments, particularly ways that exclude, discriminate against, or stigmatize people with impairments (Sherry, 2004). This is a strong definition that is applicable to a higher education setting. The first key learning point is the concept of impairment. The chapter does an excellent job of differentiating disability and impairment, and it is important to note that students with disabilities differ from each other depending on the type of impairment they have. I do have experience working with students with disabilities. We use the word “disabilities” as an umbrella for permanent and temporary disabilities, but we should be using the word “impairment” when referring to a student’s disability. It is also important to note that depending on the type of disability, the need of the student will vary. A temporary disability, such as a broken wrist, requires a specific accommodation which could include support in physically writing an examination, or being provided more time to write that examination. A permanent disability, such as a learning disability will likely require an ongoing support mechanism for writing examinations, taking notes in class, and group work, as examples.
In looking at the theoretical frameworks outlined in the chapter, the medical model is the framework my institution operates under. A student’s disability is an individual experience, as they receive a written diagnosis from a medical professional, take that diagnosis to the disability resource advisor, who then works with the student on an individual accommodation or learning plan. The other two theoretical frameworks, the minority group paradigm and the social construction paradigm provide an interesting take on how disabilities are viewed, but I cannot really relate to either of these.
The chapter outlines a number of issues facing students with disabilities. Academic engagement, and the research brought forward that students with disabilities take longer to graduate in comparison to students without disabilities is a key learning point for me. This point provides an understanding that as student services’ practitioners, we need to work with this constituency and develop flexible learning pathways that lead to the success of the student. At our institution, this is a major challenge as we are primarily a cohort based model that includes 7 to 10 courses per semester, so it is extremely intensive for students, and more challenging for students who have a disability. Co-curricular engagement is an interesting learning point, and although I agree with the research presented that students with some level of social engagement are 10% more likely to persist, it really depends on the type of impairment a student has. With the stigma around students with disabilities, a student with an invisible impairment in my opinion will be accepted by other students more easily than a student with a visible impairment. Legal issues are similar in Canada. The institutions have legal responsibility to provide accommodation in Canada for students who have been diagnosed with an impairment by a medical professional. I have had some recent experience reading aloud an examination for a student who has an impairment. It made me realize that this is the only way this student can continue his studies, so accommodating him is essential to allow him the freedom to pursue his educational goals. The beginning portion of the Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative Video echoes the experience I have recently witnessed. A number of students spoke about their dreams of going to college, making their families proud, and getting a job. These are the aspirations of all students, regardless of their background. As this student’s impairment is confidential, it has created a problem for the program head, as since he’s not aware of the impairment, he struggles to provide teaching strategies to accommodate this student within the classroom. It also becomes a challenge for human resource management, as they’ve had to take multiple people from their day-to-day jobs to administer this examination. I find it fascinating to see accommodation from both the student and institutional perspective.
The barriers to student engagement is another learning point for me. Unfortunately, I do agree that there are attitudinal barriers for students with disabilities. As part of our qualitative research assignment, my interviewee mentioned that the language used around this constituency is not appropriate, and there’s a lack of understanding with faculty. Getzel and Thoma (2008) stated that a student’s acceptance and understanding of their disability and its effect are critical to success within higher education, and I could not agree more with this statement. Students who may have an undiagnosed disability need to speak to a counsellor or a medical professional about the challenges that they are facing. In many cases, it is the faculty member who feels a student may have a learning disability, and asks the student to seek help. I have had a number of students referred to me in my current role that were referred from faculty, and we have been successful in getting the student the assistance they require. Through my experience, I am in agreement with the research provided by Beilke and Yssel (1999) that faculty are willing to make instructional accommodations. By making these accommodations, and reaching out to student services’ practitioners on additional advise and support, we are making progress in supporting students with disabilities. Finally, I am in full agreement with the statement from the chapter of “Institutional commitment to disability is a critical component of a diverse campus. Policies need to be supportive, and it begins with the leadership of the institution to be champions of a diverse and welcoming campus. As the presentation and lecture notes mention, students may be anxious in disclosing a disability, so it is up to the commitment of the institution to create an environment that allows students to feel comfortable bringing their disability forward.
This week's picture is of Sam Sullivan, former Vancouver of the City of Vancouver. As a person living with a disability, he has been instrumental bringing forward issues around disabilities through his foundation, The Sam Sullivan Disability Foundation (http://www.disabilityfoundation.org/).