8. Action Beyond the Dialogues

Culture change, intentionality and accountability

There can be deep resistance to change. Faculty, staff and students cannot simply be forced to implement change, they need to be fully supported and guided through these changes. Funding is another consideration. Faculty are often expected to engage in Universal Design during their downtime, while there often is not space carved out to train, monitor and support faculty to do this work. There must be a financial plan in place to support unanticipated access needs for students, staff and faculty.

The post-secondary sector should be striving to achieve genuine inclusiveness. One way to start is for ableism to be addressed as a systemic issue built into institutions, not as an individual form of discrimination. The same way racism, sexism and ageism are not just one person’s prejudice directed at another person, these are structural and deeply entrenched issues. One solution might be looking at decolonizing policies and practices. Decolonization has created conditions to start dismantling ageist, sexist and racist systems, and it might also provide paths to dismantling ableism.

The role of senior administrators is important. There needs to be a will to embed inclusive policies and then fund these policies to enact them. Leaders can also promote collective decision-making by creating opportunities for students, faculty and staff with disabilities to share their experiences and influence policy. Bringing these views to the table not only fosters a greater sense of belonging and inclusion within an institution, it can also help hold leadership accountable. Institutional leadership also needs to be committed to collecting data to make sure they are making progress on accessibility within their institutions. They can also ensure education and training programs are in place to assist all members of their community to recognize and combat ableism.

Making a commitment to addressing ableism and creating accessible academic environments means being intentional about goals at the outset of a project, not at the end. Are the policies that inform the project informed by human rights and the perspectives of those with lived experiences? Who is leading the process? Who is not represented? What does meaningful engagement look like? Have people been given the ability to flourish?

There is a need for a framework that helps guide decision-making. This can include a checklist of things that need to be done (such as consultations, representation in leadership groups and collaboration with diverse communities) during the decision-making process. A meaningful action might also include ensuring that experiences of those most affected by oppressive systems are given the time and space to share their experiences. This might mean offering space for someone else or advocating on behalf of others.

Panelists noted that taking action requires challenging the balance of power and the focus on systems and cultures that uphold the status quo. Focusing on educating staff and faculty through workshops, seminars, field trips, dialogue and courses can help build an intersectional lens. Representation is also important. Committees and hiring panels need to be diverse and reflect the communities they are designed to represent. It is also important for students, faculty and staff with disabilities and their allies to constantly challenge their leadership to make sure they are being held accountable in meeting accessibility targets. Post-secondary leaders need to prove they are meeting these targets by consistently providing updated targets and substantiating it with meaningful data that is publicly available. 

Mutuality, knowledge sharing and opportunities for inclusive innovation

Many post-secondary institutions are large and fragmented, so policies and practices in one department might be different from another. Similarly, the barriers to learning that students with disabilities face may be similar to those faced by other students on campus. For example, the barriers faced by international students in accessing culturally appropriate services may mirror barriers faced by students with disabilities. Breaking down silos, collaborating across institutions and merging resources to support all students can help. Institutions can also create spaces, including spaces grounded in disability and culture such as disability-specific art galleries, to help foster a sense of belonging, encourage dialogue and incubate new ideas.

There are also accessibility features that can benefit everyone across an institution; if they are already built in, they will cost less to implement more broadly. By prioritizing universal design principles in the classroom and built environment, and by creating incentives for teaching staff to develop universal design elements, this can minimize the need for accommodations after the fact. Incorporating accessibility at the beginning of a project such as a website redesign or a new building can be less expensive and more effective than making accessibility improvements later on. For example, making internal documents that can be read by text readers is something that can be used by everyone at any time.

When it comes to the physical environment, building designers might be aware of local building codes, but have they considered neurodivergence or gender identity in their planning and consultations? Have they considered people using mobility devices to design bathrooms? These considerations may not be necessary to meet local building codes, but that does not mean they are fully inclusive of an entire community’s needs. Planning and design practices should include partnering with individuals who have a lived experience of disability to identify barriers, study solutions through planning tools and bringing accessibility best practices into curriculum for urban planning programs.

Discussions about accommodation should include larger systemic and structural issues around student workload and stress. The pandemic has created opportunities to embrace a hybrid model of teaching that includes virtual and in-person learning. It was noted that expecting students to learn in traditional formats, such as in-person, lectures lasting several hours or tutorials that are delivered in 12-week semesters and use conventional timed tests or exams, do not match actual life or learning experiences of students. It might be time to reconsider this model of education for more personalized approaches such as online learning and greater one-on-one or small group learning experiences, as well as blended (online and in-person) or non-semester systems.

The pandemic expanded access in several ways. By pivoting online, educators learned how to capture video, provide transcripts and share ways students could access course content at any time. It could also be an opportunity to reassess timed testing. The panelists noted that research shows students do not learn more, retain more knowledge or study more effectively when tests are timed. For example, a three-hour exam may not measure fluency or the ability to use different strategies in assessing knowledge compared to assignments. Timed tests can also bring high levels of stress and anxiety, which can affect student performance.

Sector-wide collaboration

The post-secondary sector can do a better job of creating a system that is seamless from one institution to another, as a way of dismantling ableist policies, practices and procedures. This could mean harmonizing accessibility policies so they are consistent across the sector, facilitating sector-wide training opportunities, or collaborating on ways to hold the post-secondary system accountable. This could be done by developing a charter or agreement similar to what the first National Dialogues and Action did for anti-Black racism and Black inclusion in Canadian higher education.

The sector can also do a better job of anticipating accessibility requirements. Accessibility requirements are often handled through an HR framework where a wellness office is responsible for providing services. Making a student with a disability go to a wellness office for access needs is an antiquated and demeaning process. By medicalizing their disability, it sends a message that their disability is in need of fixing, which is very different from seeing disability as acceptable. It is also a demeaning process to force a student to repeatedly go back to a wellness office to “prove” their disability and receive an accommodation.

One panelist noted that fellow faculty and staff with disabilities should draw on their shared experiences to build interdependent relationships. This can help create a work-life model that buffers against the hyper-productive norms of academia (such as the need to constantly publish research and secure grants) but still allows faculty and staff with disabilities to meet the demands of post-secondary work. This could mean sharing resources and best practices with fellow colleagues, greater access to internal grants and financial awards, or having a bigger seat at the leadership table so that ableist policies and practices can begin to be dismantled within institutions.

The post-secondary sector can network and collaborate to harmonize procurement policies so vendors must create accessible products. Materials and best practices for accessibility procurement can also be shared by colleagues across the sector. An accessible procurement policy needs to cover the lifetime of a product, from initial development to training and implementation. It should also be sent to all vendors so the requirements of doing business with an organization are clearly defined.

Faculty and staff can ask textbook vendors whether their product is LMS accessible. Many students also dislike moving across various LMS, especially those that are not accessible, so institutions can try limiting the number of LMS in use. Universal design holds that technology should be simple and easy to use. Institutions can also put pressure on vendors to ensure their products and designs are accessible, especially through collective action. Institutions should also train those using LMS platforms on the built-in accessibility features. It is important that funding and support be made available not only to students with disabilities but also departments so they do not have to pay for accessible technologies and textbooks on their own.

There also needs to be collective expertise on accessibility and inclusion across institutions — it cannot be left to an individual or small group. In other words, all faculty and staff need to be trained on policies and best practices so they can embed accessibility into their work. There also needs to be good record-keeping to make sure departments and institutions are held accountable in ensuring they are creating accessible spaces. They also must ensure that products and services are audited for accessibility and that mistakes are not made in future purchases. Institutions also need to pay greater attention to considerations that make conferences accessible (such as venue choice, multiple locations, distance between locations, technology, assistive animals and assistive devices).

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