As a conclusion to our Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka series, the Exponent is focusing on accessibility and inclusivity.
Accessibility can be defined as the ability to access and benefit from some system or entity. Many people have been taught to use the term “special needs” when referring to individuals with disabilities. However, Brenda Sunderdance, the Assistant Director of Services for Students with Disabilities, prefers not to use this term.
“Personally, I don’t like the term ‘special needs.’ It lends this sense that somehow individuals with disabilities have different needs than everybody else,” Sunderdance said.
As Assistant Director, Sunderdance oversees day to day operations and supports students with disabilities on campus. She shared that she takes the opportunity when she can to educate people. She says that the truth of the matter is, individuals with disabilities have the same needs as everybody else, they just have to do things a little bit differently to satisfy those needs.
Some of these needs include: accessing education, testing in an inclusive environment, belonging and participating in events. In short, individuals with disabilities really do have the same needs as all of their peers. Sometimes they just need things presented in a different way or the ability to even get into the room.
Sunderdance does not take offense to the term because it is so common; it is just problematic because it lends to the stigma that individuals with disabilities are separate from everybody else. This isn’t the case; any educator knows that every student has a different way of achieving the same end goal. It’s what makes us human. Individuals with disabilities want the same things that other students want, they just have different barriers to break through when it comes to accessing those things.
One area that the Services for Students with Disabilities Office has been working on and looking into is transportation. University of Wisconsin – Platteville is in rural southwest Wisconsin, an area which can pose challenges to individuals with mobility issues. For example, some people may not be able to drive or even access a car. The question becomes, how can I accomplish the same things that my peers do with different circumstances?
Sunderdance explained that this example plays into the reality that students with disabilities do not have different needs, because transportation is not just a problem for students with disabilities. The transportation system in Platteville is not going to be to the same level here as it is in Madison. One major issue under transportation accessibility is using the shuttle bus. It is a service provided to all students on campus, with your Pioneer Passport (Campus ID) for free.
“I realize that there are some challenges with where the bus goes and when it goes there, and those challenges are important too, but, if I’m an individual in a wheelchair, I can’t get on the shuttle bus,” Sunderdance said.
Sunderdance asked, what can we do to provide equitable service for those who, because of a disability, are unable to use the shuttle bus? What the office has done so far is work with the city and with Running Inc., Platteville Taxi Inc., to provide accessible transportation to those individuals who are unable to take the shuttle bus.
“We want students to understand that any student can have an accident. Suppose I broke my leg and I’m in Rountree; now how do I get to campus? That can be a real barrier for individuals with disabilities, getting to class on time and getting involved,” Sunderdance said.
Sunderdance shared that she wants students on campus to realize that the office is a resource for all students on campus. This led her to one of the biggest barriers to accessibility: the stigma. So many students do not want to identify with the office because disability has been turned into a bad word. In reality, however, disability is a part of life. We all, if we live long enough, will have some level of disability. For some of us, that just happens sooner in our life spans.
“I look at inclusion and access on campus as something that improves the life for all of us, students with disabilities in our classrooms provide a perspective that is of extreme value to students who are able bodied,” Sunderdance said.
Also, Sunderdance added that inclusive design benefits everyone: how many of us use the automatic doors or the elevators to make our lives easier? It shows what would benefit individuals with disabilities would generally benefit everyone, and vice versa.
Another support system and center for accessibility on campus is TRIO services. TRIO is a federally funded program that takes in around 400 students every year into the program. To be eligible to apply, students must be of a certain income, a first-generation student or have a documented disability.
TRIO offers a tutoring service one-on-one with a tutor on a weekly basis, free printing in computer lab, stress relief activities, financial literacy workshops, two lunch-and-learn events focusing on academic skills and the John Deere Leadership series. TRIO also exposes student members to a number of cultural events each year, including the Memphis Student Learning trip last semester, and the leadership trip to Colorado at the end of this semester.
Things that can often go under the radar in terms of accessibility, especially in this area of the state, are wheelchair and mobility issues regarding the distance between buildings, walking and hills. Our campus is somewhat flat, but there are a few big hills that can pose challenges, as well as sidewalks that are not level and some difficulty getting in and out of buildings.
“Sometimes the simplest thing…every little bump or congestion of people can pose a challenge that we might now recognize,” academic coach working mostly with students with disabilities Michael Von Hollen said.
There are a lot of little things, especially in the classroom that can help with accessibility. For example, putting subtitles on videos and providing PowerPoints in advance. Von Hollen brought up the example of a student with depression: mental health issues can make educational work harder to accomplish. The majority of professors on campus are willing to work with students regarding mental health, but it’s something that can be an issue.
Many students do not realize that a student with a documented disability may request a note-taker. Some students may find it difficult to take good, accurate notes in their classes; this is where a note-taker would be helpful in making their education more accessible to them.
Elliott Parsons, the TRIO Tutor Coordinator, also pointed to the stigma of disability as one of the larger issues to accessibility. Students may be ashamed of their disabilities and therefore won’t seek the accommodations that they need.
“A big part of it is not being afraid to talk to students…there are those disabilities that are visible and those that are not visible. Especially with those that are visible, we can’t be afraid to ask if there’s anything we can assist with,” Von Hollen said.
Von Hollen added that individuals with disabilities want to be independent. It is really all about the suggestions. Sometimes it pays to just give out that PowerPoint to all students beforehand, because it will be beneficial to the class as a whole.
“There are certain strategies that we can apply to all students that make it easier for students with disabilities as well,” Parsons said.
Parsons explained that, it’s not a matter of “they have different needs,” but rather, they just have a different approach to getting there; what would be helpful to me would be helpful to them and vice versa.
“Ask the student what they need instead of assuming it…I was a student with a disability, and it used to bother me when people would assume I needed a note-taker when I didn’t necessarily need one,” Parsons said.
Parsons, Von Hollen and Sunderdance all expressed that the University of Wisconsin-Platteville needs more of an awareness, as well as workshops for professors on how to work with students with disabilities. The key to accessibility is being aware of the similarities and the differences, being understanding and being open to all people.