Image from Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.com
When the subject of accessibility is brought up in a classroom, most people think of students and their individual needs rather than the accessibility needs of the instructors. On October 27, DISCO Network held “Teaching (While) Crip: A Disability Pedagogy Workshop” over Zoom, which consisted of “lightning talks” of five to seven minutes. The talks were given by four presenters—all of whom are associated with the Digital Accessible Futures Lab—with various perspectives on the classroom: Tess Carichner, an undergraduate Michigan School of Nursing student; David Adelman, a postdoctoral research fellow with DISCO; Remi Yergeau, Associate Professor; and Elise Nagy, a doctoral candidate.
When I was in high school, we didn’t talk about accessibility besides the occasional mention of extra time for standardized tests for students with ADHD and dyslexia. I was dealing with chronic pain in levels from debilitating to tolerable during my junior and senior year and I never disclosed my pain or my needs to my teachers. Not because I was embarrassed, but because I didn’t know it was an option—I didn’t know what “disclosing” meant, had never seen it modeled, and I couldn’t anticipate how it could positively affect the support and understanding I received in a classroom. At “Teaching (While) Crip,” Dr. Yergeau discussed how disclosing in academic settings can often feel like making a “trade-off” between “accommodation and surveillance.” “When I first started teaching,” recounted Dr. Yergeau, “I would immediately share that I was autistic with students, and that would result in getting course [evaluations] at the end of term that said things like, ‘I’m mildly insulted my instructor has a communication disorder and is teaching me how to communicate.’” Such responses have taught Dr. Yergeau to be “really intentional about weaving [disclosure]” into how they teach their classes so that their own introduction of identity or needs is “specifically tied to how [we can] create a more welcoming or inclusive environment in class.”
In Elise Nagy’s lightning talk, Nagy provided specific examples of how she has prioritized a sense of community and care for both students’ needs as well as her own in the classroom. By being honest with herself about her access needs and boundaries as an instructor, Nagy explained that she “can build access in the class with and around [her] own access needs, rather than seeing them as opposed to students’ or in conflict with students’ [needs].” In Nagy’s past teaching experiences, intentional community building, choices in engagement, and weekly reflections promoting group accountability have encouraged students to advocate for themselves and provide support for their classmates. At the same time, Nagy sets her expectations for students and herself and makes sure to meet her own needs during the semester. In order to account for different student learning styles, Nagy invites students to engage with course material in a variety of formats (such as worksheets, recorded audio, or video responses). Nagy has found that she prefers content responses in the form of video recordings rather than worksheets, as she can follow visual cues and listen at different speeds. Prioritizing instructional access needs is, in itself, a pedagogical opportunity: “[the] students use [it] as a model… [and] really work through how accessibility is always necessarily relational and collaborative.”
I still don’t know what sort of classroom accommodations I could have reasonably asked for in high school for my chronic pain. But over the past few years, I’ve learned the importance and difficulties of disclosure. Even though I’ve received comments about “issues with focus” my whole life, I was only officially diagnosed with ADHD recently. While I’ve struggled with other disabilities and chronic pain before, my ADHD diagnosis and documentation from Services for Student with Disabilities (SSD) made me feel like I needed to disclose to my instructors. But I wasn’t really sure how to do that in an appropriate and non-anxiety inducing way. Therefore, despite being in courses without exams, I still used the “semester requests” option (a function that allows students to submit their SSD accommodations to all their professors with the click of a button) to send my professors my SSD-approved accommodations which include “Limited Distraction Testing Environment.” The semester requests option felt like the easiest way to communicate my situation with my professors without waiting after class to mention it, or worse, sending an email.
While my SSD experience felt thorough and supportive, receiving a list of four short, semi-vague and pre-approved accommodations was a surprising moment for me. I was excited to have the opportunity to request these accommodations, but I also couldn’t help but feel a little weird about it. Four little phrases, while open-ended, felt claustrophobic—with these basic accommodations already requested, I wasn’t sure if I could ask for more from an instructor. But without them, I may not have asked for anything at all.
It is really difficult to think of ways that you could be better supported in a classroom when you have spent the majority of your academic life without accommodations. Having options or pre-approved accommodations specifically worded for you as a base list to be sent to instructors can be really helpful because you know what kinds of accommodations you can ask for without feeling like they are “too much.” At the same time, it also can make you feel like all of your needs might not be met, or like something could be missing from that list but you can’t quite grasp what it is (or, almost more importantly, if an instructor would even allow it).
Disclosing and learning how to disclose in a way that feels best in the long run is hard, particularly when accommodations that are requested may, at times, be in conflict with the access needs and comfort of instructors. But starting these conversations about balancing instructor and student access in a space like “Teaching (While) Crip” is key to making everyone feel their needs are met. The talks—though focused on instructor needs—aren’t about prioritizing instructor accessibility over student accessibility. Rather, the talks demonstrate how addressing instructor needs can also address student needs and vice versa. Discussing the intersections and what it means to disclose or encourage communication about needs is complicated due to its personal nature: often, these conversations are based on individual identities and needs on a case-by-case basis. Understanding what accessibility means and encompasses in learning spaces brings the two “sides” of the classroom together. In order for the best learning and the best teaching to happen, the two must be acknowledged and aware of each other.