Molly Wright Starkweather
Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor
One of the best features of teaching and tutoring writing online is opening the doors to students of all abilities, including students who have been diagnosed with a disability. According to a 2009 guide by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a disability as restricting day-to-day life activities, like mobility (walking or driving) or communication (hearing or seeing), among others. Online education can reduce many of the concerns that students with disabilities might have with an on-ground campus. For instance, a student with mobility limitations will not have to seek accommodations for campus parking or classroom access, since the campus is virtual. Of course, online campuses can present their own unique challenges to keeping education accessible to students with disabilities. Sometimes the prospect of accommodating students of all abilities can seem daunting, especially when the virtual education landscape (including legislation and institutional protocol) changes in response to new research in disability studies and higher education and in response to new assistive technologies. When tutors and teachers of writing consider the whole student experience for learners with disabilities, the daunting prospect becomes a promising opportunity for growing even stronger in our service to all students.
Professor of Special Education and higher education inclusion advocate David Connor (2012) reminds those working with students with disabilities to view the student’s challenge and accommodations as part of a different, not deficient, learning process. It has been common knowledge among my colleagues at different universities that an accommodation is meant to provide nothing more than an equally accessible educational experience. When I have taught composition, I have never changed my grading standards from student to student, and none of my students with accommodations have wanted an easier experience than their classmates. The goal of providing accommodations for disabilities in a higher education setting is to open access and opportunity for all students.
How can an online writing center open access and opportunity for all students? Since we are tutors as part of academic support, there are no discussions of accommodations as instructors would see in a classroom setting, but there is a responsibility for all center staff to create equal opportunity and access for students with disabilities. Some of these possibilities were explored as part of a recent conference for academic support professionals.
On November 7, 2013, three of our faculty and staff presented as part of a panel on “Faculty and Academic Learning Centers: Supporting Students with Learning Disabilities” at the College Reading and Learning Association (CRLA) conference in Boston, MA. My fellow panel members included Kira Shank and Sheryl Bone of Kaplan University, as well as Nita Meola of Columbia College in Chicago and Teresa Carrillo of Joliet Junior College.
During the 90-minute exchange between panelists and participants, our panel discussed the tools we use in serving students with learning and other disabilities. Here are some of the best takeaways that come to my mind:
1. Approach the task of including students with disabilities from a standpoint of hospitality. Providing accommodations is not about extra work for instructors or easier assignments for students; rather, providing accommodations is about making space for learning.
2. As professionals involved in academic support, we should be aware of the Center for Disability Services. Keep up with the center by attending staff development presentations (or even student presentations) routinely, and make room for discussing the center’s services as part of teaching and tutoring where appropriate, like in the syllabus.
3. Remember that students with disabilities need respect and privacy. While it is good to discuss campus resources like the Center for Disability Services openly to eliminate stigma and get valuable information out to students, it is also important to communicate discreetly with students about individual circumstances. Show respect for the student by listening actively and deferring to the authority of Disability Services whenever appropriate, especially when it comes to articulating accommodations.
What might be some other considerations as we continue opening access to all higher education learners?
Connor, D. (2012). Helping students with disabilities transition to college: 21 tips for students with LD and/or ADD/ADHD. Teaching Exceptional Children, 44(5), 16-25.
U.S. Department of Justice. (2009). A guide to disability rights laws. Retrieved from http://www.ada.gov/cguide.htm