First steps for institutions
🔆 Don't make fake promises
Accessibility to education is a right, and there are very few places where nothing about it is done. However, some institutions are more diverse and open-minded than others. Do not present yourself as such if you are not one of them. It will benefit both you and the students if your limits are understood, saving everyone some time.
🔆 There are many ways to provide support
Some universities have tutors, student life officers, student psychologists, and a student association dedicated to disability. Others only allow for logistical accommodations if needed. It is possible to debate how much a university should provide psychological help for its students. However, it is essential to keep in mind that some of the stress and struggle for which students need psychological support is created by inaccessibility and ableism during their studies.
Moreover, for international students, getting psychological support abroad can be a very long and challenging process, which can eventually impact the student's degree experience and create academic-related stress. Help made available on campus can compensate for such challenges. Sometimes, only some forms of support are needed. To assess what is most adapted for you, the best is to ask students about it and act upon their answers.
🔆 Have at least one spot dedicated to disability and accessibility-related matters
Often, disability and accessibility are part of a job with a broader mission related to inclusivity. Unfortunately, this leads to these topics being overlooked or superficially understood and managed. Keeping up with accessibility matters can become particularly challenging in this situation: requests for accommodations end up being reviewed by individuals who have no particular understanding of what disability means nor what the most common disabilities are. This puts unnecessary pressure on students who become responsible for informing others about disability in addition to managing their own situation. Furthermore, in this situation, requests which are more elaborate than extra time are often denied because neither party knows how to balance the quality of the degree provided and alternative ways to complete it. Thus, it is crucial to have at least one individual with an elaborate understanding of disability in charge of managing such challenges.
🔆 Keep yourself and your staff up to date
Up-to-date technology is and will remain among the best allies when dealing with disability and accessibility-related matters. Some challenges students encounter come down to very basic issues between teachers and tech materials and translate in two ways in an academic context. 1. The devices used should be able to complete basic tasks (i.e., keeping the camera on during an online class and having good sound quality), even when the teachers use their personal devices. 2. Teachers should know how to use the devices. A student should not be unable to access the class because of sound or camera issues from the device or the teacher.
There are other ways an institution can support its students technologically. Among them are financially helping students access software to make materials more accessible and making up-to-date devices available for student use.
Progress in all fields related to disability is made every day. As an institution, you do not need to have an exhaustive knowledge of it but you should be aware of the main notions in the fields (i.e., ableism, the social model of disability, intersectionality, …).
🔆 You do not have to put in place every single accommodation
Common feedback from teachers and administration members is that putting in place every accommodation students might need is too much work. Let us break this myth now: you do not have to. The point of accessibility is that you must be ready to make necessary changes when the time comes. For instance, you do not have to print out every article to be read in Braille if there is no visually impaired student in the class. The only changes that must be implemented regardless of the student community’s characteristics at a time t are architectural: ramps, elevators, flashing fire alarms, etc. Generally, you do not need to have every single accommodation active if there is no need for it. However, when a student asks for support in certain ways, you do have to be ready to follow up on their request and make the challenging situation accessible.
🔆 Share the Disability Handbook!
Most challenges related to disability arise from a lack of information. Teachers want to help but don't know how. Students ask for support but don't always know what they need. Administration members know there are initiatives to take and structural changes to make but don't know which course of action is effective and which isn't.
One thing you can do that will not cost you time (or money) and will make an impact, helping teachers and supporting students, is share the Disability Handbook with your institution's community. Individual action following up on the Disability Handbook's content can and will make a difference.