Providing access to students with disabilities is a fluid process. Federal laws and guidelines written to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities are deliberately ambiguous. The ambiguity was determined to be necessary because every person is impacted differently by the disability, by the environment in which the person is engaging, and by the artificial barriers built into that environment.
For instance, someone who uses a wheelchair may not be “disabled” when at home because the home has been built in such a way as to allow full access to all aspects of the living environment. However, that same person will be disabled if trying to access the upper floor of a building with no elevator.
In an educational environment, this fluidity requires that each student and each circumstance be evaluated on an individualized basis given the impact of a disability on a specific student in specific circumstances. For example, two students who have the same level of hearing loss may require different classroom accommodations in order to have access. If student A was deafened at age 18 due to meningitis, he or she has fully developed language, reading, and writing skills.
As such, accommodation needs may include real-time captioning in large classrooms in order to access the lecture through reading what is being said and preferential seating in small classrooms so the student is close enough to read the read the faculty member’s lips. This student may also benefit from notetaking assistance because he or she must focus exclusively on the faculty member or on the captioning.
On the other hand, if student B was born deaf or was pre-lingually deafened, language, reading, and writing skills typically will be significantly impacted. To access courses this student may require American Sign Language interpreting in all classes. The student may also require preferential seating to be near the interpreter and notetaking assistance, again, because of the need to focus exclusively on the faculty member or the interpreter. In addition, student B may require extended time on all tests, quizzes and exams because language deficits resulting from a lack of language access in early life, may cause delays in reading and comprehension. This student may also need an American Sign Language interpreter available during tests, quizzes and exams to translate any oral instructions that may be provided.
Though both students in this example have the same level of deafness, their accommodation needs are decidedly different because they experience their hearing loss differently. All people with disabilities are uniquely impacted by their diagnoses and by the environment in which they find themselves. It is because of this that the access needs for students with disabilities may differ based on how each student experiences there disability and the circumstances in which they are engaging.
It is essential that faculty be prepared for this fluidity and assist with the individual, disability-related needs of each student.