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Paving the Way

Students with disabilities are at significantly high risk of not completing their degrees. Campus staff can smooth the road for them by using universal design principles and fostering a climate of inclusiveness.

By Karen A. Myers and Sarah Laux

* it surprise you to learn that students with disabilities comprise roughly 11 percent of enrolled undergraduates? Or that the number of such students has nearly doubled between academic year 1999–2000 and academic year 2007–08?

That was the trend indicated in the National Center for Education Statistics report “Profile of Undergraduates in U.S. Postsecondary Education Institutions: 2003–04,” published in 2006. Orthopedic disabilities were the most prevalent (reported by 25.4 percent of students with disabilities), followed by psychological disabilities such as mental illness and depression (21.9 percent), health impairments (17.3 percent), attention deficit disorder (11.0 percent), specific learning abilities (7.5 percent), hearing disabilities (5.0 percent), visual disabilities (3.8 percent), speech disabilities (.4 percent), and other (7.8 percent).

The majority of students with disabilities has been and continues to be comprised of individuals enrolled in community colleges, most intending to transfer to four-year institutions.

Yet, at the same time that students with disabilities are enrolling in higher numbers, the increase in their degree completion has been less dramatic. According to “Students With Disabilities in Postsecondary Education: A Profile of Preparation, Participation, and Outcomes” (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999), nearly half (47 percent) of students with disabilities leave college without completing a degree compared to approximately 36 percent of their counterparts without disabilities failing to graduate.

In the meantime, federal legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 has made higher education more available to historically underrepresented groups of many types. However, educational practices and culture have not extensively shifted to address experiences and learning needs of newly enrolled students. In their article “Historical, Theoretical, and Foundational Principles of Universal Instructional Design in Higher Education” (Equity and Excellence in Education, 2004), Susan Pliner and Julia Johnson state that the absence of efforts to change the culture of practices in higher education has “created significant barriers to access, retention, and graduation for many students,” particularly those with disabilities, thus creating higher attrition rates among this student population.

Adjusting to college life clearly presents challenges for almost any student. Although all college students are at risk for dropping out, the presence of a disability decreases the probability of earning a degree, says Holley Belch in “Retention and Students With Disabilities” (Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory, and Practice, 2005).

At the same time, student services—including those offered by business officers and financial services staff—play a leading role in supporting retention and academic achievement of students with disabilities. “Something as simple as extending office hours for student services,” says James Myers, director of financial aid, McKendree University, Lebanon, Illinois, “can provide equal access to services for those with multiple time-consuming priorities. Other colleges and universities are also finding that effective and accessible interaction as well as universally designed learning and study spaces can level the playing field, facilitate student achievement, and make graduation more likely.”

Looking for Roadblocks

Our study of students with visual disabilities, documented in the monograph College Students with Visual Disabilities: Preferences for Effective Interaction (VDM Verlag, 2009), reveals key factors that allow for better student adjustment and performance. It also identifies a variety of challenges that impede such progress. In the study, interviews were conducted with 35 college students with visual disabilities. Subjects included 19 females and 16 males, age 19 to 70 years, including 3 African-American, 1 Hispanic, and 31 Caucasian individuals, from 23 cities in 11 states spanning New York to Alaska. Study responses revealed the following implications:

  • Respect for others, comfort during interactions, and awareness of disability issues lead to effective communication among persons with and without disabilities.
  • Business officers and other staff members may be present to offer a variety of support and consultation; however, access to key learning resources must be integrated into offices' physical, nonphysical, and transient design and features. Layouts of tables and computer workstations, social interactions between students and staff, printed and online information, and effective administrative functions are some examples of features that require attention for a universally designed and learning-supported environment that provides a degree of comfort and respect toward students with disabilities.
  • Lack of knowledge, false assumptions, misinformation, and fear of the unknown on the part of college administrators, faculty, and other students may manifest through negative, inappropriate behaviors resulting in inequitable educational experiences for students with disabilities.
  • Negative attitudes by faculty and staff members are typically a result of lack of awareness and understanding of students' needs, leading to higher attrition rates among students with disabilities.

These factors led us to dig deeper into the actions on the part of college and university leaders that facilitate better adjustment to the learning environment and consequent higher student performance and degree completion. We also wanted to learn what challenges still exist when working to create an environment that supports all.

For the purposes of this article, we contacted financial services administrators from four U.S. colleges and universities (two community colleges and two private four-year universities representing geographical diversity). Administrators completed a brief online survey based on “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” (American Association of Higher Education, 1987) developed by Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson and updated by Chickering and Steven C. Ehrmann in 1996 to incorporate a technology component.

Respondents to the survey included the following: Dennis Schroeder, financial aid director, Los Angeles Mission College (LA Mission College), Sylmar, California; Cari Wickliffe, assistant vice provost, student financial services, Saint Louis University, Missouri; James Myers, director of financial aid, McKendree University, Lebanon, Illinois; and Jeffrey Bartkovich, vice president, educational technology services, Monroe Community College, Rochester, New York.

Incorporating Purposeful Design

Input from higher education institutions showed that when key factors noted in our checklist were acknowledged and supported, benefits accrued for both students and institutions. Actions taken by colleges and universities fall under the umbrella of universal design (UD), defined by the Center for Universal Design as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people [regardless of background, race, age, ability, and disability] to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” UD addresses the challenges and barriers students with disabilities face by creating inclusive learning environments. In recent years, such tools have included assistive technology and Web accessibility (for more information, see sidebar, “Provide a Technical Assist”).

To facilitate the use of universal design principles, institutions can do the following:

  • Continue building and expanding professional development with regard to awareness and practice of universal design strategies. Postsecondary personnel are increasingly recognizing the need for business and financial services offices to simplify their delivery of services to positively affect the quality of students' learning experiences. With students arriving at college with different sets of skills, life experiences, abilities, and learning styles—and as greater numbers of students with disabilities enter college with diverse learning and support needs—it is essential to continue building and expanding professional development in the awareness and practice of universal design strategies among campus administrators and staff within business offices, financial services, and the entire campus community.
  • Work to empower college and university leaders and state and federal officials to shape an environment that is favorable to good practice in higher education. According to Chickering and Gamson, this may be achieved via a strong sense of shared purpose together with concrete support from administrators and faculty leaders, adequate funding, and consistent policies and procedures relative to those purposes. Continued examination of how well the purposes are being achieved is also important. Using the universal design principles to achieve these shared purposes may heighten awareness while supporting the key elements leading to effective interaction (i.e., respect, comfort, and awareness) found in the study.

Supportive Techniques Bridge Gaps

Survey respondents are reporting positive results in their efforts to incorporate universal design strategies into student services. Going well beyond the ADA mandates of Braille lettering in elevators, automatic door openers, accessible and marked parking, and larger bathroom stalls to accommodate wheelchairs, institutions are implementing additional strategies. They also:

Create welcoming spaces. Providing warm, welcoming environments shows respect for students and a genuine concern for their comfort and well-being. All institution leaders surveyed reported doing this by encouraging staff to learn students' names; creating introductory sessions that are personal and friendly and that encourage humor; being open to meeting with students; letting students know that their voices will be heard; encouraging questions; complimenting student participation; and so forth.

Make reception areas cheerful, with friendly staff willingly available. In addition to ensuring that offices are designed to be accessible to all learners, test Web sites to ensure similar accessibility as well as ease of navigation.

Encourage staff to get to know the students as individuals and seek to understand the many cultural contexts that will shape learning and development. Extended or flexible office hours of operation provide students who have diverse time commitments with equal access to services. McKendree University, for example, provides walk-in advising during regular business hours and extends hours during the first week of the semester.

“The results of our 2007–08 financial aid survey indicated that our operating hours [8 a.m. to 5 p.m.] were not convenient for everyone,” says Myers. “Since my staff and I usually work overtime during this time anyway, we decided to leave the office door open later into the evening. We were able to assist a few more of our students, and we logged the number of students who visited the office after hours. The following year's financial aid survey results did not indicate any further problems with scheduling.”

Using person-first language is one of the easiest ways to show respect.

Monroe Community College also provides a schedule designed for students' convenience. “Like many community colleges,” says Bartkovich, “Monroe has experienced significant enrollment increases in the past three years. With existing staff, many student services offices are pressed to address both on-campus and online demand for assistance from students new to the system or those returning from many years in the workforce. Students have responded favorably to increased service hours on weekends, particularly three weeks before and three weeks after the start of each semester. And we've looked to technology solutions for application processing and document imaging to expedite paperwork and keep more staff in the front offices.”

Using person-first language is one of the easiest ways to show respect. That is, student services staff and others emphasize the person first, and, if appropriate, the disability second. Instead of using negative phrases such as “the disabled,” “handicapped,” “suffers a hearing loss,” or “mentally retarded,” use affirmative language such as “person with a disability,” “student who is deaf or hard of hearing,” “woman with a developmental disability,” and so forth. For other examples of appropriate language, go here.

“As part of our division's strategic planning,” says Cari Wickliffe, “about four years ago we added specific and focused training on customer service. A component of this initiative was universal design education. In addition to a lecture format, we scheduled hands-on and small-group activities.”

Since the initial divisionwide event, the university has incorporated UD as a training topic (often using graduate students as the trainers) in its annual professional development program. “Most importantly,” says Wickliffe, “we deliberately include choice of language as part of our routine training and performance assessments. To support these efforts, we do give examples of how to phrase things, often through role-playing. Most of the training is in-person, but we do have access to outlines on the Internet, professional journals and papers, and tip cards. The outcome of our training has been that the techniques learned are recognized not only as part of universal design to assist students with disabilities, but as an integrated part of service to all students because it is the right approach to quality customer service.”

Develop, implement, and evaluate pathways for communication among students and staff. With today's many communication tools, institutions can encourage information sharing via multiple and varied methods and technologies and through accommodations that are comfortable, accessible, and appropriate to everyone.

McKendree University makes available Braille copies of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) in the financial aid office and in the disability services office. This practice began in 2007; however, students with visual disabilities tend to use the FAFSA online, a universally designed approach.

All institutions that provided survey input reported that they inform students of publications available in other formats and languages by posting that information on their Web sites, distributing it from their various offices, and including the information in orientation sessions. Los Angeles Mission College's financial aid office posts online videos of department directors explaining policies and procedures. Saint Louis University's student financial services office does something similar and is also exploring additional interactive video options for communicating financial literacy and process flows to its students.

Promote interaction among students and between staff and students. Numerous studies support the fact that interactions with faculty and staff contribute to student retention and satisfaction. Such actions give students a sense of connection to the institution, promoting the belief that someone cares about them. All of the institutions surveyed agreed that addressing students by name, sending them text messages and e-mails, and greeting them with a smile are simple ways to let students know they matter.

Use methods and strategies that consider diverse learning styles, abilities, previous experience, and background knowledge, while recognizing each student's unique identity and contributions. Students each have something different to offer, and it is important to provide opportunities to show that their contributions are valued. “We have always tried,” says LA Mission's Dennis Schroeder, “to work with the director of our disabled students programs and services office [DSPS] when planning for campus events and new publications to make sure we receive valuable input from both the DSPS staff and students. This helps establish an open forum for comments and ideas, which will ensure our information reaches the widest audience possible. Current and past students who remain connected to staff in DSPS and the financial aid office continue to offer suggestions that help guide our office in the way we advertise events, present our printed materials, and decide what materials should be provided in electronic formats.”

These activities allow individuals to determine how they identify and define themselves, rather than being labeled according to their diversity. For example, when a student demonstrates his or her expertise as a swimmer, others look beyond a learning or vision disability.

Provide a Technical Assist

Assistive technology (AT) and Web accessibility have advanced considerably over the past few years. The increase in the number of products and devices available to people with disabilities has allowed a greater level of access to society, education, employment, and daily life for citizens, students, and professionals with disabilities.

Within higher education, it is likely that students and disability services providers will be well-versed in AT in order to meet students' needs for participation in and completion of courses. However, for a student with a disability to engage or communicate with educators and staff across campus outside the classroom, it is equally important for staff and faculty to be aware of those needs, options, rights, and responsibilities.

Today most information dissemination, communication, and interaction within higher education is conducted through electronic means: researching schools, applying to college, attempting to obtain financial aid, selecting housing, registering for courses, paying bills, and so on. Section 508, an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, requires all federal agencies to make their electronic information and resources accessible for individuals with disabilities. (For electronic accessibility laws, regulations, and training on topics such as buying accessible technology and holding accessible events, see Section 508's Web site.)

In 2006, as part of a field-initiated grant project, Cornell University's Employment and Disability Institute conducted a survey to examine Web use and accessibility at 30 community colleges. Results indicated that these schools used the Web extensively for disseminating admissions, financial aid, and billing information, yet none of the schools complied with all the Section 508 Accessibility Standards. Through this project, the Web Accessibility Toolkit was created to assist college administrators in promoting equal access to campus Web resources. The site contains training materials, checklists, and links to resources allowing colleges a one-stop site to easily access relevant information to improve and enhance Web site accessibility.

An Information Technology in Education Accessibility Checklist is available from AccessIT, the National Center on Accessible Information Technology in Education. Other useful technology information can be found on the Disability and Business Technical Assistance (DBTAC) national Web site.

ERIN SEMBER is an ADA specialist for DBTAC-Northeast, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

Community colleges in particular often have diverse populations. To recognize their students' unique differences and experiences, Monroe Community College's financial aid office offers workshops using multiple delivery modes. “We have found,” says Bartkovich, “that students are very adaptable and will take advantage of any and all systems to complete their financial forms. Interestingly, the most requested delivery mode is a traditional workshop scheduled in a computer classroom. Prior to the start of the semester, before computer labs and classrooms are booked up for academics, the financial aid office conducts application completion workshops. The combination of the immediacy of the computer submission and the personal attention is probably what makes this an effective experience.”

And in order to improve communication and connection with its students, Monroe has experimented with iPods and video clips. Similarly, the LA Mission financial aid office, along with other campus offices, plans to add new interactive communication methods including social Web sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Ning plus text messaging and similar communication.

Provide natural supports for learning and work to enhance opportunities for all students. Such support comes in many different forms. Agendas and handouts can be sent in advance to allow everyone to prepare for meetings and information sessions. Documenting and projecting key points both during and after classes can enable individuals to correct misunderstandings in content. Automatically generated electronic appointment and deadline reminders keep students in the learning loop.

Saint Louis University and Monroe Community College post reading materials online to provide equal access to students who may not be able to read print versions. “By posting material online,” says Bartkovich, “students who need large print or secure environments can manage their own reading time and experience.” Materials can be formatted, for example, in much larger type sizes and projected on more visually friendly backgrounds. They also can be easily read using screen readers (i.e., text-to-speech, sound, or Braille software applications often used by people with visual or other reading disabilities). For example, Monroe Community College, says Bartkovich, offers text-to-audio readers and software programs that enlarge on-screen tests in designated labs and offices. All institutions included in the study reported allowing ample time for students to complete written work and ensure that their programs, events, and educational opportunities are accessible to all students.

Ensure confidentiality. While discretion is important for everyone, individuals with disabilities have the added risk of being viewed as somehow different when programs and services are not universally designed—resulting in the separate accommodations that reveal specific needs. Like many institutions, LA Mission College works closely with its disabled students programs and services office to provide appropriate accommodations to students with disabilities and ensure equal access to information and services. This helps to ensure confidentiality as well.

“Most recently,” says Schroeder, “we collaborated on a large campus and community 'Cash for College' event.” It involved the direct assistance of DSPS's assistive technology instructional assistant in both one-on-one consulting with students and parents and guided assistance using high-technology equipment to aid in the online financial aid application process. “The overall results,” he reports, “were outstanding, as the direct assistance provided by DSPS allowed us to offer immediate service for our diverse student body without requiring referral for specialized assistance on a future date.”

All colleges and universities in our study reported that funding to support diverse needs and comply with federal requirements comes from the institution's general fund or annual budget.

It is important for postsecondary institutions to recognize, however, that the inclusion of students with disabilities is a shared responsibility and not the sole responsibility of a particular office (e.g., disability services). By using UD principles, programs and services are equitable, flexible, simple, intuitive, and accessible to all people with few, if any, accommodations required.

Define service quality, establish benchmarks for best practices, and collaborate to evaluate services regularly. Once institutional, programmatic, and individual goals and objectives for achieving inclusive service are established, work on a mechanism and timeline for evaluation to ensure the principles are being applied and met. LA Mission College, Monroe Community College, and Saint Louis University request feedback from students on their programs and services throughout the semester rather than only at the end. This allows for appropriate modifications to be made throughout the year.

“Feedback can be provided on comment cards,” says Wickliffe, “and through focus groups. These can be conducted by student financial services staff, employees in other areas, or in consultation with experts.” Wickliffe notes that conducting an annual drill helps determine whether the institution has maintained its level of service or needs to improve in certain areas. Specific examples of change resulting from the feedback include a clutter-free front entryway, widescreen computer monitors that are available for student use, short videos to assist with the aid process, and all forms available in downloadable PDF formats. “Perhaps the most useful lesson,” says Wickliffe, “is to be sure we think through the way our communications translate on paper, over the Web, or in person—and in all these cases, does the meaning stay the same?”

Smoother Ride, but Bumps Remain

Colleges and universities are realizing the benefits of inclusive practices, not the least of which are better retention rates. Schroeder notes, for example, that LA Mission College's best practices for welcoming all appear to be influencing students to remain enrolled. Advertising that all are welcome, ensuring that appropriate accommodations are available, and staffing events with multilingual personnel of varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds are common practices at LAMC. “I expect that through our interactions and actions,” says Schroeder, “we have affected retention in a positive way.”

McKendree University's Myers is more specific: “Through our best practices and participation with our campus retention team, we have seen an increase in retention especially from fall to spring semesters each year. This fall's numbers were greatly influenced by our early spring FAFSA campaign that we implemented for the 2009–10 academic year.”

Saint Louis University's Wickliffe also sees benefits. “It is our belief that, since students learn and deal with the complexities of student financial services differently, multiple methods of communication produce greater understanding.”

Initiatives to support diverse needs and challenges come with a price. For example, implementing universal design and maintaining up-to-date knowledge of available technologies and familiarity with local resources require advanced planning and come with time constraints and deadlines. However, once implemented, UD provides universities with long-term, cost-effective, and time-efficient strategies in creating inclusive offices and environments to enhance all students' engagement in learning. Implementing UD principles also reduces the need for last-minute modifications to accommodate students with a variety of needs, including but not limited to those of students with disabilities.

Of course, another challenge is the funding of UD initiatives. All colleges and universities in our study reported that funding to support diverse needs and comply with federal requirements comes from the institution's general fund or annual budget. At Monroe Community College, for example, “pilot projects may be funded from the appropriate vice president's office upon request,” says Bartkovich. “[We also] share the costs among supporting offices.”

To further enrich inclusive practices, institutions may want to pursue internal and external grant funding. At Monroe, says Bartkovich, “we've been most successful with our internal strategic planning grants. These are tied to operational objectives to support mission-critical programs. Federal programs tied to special needs populations (for example, Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education grants) or disciplines (the National Science Foundation STEM projects) can also be considered when the universal design technology advances access and inclusion. In these cases, the UD initiatives are a means to accomplish the ends of the grant by broadening student participation.”

The application of UD principles enables all students to have greater access to learning materials and college resources. Such expanded access is one way to transform educational structures and create more equitable learning environments. Beyond the advice provided in this article, specific checklists can help in the planning and assessment process of implementing UD to ensure principles and expectations are being met within the student financial services and business offices and departments. Look for comprehensive checklists in Emily Goff and Jeanne L. Higbee's PASS IT: Implementation Guidebook for Student Development Programs and Services.

Finally, in applying UD principles, it is important to note that the ways different institutions implement good practice depend upon the institutions' students and their circumstances. And, at the very least, UD requires some type of organizational change to be optimally effective. Top leadership must make vice presidents, deans, and department heads aware and informed of UD principles and encourage them to work collaboratively to initiate such an approach. Bartkovich offers this perspective: “As we implement the principles of universal design in both facilities and services, it will be important that we establish methods to measure their impact on students' use of our systems, as well as [student] retention and success.”

While implementing inclusive practices at institutional and departmental levels is bound to create change and conflict, colleges and universities willing to navigate difficult territory will no doubt find that their services will pave the way for a comfortable educational path for all.

KAREN A. MYERS is associate professor, education leadership and higher education, and SARAH LAUX is a graduate assistant, higher education administration, at Saint Louis University, Missouri.