On December 3, 2014, Bow Valley College celebrated its first United Nations International Day for Persons with Disabilities. Over 45 students, staff and community members gathered to talk about barriers to education, accessibility and community inclusion for persons with disabilities. Following the animated discussion, participants checked out some of the new assistive technologies provided by Handi Enterprises Inc., co-sponsor of the event.
In his welcoming remarks, Keith Seel, Dean of the Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning (CEFL), emphasized Bow Valley College’s commitment to providing accessible, inclusive education to persons with disabilities: “The United Nations proclaimed December 3 International Day for Persons with Disabilities in 1992. Their purpose was to promote understanding and the inclusion of persons with disabilities, increase awareness of the gains of including persons with disabilities in community life, and engage in an ongoing discussion around increasing access and accommodations. Bow Valley College shares these goals and is committed to exploring new ideas and technologies in our ongoing efforts to create a seamless learning environment for all of our diverse learners, including and especially those with disabilities.”
The afternoon activities were co- hosted by Candace Witkowskyj, Lead Instructor, Disability and Literacy, CEFL and Mark Flores, President and CEO, Handi Enterprises Inc. (an organization which specializes in assistive technologies).
Flores began the discussion by explaining that his personal goal “is to increase and build the capacity of persons with disabilities through raising awareness about the issues as well as using assistive technology.” He invited participants to engage in a discussion around four key questions:
- What benefits do you think students with disabilities experience at BVC?
- What barriers do you think students with disabilities experience when accessing education at BVC?
- How do you think BVC could address these barriers/make improvements?
- If you could change one thing to support students with disabilities at BVC, what would it be?
What are the benefits for students with disabilities at BVC?
“Bow Valley College is still small compared to other institutions (for example University of Calgary) so people can still feel like individuals, and have one-on-one time with instructors.” (Participant)
Participants felt that there were many benefits for students with disabilities at Bow Valley College. As noted above, the classes are smaller compared to larger institutions, which allows for more individual attention from instructors. There is support across departments for learners with disabilities. Most instructors are proactive and educated about the issues and the accommodations available. The College offers a Disability Studies program which helps to create a culture of awareness around disability and access issues. Many of the students attending the celebration were from this program.
Staff from Accessibility Services and Learner Success Services spoke about the assistance available for learners with disabilities at Bow Valley College. “Over 500 students used our Accessibility Services in the past year,” Emily Gidden, Coordinator of Accessibility Services explained. These services include:
- Assistance for students struggling in class or in the program
- Assistance with study skills and learning strategies
- Academic and exam accommodations
- Assistive Technology services and support
- Sign language interpreting for deaf and hard of hearing students
- Education supports – Learning Strategist, Academic Aide, Tutor, Note Takers
Bow Valley College also offers additional services and support for students. The Counselling Services department provides personal, academic and career counselling, and community referrals to all students experiencing difficulties in the college setting. These may include personal issues, depression, anxiety, abuse, addictions, academic and career goals, couple and family problems, and financial issues. (See http://www.bowvalleycollege.ca/campus-services/learner-success-services/counselling-services.html)
First Nations, Metis and Inuit students can also access services at the Iniikokaan Aboriginal Centre. The Centre provides cultural, physical, emotional, and spiritual support; advocacy; financial information; and community referrals. (See http://www.bowvalleycollege.ca/campus-services/iniikokaan-aboriginal-centre/services-provided.html)
What are the barriers for students with disabilities at BVC?
“Students may not know all the resources available if they don’t identify that they have a disability.” (Participant)
During the discussion, participants identified environmental and physical barriers, resource barriers, complicated processes and bureaucracy, and stigma and social exclusion as obstacles for learners accessing education at Bow Valley College.
Environmental and physical barriers
Although the College is a new facility, there are still numerous physical barriers. The sinks in the washrooms are too high for persons in wheelchairs. The stalls are not large enough to allow an aid to assist. Directional signage around the College is limited and confusing, relying heavily on print and few pictures. The doors to the elevators close too quickly. People have difficulty finding the wheelchair ramp. Participants suggested that automated sliding doors are more empowering than push button doors. Some spaces are very tight for wider wheelchairs. Emergency exits are not clearly marked.
Getting to the College itself poses transportation problems for some students. Handi Bus and Access Calgary are not always on time or reliable.
The Bow Valley College website is not designed for easy access or written using plain language principles. New students may not be aware of the services available for persons with disabilities via Accessibility Services and Learner Success Services. Although the majority of instructors are knowledgeable about accommodations, there are those that may need more training to understand barriers experienced by students with disabilities and the resources available to address them. Relying on computers and the D2L system is a barrier for learners with visual disabilities. Writing tests can be difficult in spite of accommodations provided through the BVC Testing Centre.
Complicated processes and bureaucracy
Typically, the admission process includes testing and assessment, before actual registration takes place at the registrar’s office. Students with disabilities and/or low literacy may be intimidated by the process itself. They are required to make multiple visits to the College along each stage of the way. For many, this means organizing transportation and navigating an unfamiliar environment. While many accommodations are available, getting them in place also takes time and more appointments. The College website advises students to contact Accessibility Services as soon as they are accepted or at least four months prior to starting classes.
Stigma and social exclusion
Learners with disabilities often feel isolated and socially excluded from study groups or social gatherings. Many feel a stigma when asking for special accommodations and support.
How could BVC address barriers and make improvements?
“It would be good to have more training and professional development for instructors, and not just instructors, but also for deans, directors and the human resources department.” (Participant)
Many participants felt that the College could address barriers by creating a culture of awareness, and emphasizing and valuing diversity. This involves expanding the current, limited view of ethnic and cultural diversity to broadened dimensions, and seeing individuals for the whole of who they are as persons. It was suggested that students can also spearhead change by forming activist groups. Participants also spoke about the necessity for challenging assumptions about persons with disabilities. People suggested more training and professional development for staff at all levels and in all departments.
Several people felt that a focus on accessibility for all persons using the principles of both Universal Design and Universal Design in Learning would be a huge step toward creating a barrier-free, accessible environment. Not coincidentally, there are a number of conversations happening at the College regarding these design principles and their implementation.
Universal Design (UD) can be defined as creating and designing products and spaces that can be used for all people. The principles of UD take into account “the full range of human diversity including physical, perceptual, and cognitive abilities, as well as different body sizes and shapes. For instance, curb cuts at sidewalks were initially designed for people who use wheelchairs but they are now also used by pedestrians with strollers and rolling luggage.” (http://www.universaldesign.com/about-universal-design.html) For a detailed explanation and more examples of UD see http://universaldesign.ie/What-is-Universal-Design/The-7-Principles/7-Principals-.pdf
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a “set of principles for curriculum development that gives all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone—not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.” (http://cast.org/udl/index.html). The UDL framework takes into account three principles:
- multiple means of representation—using a variety of ways to present ideas and concepts
- multiple means of action and expression—providing learners with alternative ways to act skillfully and demonstrate what they know
- multiple means of engagement—tapping into learners’ interests by offering choices of content and tools; motivating learners by offering adjustable levels of challenge (https://teal.ed.gov/documents/TEAL_JustWriteGuide.pdf)
The principles of UDL fit well with adult education principles, and are already part of the practice of many of the College’s instructors. Interested practitioners are invited to check out http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/udlguidelines for more examples and resources in applying UDL principles to practice.
What would be one thing you would change to support students with disabilities at BVC?
“I would like to see the focus on accessibility for everyone through a proactive emphasis on universal design.” (Participant)
Participants had an extensive wish list of changes they shared with the group:
Proactive Education and Advocacy
- Increase individual capacity and empowerment by teaching self-advocacy skills as part of a curriculum
- Create robust instructor and administrative education/training around disability issues
- Include empathy exercises as part of an education/training program for staff and students. (For example, encourage people to navigate the College in wheelchairs, and with reduced vision or hearing.)
- Develop an educational outreach program similar to the one run by the City of Calgary. (Students with disabilities go to schools and talk to kids, explain their disability, and answer questions. This decreased stigma and helped challenge assumptions about disabilities.)
- Take the lead in educating young people and the community about disabilities and inclusion as part of the Disability Studies program
- Address isolation by creating meaningful opportunities for able-bodied persons and persons with disabilities to interact socially (suggestions included inviting learners into social and study groups)
- Apply pro-active universal design principles to everything from the physical environment to teaching principles
- Ensure security and maintenance staff are aware of policies and procedures relating to fire drills and other safety concerns especially as they relate to persons with disabilities
- Install accessible bathrooms on every floor, including assistive lifts
- Improve directional signage using symbols and plain language
- Reserve one elevator for use by persons with limited mobility
As the afternoon came to a close, Witkowskyj invited interested participants to sign up to continue the discussion: “This event is only part of a larger, ongoing conversation about the meaningful inclusion of learners with disabilities in the Bow Valley College community. Please sign up to join us as we move forward.” And indeed, as people left, many did sign up. If you are interested in being part of this discussion, contact Candace Witkowskyj at email@example.com
The last word
Organizers Witkowskyj and Flores ended the dynamic afternoon by asking people to think of one thing they personally could do to support students with disabilities. I pass their question on to you:
What can you personally do to support students with disabilities?
Candace Witkowskyj works in the Adult Literacy Research Institute in the Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning at Bow Valley College. She is the Lead Instructor, Disability and Literacy.
Mark Flores is President and CEO of Handi Enterprises Inc., an organization committed to providing individuals the best in assistive technologies. He was also formerly a student activist working for disability rights at Mount Royal University where he completed his Diploma in Disability Studies.
Bow Valley College Accessibility Services: http://www.bowvalleycollege.ca/campus-services/learner-success-services/accessibility-services.html
Bow Valley College Counselling Services: http://www.bowvalleycollege.ca/campus-services/learner-success-services/counselling-services.html
Bow Valley College’s Disability Studies program: http://www.bowvalleycollege.ca/programs-and-courses/human-services/disability-studies-diploma.html
Candace Witkowskyj in the Adult Literacy Research Institute: firstname.lastname@example.org
Iniikokaan Aboriginal Centre: http://www.bowvalleycollege.ca/campus-services/iniikokaan-aboriginal-centre.html
“Since 1992, the annual observance of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. It also seeks to increase awareness of gains to be derived from the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.” See http://www.un.org/disabilities/default.asp?id=1620