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Macalester explores flexibility of disability accommodations

On Tuesday, April 2, Macalester Disability Services sponsored Radical MacACCESS, a series of events exploring the experiences of people with disabilities at Macalester.

The day began at 10:00 a.m. with a lecture from educational studies professor Brad Belbas in the Smail Gallery of Olin-Rice. Belbas discussed the benefits of technology as an assistive aid to students with disabilities in the classroom.

The lecture was followed by two panel discussions led by students, faculty and staff exploring what disabilities mean for life at Macalester. The list of panelists included economics professor Mario Solis-Garcia, applied mathematics and statistics professor Andrew Beveridge, Dylan Larsen ’20 and Mariella Page ’22.

“We wanted to bring some focus and direction to disability on campus and identify who is and isn’t a part of disability conversations on campus,” Director of Disability Services Melissa Fletcher said. “We wanted to get the campus community together to discuss what we can do about this in a really thoughtful way.

“We wanted to do something that was really internal to the campus,” she continued, “different from many awareness events that bring a keynote speaker from the outside.”

Panelists Andrew Beveridge, Dylan Larsen ’20 and Mario Sollis-Garcia at Radical Mac ACCESS. Photo by Kat Lewis ’21.

After the lunch break, Larsen gave a presentation in John B. Davis Lecture Hall. He presented on a survey of faculty members that he conducted in April 2018 with alumni Tess Huber ’18 and Leah Wilcox ’18.

For Larsen, the survey represented an opportunity to identify the logistics and challenges of student accommodations at Macalester. Faculty were asked to share their perspectives on providing accommodations to students with disabilities and explored possibilities for institutional change.

“The three of us felt that we had a really good idea of what the student perspective was because of all our conversations and the work we’ve done in the field, but we didn’t have a solid understanding of the faculty perspective on accommodations,” Larsen continued.

While conducting the survey, Larsen, Huber and Wilcox pressed faculty on a number of important aspects of disability accommodations at Macalester, including attendance flexibility, flexible deadlines and the usage of recording devices in class.

The students noticed that surveyed faculty members were open and willing to have conversations about disability accommodations but were unsure about how to provide for all students’ needs without making drastic changes to their class structures and syllabi.

Larsen and Fletcher noted that the lack of efficient communication between Disability Services, faculty and students make it more difficult for professors to restructure their classes in order to better accommodate students with disabilities and make their classes more accessible.

“We need some clearer guidance about how to go about things like accommodation plans and to establish the role of our office in that, also pertaining to things like absences and physical access,” Fletcher said.

“One of the things faculty have a right to do as professors is to deem what is essential for their course,” she continued. “The heart of what we’re trying to do is understand where accommodations can be, where they can’t be and what role flexibility and adaptability play in the learning process.”

“Maintaining a balance between high quality academics and student needs is something that faculty seem to struggle with,” Larsen added. “There’s not much of a concrete framework for them to abide by.”

The solution to this problem, Fletcher argues, is to implement a universal design framework for learning, which was a big talking point of Radical MacACCESS. A universal design framework would be structured to accommodate as many students with disabilities as possible and reduce barriers to learning across the disability spectrum without compromising coursework.

“To me, learning looks like the evaluation of each individual student based on their capacity,” Fletcher said. “The goal of good learning is how we can incorporate the most people possible within the field and evaluate them individually.

“The more simple things to do include putting documents up in an accessible format,” Fletcher continued, “which would cover a broad range of disabilities — students with physical disabilities, students with limited vision, even students with mental health issues. That would allow them to relearn and look at information again.”

In Fletcher’s mind, this evolution will take place in three phases.

The first of these steps is implementing universal design in Macalester’s classes to ensure as many students with disabilities are cared for as possible. The second phase involves identifying students who are still left out of the mold and arranging individual accommodations to meet their needs. Finally, conversations can be held with professors to discuss where to draw the line on student accommodations and how to ensure students with disabilities are meeting the learning goals of the class.

“I think that my role is to pave the paths for people with disabilities and ask ‘what do you want to do here?’” Fletcher said. “My goal is to show people with disabilities that there’s paths for them at Mac, but then get out of the way to let students move forward.”

Following productive campus discussions about present understanding, the questions shift toward the future of disability services and the next steps Macalester can take forward.

“When I interviewed at Macalester, one of the things that I said is that if we’re looking at complex pieces of disability, Macalester is the place to figure that out, not only figure it out but lead in some ways,” Fletcher said. “This event left me hopeful because of the hard discussions we had and the solutions we came up with for the future.”

Fletcher gave many examples of inspiring events that occurred during Tuesday’s programs. Among them were the “inspiring, thoughtful and impactful” panel discussion and the survey of Macalester faculty.

She also did not shy away from the contributions of the Macalester community in organizing and participating in these events– noting that this work involves everyone at Macalester.

“We didn’t want this to be a Disability Services event. We wanted this to be a campus event. We developed the structure and direction for the event but we wanted the voice to be the campus.

“I’m tired, but I’m inspired tired,” she continued. “Not tired, exhausted, like ‘wow, let’s not do that again’ but ‘what can we do now with this roadmap for our future?’”

April 4, 2019

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