Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.
– George S. Patton
Volume 75 | Issue 6
November 2007

Beyond Building Codes: Accessibility in cocurricular programs

Patrick E. Connelly

Denise started college knowing she wanted to be on the student government. Elected as a representative of her residence hall, she began attending meetings but had difficultly following the discussions. Budget numbers projected on the screen seemed jumbled. She had trouble concentrating because the sophomore sitting in front of her kept tapping his pencil. She was nervous about volunteering to lead any initiatives being discussed because she did not want to commit to something and then be overwhelmed. After the meetings, Denise regularly returned to her residence hall confused about what happened during the past few hours.

Denise decided to talk to one of the student organization advisors. She set up a meeting to explain that she had dyslexia and was having trouble being an active participant in student government meetings. The advisor listened attentively to Denise’s problem, but responded: “I thought dyslexia meant you got the letters in words mixed up.” Denise was patient and tried to explain the full scope of challenges her disability presented.

Together, Denise and her advisor decided on an accessibility plan: Denise would receive printed copies of the budget numbers and agenda at the meeting so she could spend more time looking them over and not feel the need to respond immediately. At meetings, she could sit in the front row where she was less likely to be distracted by others. Additionally, the advisor would work with other student government leaders to better document the time commitment and responsibilities associated with leading any initiatives. If Denise wanted to work on an initiative, she would not necessarily have to go it alone. But most reassuring of all, because her advisor better understood Denise’s disability, she had a go-to person should she have difficulties with accessibility, and she knew the advisor would keep her requests confidential unless Denise approved disclosure. Ultimately, Denise was able to contribute positively to the organization, and the organization benefited from better understanding dyslexia and accessibility issues.

Universal accessibility

The concept of universal accessibility has been applied to accommodations in the digital world for people with disabilities and includes online navigational aids, text-only versions of documents, using HTML tags, declaring file types, and much more. Beyond student organization Web sites and software, the term also easily translates to student programming, creating a model through which the physical, organizational, and student components of programming all work together to accommodate and welcome students with disabilities. It is an inclusive programming model, allowing all students to fully participate in programs and it is proactive, not reactive when dealing with disability issues.

Questions of campus accessibility usually focus on the physical facilities and amenities available to students and others with disabilities. Similarly, those disabilities are typically considered only in the physical sense. As Chelberg, Harbour, and Juarez (1998) explain:

When most people hear the word “disability,” images of people using wheelchairs, guide dogs, canes, or sign language interpreters come to mind. In addition to these visible disabilities, however, more than half of people with disabilities have a hidden disability. Hidden disabilities include learning, psychiatric, head injury, developmental, and systemic/chronic conditions. (p. 6)

These hidden disabilities make it difficult to quantify the number of college students with some kind of disability. However, the U.S. Census Bureau (2006) found that about 2.16 million of the 19.06 million undergraduates and 189,000 of the 2.83 million graduate students enrolled in U.S. post-secondary education reported a learning disability, visual handicap, hearing disability, speech disability, orthopedic handicap, or health impairment.  

These students, like all students, succeed based on their campus involvement and interactions both in and out of the classroom. The sense of belonging, the understanding that they are valued members of the campus community, are all key factors to their success and feeling that the college acknowledges their worth and needs (Kuh, Shuh, Whitt, & Associates, 1991). This sense of belonging also creates an environment where students want to be fully engaged in campus activities and programs.

Often campuses see offices of disability services as the primary component in disabled students’ success during their college careers. While these offices play an important role in showing disabled students that they matter to the institution (Harris & Nettles, 1996), they also can unintentionally be perceived as removing responsibility for accommodations from other individual departments and programs. “Despite the legal mandates of Section 504 [of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973] and the documented positive effects of student life activities on overall student development, little attention has been given to disabled students’ access to the cocurriculum” (Chelberg, Harbour, & Juarez, 1998, p. 2). Disabled students’ success increases when the responsibility for their success is a collaborative enterprise among all campus departments, including student activities.

But understanding and adopting the concept of universal accessibility in college union and student activities programming can be a daunting task. It may help to break it down into parts; simply by examining facilities, planning, communication methods, program content, and leadership roles, college unions and student activities can assist disabled students in their access to the cocurriculum.

Facility management and physical accessibility

Facilities are required by law to meet accessibility codes. Beyond the mere presence of wide aisles and elevator access, room set-ups play an important role in programming. The functionality of the campus environment, including how a space is arranged for an event, communicates important verbal and nonverbal symbolic messages about the campus and its values (Strange & Banning, 2001). When a disabled student enters a meeting and there is no space for a wheelchair at the table or the table is uncomfortably high, it sends a message that the campus does not care about students in wheelchairs. The same is true when students attend an event and there is not appropriate space in the seating arrangement for their wheelchair.
In addition to events on campus, off-campus retreats and trips to nearby attractions and recreational sites offer students unique learning opportunities and a respite from campus culture. Canada’s National Education Association for Disabled Students (n.d.), offers the following recommendations when planning off-site programs:

Campus planners should ensure that accessible transportation is available for any students who may require it. Wheelchair users and other individuals with mobility issues may not be able to make use of traditional transportation, and campus programmers should be prepared to offer alternate options for getting to the event. There should be a procedure set up so that students can request specialized transportation. (¶ 3)

Beyond transportation considerations, program planners should consider whether the off-campus site is accessible and prepared for students with mobility, vision, hearing issues. Additionally, “Will a student with a disability have a similar experience to that of their peers on the trip?” is a basic and essential question for programmers to ask themselves when planning an event.

This question can be extended to planning on-campus programs and meetings. Even if an organization does not currently have a member with a disability, the nonverbal message an organization communicates to the campus community by meeting in a fully accessible space is one of inclusivity and embracing difference.

When considering the campus community, it is important to think about universal accessibility with an eye to performers who may require accommodations. Are green room and restroom facilities accessible? If a performer requires transportation, are vehicles accessible? If portable staging is used, is it accessible to someone in a wheelchair or on crutches? Most portable staging systems now have ramps that can be attached for access.

In addition to mobility-limiting disabilities, event organizers should consider campus community members’ possible visual or hearing impairments. At some events held at night or in a darkened room, this might mean adjusting lighting levels or providing guides to assist individuals with difficulty navigating the space (NEADS, n.d.). Further, the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (n.d.), recommends:

Also ensure that hearing impaired students will get the full benefit of the event. Depending on the activity, sign language interpreters may be necessary. When advertising the event, make it clear that interpretation can/will be provided. (¶ 6)

Closed-captioning is an easy way to make films accessible to hearing impaired students. Some states, including Minnesota, require that all videos and films that educational institutions purchase be either open or closed captioned. According to Minnesota State University–Mankato (n.d.):

Open-captions are similar to subtitles used in foreign films; the captions are permanently displayed on the tape. Closed-captions are subtitles that can only be received by a television having a special chip that receives the closed-caption signal. All televisions 13 inches or larger manufactured after July 1993 feature built-in decoders. (¶ 19)

Older films sometimes do not have any captioning devices, but nearly all newer films do. If captioning will not be available, a disclaimer should be included on materials advertising
the showing.

Despite good intentions and preparation, issues around universal accessibility and programming can arise. Smith College’s Recreation Council offers a popular movie series each week and has made the effort to ensure that films are captioned so that they are accessible to all community members. This year, the group decided to change its film series schedule, necessitating a change in venue. Amid this change, it did not occur to the organizers to make sure that the new venue was equipped with a closed captioning system; the assumption was that if one film venue was equipped, then all of the film venues must be equipped.

It was not until the evening of the first showing that organizers realized the new venue did not have a closed captioning system installed. They were unable to accommodate a hearing impaired student, leaving the student with a negative perception of the organization and college in terms of its commitment to accessibility. A system was quickly installed, and the issue was resolved by the next showing. However, the situation offered a lesson regarding accessibility: Do not take anything for granted.

Often individuals without disabilities do take for granted that accommodations are in place for those who need them; it can be difficult to identify potential roadblocks to accessibility until a situation arises. For this reason, the University of Tennessee–Chattanooga (2006) held Administrator Adopt a Disability Day. Administrators were shadowed by students with disabilities so the administrators could better understand how the students navigate campus and use tools and services to make their disabilities more manageable. Education and outreach to campus community members with disabilities are steps toward preventing inaccessible programs and services.

Planning using accommodation statements

The goal of universal accessibility in programming should be for organizations to anticipate all possibilities rather than reacting to specific requests from students with disabilities. With a little guidance, the idea of accessible programming can become second nature to student groups. However, even if organizers have done due diligence, there should be a process by which campus community members can request

Some campuses require that “accommodation statements” be included in all program publicity materials. Such a statement communicates that all members of the campus community are welcome at an event. It also encourages participation in events by students with disabilities, allowing them to find their niche on campus and potentially increasing both their retention and chances for success. Accommodation statements also are a physical representation of the values that members of the campus community see as important (Kuh, Shuh, Whitt & Associates 1991). If campuses value student participation in out-of-class learning experiences, then an accommodation statement ensures that all students know they have the same opportunities for

An accommodation statement is language on all event publicity that encourages people with disabilities to attend an event and gives them a point of contact should they need accommodations. A sample statement might say:

[organization] encourages all persons with disabilities to participate in campus programs and activities. If you anticipate needing any type of accommodation or have questions about the access provided, please contact [individual’s name, phone number, and e-mail address] by [date].

This type of statement creates an implicit sense of acceptance to all members of a community, regardless of ability. The University of Illinois (n.d.) recommends:

It is a good idea to invite students to privately self-disclose their need for disability-related adjustments and auxiliary aids. …
Please note that students cannot be required to disclose that they have a disability; however, those with known disabilities who choose not to self-disclose accept responsibility for the consequences of that action. (¶s 10–11)

The requests should be made to someone in the activities department. It can be helpful if this is a standard individual with the ability to fulfill requests. In any case, whoever is responsible for accepting requests should be mindful of individuals’ privacy. If additional disability accommodation verification is necessary, then the campus disability services office can be brought in to assist in privately verifying and addressing the request. Some campuses have a standard form for this process.

A four-part “Reasonableness Test” can assist colleges and universities in providing accommodations to students with disabilities. Such a test helps colleges determine if the accommodations they offer to students with disabilities are appropriate. The questions in the test are:

1. Is the documentation of the student’s disability adequate?
2. Are the accommodations necessary?
3. Were the appropriate accommodations and auxiliary aids provided?
4. Were the accommodations and auxiliary aids adequate and effective?
 (Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, 1999, p. 4)

Questions 3–4 provide a gauge for student groups to use when they are evaluating events.

Marketing and communication

Promotional materials for campus programs can be as important to the event as the actual content, otherwise, how will people know to participate? Accessibility considerations in this area range from print material to a student organization’s Web site. Chelberg, Harbour, and Juarez (1998) state:

Access to the informational environment can occur through the creation of printed materials in alternate formats (Braille, large print, audio tape, and electronic), the provision of sign language interpreters for public speeches and performances, and the incorporation of design elements in information technology systems that are friendly to adaptive technology. (p. 6)

Technology allows for accommodations to be easily and effectively integrated into the normal program plan of any organization or department. Using the Web to publicize events or post minutes from meetings allows students with visual impairments to utilize tools such as zoom features built into Web browsers or screen-reader utilities. These Web-based tools allow all students to access program information in a way that works with their particular ability level.

Large-print versions of organization handbooks and guidelines are important, especially if these are used during meetings or are significant to the life of an organization. It is easy to ensure that these are available online in a way that students can increase the font size to work for their needs. Using data projectors in meetings allows members of an organization, regardless of visual impairment, to see the materials being discussed by increasing the image size.

In wanting to facilitate a welcoming tone in promotional materials and other communications, it can be difficult to know the appropriate language to use when referring to people with disabilities. Ideally, one could ask the individual or group what language they prefer. But because that is not always feasible, Chelberg, Harbour, and Juarez (1998) offer the following:

When writing about disability, it is common practice to alternate using the “people first” language (e.g., students with disabilities, students with a learning disability, etc.) with “disabled first” language (disabled students, deaf students, blind students). When discussing disability as a medical condition, the former term may be more respectful, because it does not objectify the person with the disability. The “disability first” language is becoming more popular when discussing disability as a culture or in other socio-political terms. Disability should be used as an adjective and not as a noun (not “the disabled”). It is also respectful to keep references about an individual’s disability away from negative clichés such as “afflicted with blindness,” and to avoid euphemisms such as “wheelchair-bound” and “physically challenged.” (pp. 13–14)

The wording of the accommodation statement discussed earlier can be broad enough to appeal to a wide audience. For more comprehensive materials, such as Disability Awareness Week promotions or extensive online descriptions of available accommodations, the guidelines above may be helpful.

The Ohio State University’s Ohio Union Activities Board promotions include an accommodation statement so that students needing accommodations know not only how to access those accommodations, but also that they are welcome as a part of the OSU community. Recently the board took steps to redesign its Web presence to eliminate pop-ups and Flash player content to make it more accessible to students with low visibility and make the site user-friendly to community members who suffer from seizure disorders (K. Robinson, personal communication, October 2, 2007).

Student learning and leadership

College union and student activities programmers can be leaders in building a campus community whose attitude is welcoming of difference and accessible to individuals with disabilities. This culture extends beyond the program setting and includes policy issues, educational content, attitudinal assessment, and collaborative initiatives.
Policy issues can include those discussed previously—requiring an accommodation statement on all promotional materials, purchasing only captioned films, and guidelines to ensure online accessibility. In addition, it may be necessary to examine other areas such as eligibility requirements for leadership positions in student organizations (e.g., credits completed or course load requirements) or participation requirements (e.g., waiting in line to purchase concert tickets).

An attitudinal assessment can be conducted annually to help monitor some of these issues. Such an assessment would evaluate not only policies, but also the attitudes of staff and volunteers toward individuals with disabilities, the frequency and way in which people with disabilities are portrayed in program and organizational materials, and how programs affect the attitudes of nondisabled people toward individuals with disabilities (Chelberg, Harbour, & Juarez, 1998). However, because Chelberg, Harbour, and Juarez (1998) found that “Changes in the attitudinal environment typically take place through one-on-one interaction with people with disabilities” (p. 7), college unions and student activities can be proactive in facilitating these personal connections through programs that open dialogue on accessibility issues.

Films can be an excellent way to make both participation in extracurricular programs and understanding of disability issues more accessible. According to Chelberg, Harbour, & Juarez (1998):

Throughout history, disability has been viewed in a variety of ways: as sinister (Peter Pan’s Captain Hook or 007’s Dr. No), sometimes as heroic (Christopher Reeve, Helen Keller), often as something to be fixed or pitied (Tiny Tim or Jerry Lewis’ “kids”), and occasionally as just another facet of the individual (Itzak Perlman or Stephen Hawking). (p. 18)

Therefore, individuals’ may have misperceptions of what life with a disability is like. Discussion of how characters with disabilities are portrayed can be an excellent complement to the film itself.

Beyond bringing speakers with disabilities to campus, many performers with disabilities also provide a nontraditional entryway to discussion. Ballet and contemporary dancers with disabilities, singers and musicians, athletes, artists, and comedians can showcase individuals’ talent, not just their disabilities. Chelberg, Harbour, and Juarez (1998) state that, “As with humor about any oppressed group, jokes and laughter can be used to hurt and isolate others, or it can be used to encourage and build community” (p. 23). Sharing the joy and unconditional human worth among people with disabilities and those without helps build community on campus.

Sometimes program planners need look no further than their campus community for individuals willing to open a dialogue about their disability. Inviting individuals from the English department to discuss the role of disabilities in literature, commissioning artwork by someone in the fine arts department who has a disability, or  having an athlete with a disability lead an on-campus field day of intramural and pick-up games can make large strides toward helping everyone understand disabilities and yet focusing on the individuals’ talents.

When planning any of these initiatives, the office of disability services can be a tremendous ally and resource. Build a relationship with its staff, and communicate on a regular basis. Have them evaluate your program schedule to identify accessibility issues that may be unique to your campus and student population. Provide a list of upcoming events each semester so that they can reach out to students needing accommodations to make sure that accessibility issues do not hold them back when it comes to participating in campus programs. Disability resource offices also can be a great partner during leadership retreats or training sessions, providing organization heads with insight into how to create organizations and programs that are welcoming to all students, regardless of ability. However, most importantly, student activities’ relationship with disability services should be a true partnership where responsibility for accessible programming does not just fall to one department.

We often view disabilities as a personal rather than a community issue. If we shift the paradigm to look at it in a different light, we are better able to be proactive in how we address accessibility within student programs. When we shift the onus from the individual to the community, accessibility issues become all of our concern. Helping student organizations look at accessibility as a part of their daily program planning will develop a community of belonging on campuses and encourage the leadership skills necessary for success in today’s world.


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