Libbie Rifkin (English) and Sylvia Önder (Anthropology and Turkish) co-led the session “Designing for Access: Disability in the Classroom” on Wednesday during TLISI. They are both members of the Disability Studies Working Group, which is working to create a Disability Studies academic minor at Georgetown.
The session focused on the issue of access in the classroom. How do we ensure that classrooms and conversations are accessible for all? As Önder and Rifkin discussed and demonstrated through activities, handouts, and personal testimony, access is about more than just removing physical barriers.
Both Rifkin and Önder are committed to raising awareness of accessibility issues on Georgetown’s campus. During their session, Rifkin and Önder referenced two students with disabilities in particular who they learned from. Graduated students Lydia Brown and Heather Artinian were outspoken advocates for disability justice while at Georgetown. During the session, the professors shared an excerpt from an article Heather Artinian wrote for the student newspaper The Hoya, in which she highlighted her difficulty in requesting accommodations in order to participate in extracurricular events: “My deafness is a part of me. It does not end when I walk out of a classroom.” Önder and Rifkin used this to frame a discussion about the Accommodationist Approach. Under this framework, the disability resides in the student and it is their responsibility to arrange for their own accommodations. However, as Rifkin pointed out: “What we’re hearing from Heather is she is a person, she’s not a compliance issue.”
Universal design, which is responsive, prepared, flexible, and accommodating, offers a better approach. Quoting Jay Dolmage, “universal design is not for a few ‘special’ students, but rather a way to move forward with all our learners (and ourselves) in as accessible a way as possible.” The three principles of universal design are: multiple means of representation (presenting information in several different ways to allow for students different needs and preferred learning styles), multiple means of expression (allowing for students to contribute in different ways as suits their needs and abilities), and multiple means of engagement.
Önder and Rifkin achieved this in their presentation by using different formats of presenting information (written handouts, a PowerPoint presentation, and engaged discussion). At one point, Önder used an application on her phone to generate random numbers. Each participant then read the corresponding statement from a list of 102 statements compiled by Lydia Brown about neurotypical privilege that people who do not live with mental illness often do not realize that they have. Some examples include: “10. Strangers talk directly to me, and not to whoever happens to be with me.” and “49. I can reliably expect that most, if not all, teachers and professors that I will ever have will also share my ability status.”
Rifkin and Önder concluded with some ideas that they have begun to incorporate into their own classroom to improve accessibility. They shared a syllabus statement written by Margaret Price, the author of the book Mad at School, who together with Stephanie Kerschbaum, came to Georgetown in March for a joint Engelhard and Doyle sponsored talk entitled “Flexibility and its Discontents: Rethinking Disability in Academic Spaces” jointly hosted by the Doyle Program and the Engelhard Project. They also discussed some favorite interventions, such as calling around, when students respond and then call on the next person themselves, and having note-takers, which allows for those students who feel more comfortable writing a way to participate. Rifkin and Önder have just started their advocacy for disability justice at Georgetown. “A lot of what I’ve learned about disability access and accommodation is the easy fix doesn’t work. Making it actually work takes work,” explained Önder. There is no doubt that their passion and dedication will lead to a more accessible and inclusive learning environment for all.
CNDLS is grateful for their time and contribution to this year’s event!