What We’re Learning About Learning: From Accommodations to Accessibility

Over the last year and a half in particular, we’ve learned a lot about the many barriers that can stand between our students and their education. Now that we’re back to mostly in-person learning, we need to keep finding ways to break down the barriers that our students face, especially in cases where students have disabilities. That’s the focus of the new episode of CNDLS’ What We’re Learning About Learning Podcast.

To some extent, this is about improving our efforts to make accommodations for students with documented disabilities. As Joe Fisher, the Executive Director of the Academic Resource Center at Georgetown, told us, “The accommodation model is always going to exist….If you just isolate this campus, we’ve got buildings that were built a very long time ago. So you are always going to need to add the ramp. That is the accommodation model. The building was not built with accessibility first….So the need to retrofit, I think, is always going to exist, whether we’re talking about physical architecture or curricular architecture, educational, academic architecture.”

And yet, as Fisher suggests, the ideal educational environment is one that goes beyond accommodations to a focus on access. Libbie Rifkin, the founding Director of the Program in Disability Studies at Georgetown and a Teaching Professor in the Department of English, thinks about “accommodation as something that we are legally bound to do after the fact or when somebody discloses that they have some form of disability. But when we’re designing for access and thinking about access, what we’re really thinking about is inclusion and belonging. And that requires forethought and planning and an orientation toward maximal openness.”

Mimi Khúc, Scholar/Artist/Activist in Residence in Disability Studies at Georgetown University, discussed “creating a culture of access”: “I want to create a culture in my classroom that students feel like they can talk about their needs, not feel ashamed about having needs, and then figuring out together collectively because access is a collective community project. We figure out together how to meet everybody’s needs as best as we can and to be flexible throughout.”

Check out the current episode of the What We’re Learning About Learning Podcast to hear these colleagues share more about how they implement these ideas in the classroom. As Rifkin articulated, making this thoughtful effort “goes such a long way with students. Feeling like, OK, this is a class and a professor who is flexible, willing to think about me as a person, as a human.”