Accessible Learning for Students With Disabilities

McGill University takes the lead implementing Universal Design
By Karen Seidman, GAZETTE universities reporter January 5, 2013

As a McGill University student with a learning disability, Cedric Yarish hates when professors rely on “chalk and talk.”

What helps him with his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is when professors engage students in discussion, present their material in a variety of interesting ways and provide options for student evaluation, such as a choice between exams or papers or other types of multimedia projects.

And he is pleased to see that, in the last year at McGill, there has been a push to make learning more accessible to students such as himself. This is being done through the concept of Universal Design (UD), which focuses on in-class adaptation to widen access for those with difficulties rather than turning to outside accommodation, which can stigmatize students.

With an explosion in “invisible” disabilities such as ADHD, universities are having to adapt to this emerging clientele — and the buzz term for that is Universal Design.

For example, the number of disabled students — including those with physical, learning and mental health disabilities — on the McGill campus jumped to 1,300 this academic year, from 860 the previous year. In 2004-05, the number was just over 400.

And while the percentage of students with physical disabilities has remained stable at about two to four per cent of the total student body, fully 25 per cent of disabled students have a mental health disorder, 15 per cent have a learning disability, 15 per cent have attention deficit disorder and 16 per cent have multiple impairments.

With this changing landscape, the old model — where accommodation for the disabled is achieved primarily through ancillary individualized support or retrofitting — is becoming too costly and unwieldy. With UD, the system is designed as much as possible to be usable by all, which proponents of the approach say makes it inclusive, proactive and sustainable.

So instead of offering specialized services to someone like Yarish, all professors are asked to adapt their course material to be more inclusive for everyone and the emphasis is on the learning environment rather than on diagnostic labels or impairments.

Already popular in the United States, the concept of UD is still new for campuses here. Frédéric Fovet, director of the Office for Students with Disabilities at McGill, said that just in the year or so since he’s taken over the job, McGill has jumped to the head of the pack in terms of Montreal campuses implementing UD.

In fact, McGill’s joint senate and board of governors meeting in November focused on the issue of UD, and the response was positive.

“I came in (in July 2011) as an agent of change because the university was committed to this,” Fovet said. “I think it is a noble goal. It is really a question of inclusion.”

While he can’t put an exact cost to the changes, which in many cases involve adapting course material, he said the $1-million-plus annual budget for the Office for Students with Disabilities could stretch a lot further with UD implementations.

“The cost may be the same, but the changes are more far-reaching because with UD you’re talking about long-term, sustainable change,” Fovet said. “So you can do more with less with UD.”

Despite making progress in the last year, it’s still a question of “seduction” right now, according to Fovet — and it’s profs who need to be seduced.

Professors are the ones responsible for many of the changes, but having to adapt course material can stress out instructors. There are also obstacles, such as questions over intellectual property rights if shared notes or lecture recordings are made more widely available.

“But working to increase engagement in the classroom can only be good,” said Yarish, and English student who last semester had two professors incorporate UD into the courses. “I know the challenge is getting all the teachers on board because this is very much an issue of pedagogy, but I think most teachers realize at this point that they can’t just talk for an hour and a half.”

The environment does have to be made more accommodating, said Jonathan Mooney, president of the Post Graduate Student Society.

“More and more people are coming to the university with disabilities,” he said. “But individual accommodation for each person is taxing on the university.”

Alvin Shrier, president of the McGill Association of University Teachers, said professors are sensitive to the issue.

“I do know it’s becoming a larger issue,” he said of UD, although he acknowledged it’s still a new concept that hasn’t been widely discussed. “Many professors are understanding of learning issues.”

But it looks like professors are going to have to buy into the idea, said Fovet — and workshops have been offered to help them adapt. The traditional “accommodation approach” is becoming inadequate as users are increasing rapidly, and the complexity of diagnostic labels has made retrofitting somewhat obsolete.

In terms of the bottom line, maintaining a parallel system for students with disabilities is costly in a time of cutbacks and diminishing budgets.

The UD approach considers how curriculum, instruction and assessment can meet the learning needs of the greatest number and diversity of students, while maintaining academic rigour.

“It is just moving away from one size fits all,” Fovet said. For example, he explained, students with obsessive-compulsive disorder might not do well on a multiple-choice exam because they are so focused on doing well that they can’t finish. So while he’s not saying all multiple-choice tests should be eliminated, he suggests that offering students a choice of evaluation methods could allow students who know they won’t succeed in one method the luxury of choosing a type of assessment more suited to their strengths.

“The point is to provide options,” he said. “It’s not an easy process, but we hope to see the campus embrace this framework for inclusion.”

Twitter: @KSeidman

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