Q&A on the ADA at 30
Author: Lilah Burke
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Last week, on July 26, the Americans With Disabilities Act turned 30 years old. The comprehensive civil rights legislation, passed in 1990, prohibits discrimination based on disability.
Inside Higher Ed interviewed Mary Lee Vance, currently the director of services for students with disabilities at California State University, Sacramento, about the law’s impact, consequences of the pandemic and how colleges can do better for their disabled students. Vance has worked in disability services and academic advising for more than 20 years at several universities. She was lead editor on the book Beyond the Americans With Disabilities Act, published by NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and sits on the editorial review board of the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability. She answered questions over email.
These responses have been edited for length.
Q: How would you describe the magnitude of the ADA’s effect on higher education? How impactful has the law been for disabled students?
A: The ADA, and its companion law, Section 504, clearly have been impactful, in a very positive, if incomplete, way. I often hear faculty commenting that “there seems to be more disabled students” in their classes, at which point I exclaim, “Thanks to the ADA.”
There are more disabled students being admitted into postsecondary now, because a couple barriers have been removed: 1) pre-admission inquiries into disability status are now unlawful and admissions personnel have been trained not to disqualify applicants based on disability; and 2) admissions exams, like the SAT, can no longer be administered in inaccessible locations and without accommodations. Moreover, the fact that a student took an admissions exam with accommodations can no longer be disclosed. And, as stated, the many more disabled students reflects the successes from having received “special education” services in elementary and secondary school.
Disability rights are civil rights. Like all civil rights movements in America, we have come a long way and we have a long [way] to go. Though I am very proud of how inclusive and diverse my campus is and can attest to the sincerity and intensity of the commitment of our leadership to educate and raise up all students, even here, as everywhere, class justice remains a serious challenge, especially for students with disabilities.
Some students come to us with extensive documentation and years of successful use of well-established accommodations, while others come to a campus with no awareness or understanding of their disabilities or their disability rights.
Most campuses are now moderately accessible, however it is important to note that claiming one is “ADA compliant” is not something to point to with pride. There is a big difference between ADA compliance, which means one barely is compliant, versus functional. For example, I talk a lot about bathrooms because they are very important for me. If you saw the documentary Crip Camp on Netflix, there is a quote from Judith Heumann where she informs legislators that she is tired of having to be “grateful” for accessible restrooms.
That quote so resonated for me because I use an electric mobility device on campus, a three-wheeled scooter, and need to take it into the restrooms with me. A restroom could meet ADA compliance for a wheelchair but not be functional for a scooter user. The ultimate, universal design solution is to have a single “family” restroom, because I would have plenty of room to navigate my scooter and the disabled student with a caretaker of another gender could provide the assistance required of the disabled person without bothering anyone else. However, the beauty of a universally designed restroom also is that the family restroom could accommodate the parent with small children. One of the primary principles of universal design is flexibility in use. The chair user, scooter user and families can all use a family restroom.
Today, nearly every campus has a disability services (DS) office, or at least a person assigned to engage in the one-to-one interactive process with students and coordinate accommodations for disabled students. In particular, students with intellectual disabilities and students with psychiatric or neurological disabilities often require additional time on exams. Students requesting additional time on exams or notes must come to a disability services office and fill out an application for academic adjustments that the faculty could, for the most part (depending on the curriculum) provide in class without the DS office. Were the faculty to provide the additional time and notes to all students, this would be utilizing universal design pedagogy. Those students who require the time and notes will use them, and those who don’t need them won’t use them. And all students, those with disabilities or those whose first language is other than English, would have sufficient time on the exam to validly demonstrate what they have learned and what they have not.
Unfortunately, while there are more disabled students than ever seeking the postsecondary experience and ultimately degrees, there still are inadequate resources to provide the support disabled students may require. The largest number of disabled students on campuses today are likely to have psychological disabilities, particularly anxiety, which is not a DS function but a counseling services function. Yet most campuses are not all well prepared to provide the necessary and ongoing counseling support.
In addition to directing the SSWD, I also am the director for the federal TRIO program SSSD, Student Support Services for Disabled Students. This national program exists due to the concern over disabled students’ retention. Whereas the ADA has done a pretty good job of ensuring physical accessibility, we still have a long way to go to provide for the retention of students with nonvisible disabilities, particularly psychological disabilities.
As a result of COVID-19, we are already seeing a major increase in students with anxiety, depression and of course postcoronavirus conditions such as heart and organ weaknesses. As time goes on, and we learn more about the COVID-19 impact, there will be more of a need for services like ours because I fully anticipate that students with general anxiety and depression are only going to increase.
Students with severe speech impairments such as those diagnosed with cerebral palsy are often misunderstood by faculty, who fail to understand that what may be highly impaired speech is actually completely distinct from the intellectual capabilities of these individuals. Listening to and communicating with these students requires a certain amount of patience and effort that most people are not willing to expend. Students on the autism spectrum and students with intellectual disabilities have a wide range of unrecognized educational potential. We need the federal government to provide resources and incentives for piloting programs that will help to develop solutions for admitting and retaining them. So many of these individuals have a strong sense of intellectual curiosity, and the arbitrary notion that they are through developing at grade 12 is unjust and discriminatory.
Q: What progress is still to be made for disabled college students? Where could colleges, and the law, do better?
A: There are many no-cost, simple, practical ways in which colleges could do better. For example, at many colleges, faculty rarely have their course syllabi ready when students are trying to register for classes. Without the timely syllabi, it is difficult for a student to know if a course will require extensive reading, writing or whether there will be videos (which may require captioning and/or visual descriptions). The more lead time a disability services office has to convert print content, the better it is for the student. If faculty don’t have their syllabi done until the first week of classes, disabled students can be severely disadvantaged.
Laws need to be changed to be more inclusive of accessibility and universal design. Congress could require, for example, that no book be published without the creation of a digital file that could promptly be converted into an accessible format. Government should provide more funds to support pilot programs and research that will enhance the educational experience for disabled students, such as the TRIO SSSD program I direct. There is a serious need to fund projects that will provide admission and support for the growing numbers of nontraditional students wanting an extended education, particular students with intellectual disabilities and those on the autism spectrum. Students not historically served by DSS [disability services] programs such as students who are pregnant, students who have been subject to sexual harassment and violence, student athletes, students transitioning from incarceration, are becoming our responsibility. More funding is needed to support these considerable additional responsibilities. Furthermore, as a result of COVID-19, DSS offices may be facing a tsunami of new students, stretching already tight budgets.
Q: The ADA has gone through a few clarifications and updates. How have these changes affected the response by colleges and the experience of disabled college students?
A: Between the time of the 1990 ADA and the ADA Amendment Act of 2008, disabled individuals had a very difficult time establishing that they had experienced discrimination. Disability discrimination cases were overwhelmingly rejected by the courts due to the focus on whether an individual qualified as being someone with a disability versus whether a case of discrimination had occurred. Congress passed the ADAAA and in doing so restored the intent of the ADA to reduce barriers and made less difficult the ability to establish oneself as an individual with a disability, making the ADA more inclusive.
In postsecondary education, this meant that DS offices did not need to go through such a rigorous process to verify that a student qualified as having a disability before academic adjustments could be approved. Through the interactive process, a DS office could sometimes determine by observation whether a student qualified for accommodations. A wounded warrior, for example, that served in active combat most likely would have sustained some form of post-traumatic stress, as would a sexual assault victim. These students could now be approved for appropriate accommodations for their conditions without necessarily needing to provide medical documentation.
Q: Since the law’s passage in 1990, we’ve seen significant advancement in popular technology, such as laptops, smartphones and e-readers, and more instructional content has moved online. How would you say this has changed the experience for disabled college students?
A: Technology has its pros and cons. A con is when faculty want to have a “technology-free” classroom, so students pay attention to the faculty and as a result [the faculty member] becomes resistant if a student requires audio recording as an accommodation. The irony is that students registered with DS offices will be self-identified, have signed agreements for appropriate use and [will] be subject to student conduct if they violate the approved usage, such as publishing a lecture on the internet. Whereas any nondisabled students could easily surreptitiously audio record lectures with their phones.
Unfortunately, unlike architectural standards, with regard to websites and online services, the federal government has failed to issue regulations setting accessibility standards. Fortunately, sample and exemplary web standards, such as [Web Content Accessibility Guidelines] and 508 guidance do exist, but campuses are very inconsistent with regards to how they purchase educational learning platforms such as Canvas, Moodle and other products, much less how they will require students to use or not use the institutionally approved technology. Clickers, Kahoot and other devices or apps are often used for attendance, class interaction and assessment purposes. To varying degrees, these tools and apps may be problematic for the blind/low vision, the physically limited, deaf/hard-of-hearing or the nonnative English speaker.
On the other hand, technology has the potential to make learning so much more accessible for disabled students. Published content that is readily convertible or readily available in an accessible digital format benefits students with print impairments able to use technology like Kurzweil, as with students with visual impairments who use screen readers such as JAWS or an alternate format such as Braille. We know that publishers produce books in electronic formats, and it is a shame when they do not provide access to the books that can be easily converted by the readers themselves.
Q: We’re seeing many colleges now saying they will be nearly fully online for the fall semester. Others are saying they intend to bring students back to campus to take classes in a hybrid manner. Do you have concerns for how disabled students will be affected by both the pandemic and changes to their education?
A: Clearly as a nation, we are still learning about the impact of COVID-19. Already we have seen increased numbers of students having anxiety and depression about contracting the virus. Reports of organ damage associated with COVID-19 survivors are widespread. Consequently, it should not surprise us if many more COVID-19 survivors prove to be individuals with disabilities.
Campuses are mixed in terms of how they will open for classes in the fall. I consider myself fortunate to be at a campus where the president has been extremely supportive and protective of the health of students and employees by resisting pressure to have more in person/brick-and-mortar classes and events than essential.
There are many challenges to in-person classes. Will the class meet in person all days, or will it be divided, with some students coming in one day, and others another day? Accommodation requests coming through now are mostly asking for all classes to be held online. Conversely, there have also been a few students requesting all classes to be in person.
For classes in person, the issue of face masks and face coverings are presented. At most campuses, I am aware they are requiring everyone to wear masks, but there may be disability-related reasons for why a student may not be able to wear a face mask. If so, then how does this student get equal access to curriculum or other services?
Another online issue is test proctoring. Some campuses are using technology that reports to the faculty if a student is making movements or doing anything that might be questionable with online exams. However, a student requiring a drink or snack, or a service animal that makes a sudden movement, has potential to jeopardize an otherwise valid exam result.
Most of the DS profession are focusing on making sure we follow processes to individually ascertain what a student may require for equal access. However, given that COVID-19 is unprecedented, we need to be utilizing universal design principles, one of which is flexibility. Instead of waiting for students to come to us and self-identify, we will need to do more outreach to educate students about their rights, as well as responsibilities. We know that there are many students with disabilities on campuses that are not registered with the DS offices, and at a minimum we need to get them information about our services so that they don’t become at risk for failing to receive the critically important benefits and opportunities that come with a college education that accords to each individual the full range of his or her civil rights.