By Heather Travis
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Although faculty members may not traditionally view their classroom time as providing a ‘service,’ under new legislation teaching is considered a service professors provide to student ‘customers.’
Staff members have completed training sessions geared towards the accessibility standards for customer service under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), which took effect on Jan. 1.
The next stage has been giving professors and graduate teaching assistants a lesson in accessibility in the classroom through training and information sessions to help make The University of Western Ontario a more supportive learning environment.
This translates into welcoming assistive devices, service animals and support persons into lecture halls and laboratories, giving notice of temporary service disruptions (e.g. class cancellations) and taking disabilities into account when communicating with persons with disabilities.
The goal is to increase the accessibility of the teaching and learning experience for students with disabilities.
“I think it raises awareness that faculty have an obligation to make our teaching and other interactions with students more accessible, and equally accessible to everybody,” says Manina Jones, acting chair of the Department of English.
Jones co-led a presentation for about 100 members of the English department on March 5 with Mary Helen McMurran, graduate development and placement co-ordinator in English.
“There are still going to be instances where special accommodations are necessary, and so we just need to know what the processes are for making those happen. For us, it means we don’t have to have the student make personal disclosures to you about what the nature of the disability is.
“Often it’s a matter of asking in a diplomatic way, ‘how can I help you?’”
The 2008-09 University Ombudsperson report for Western indicated students with disabilities are concerned with their privacy and dignity being respected by instructors. The report suggested students made ongoing complaints about instructors asking inappropriate questions about the students’ disability or referenced a student’s need for accommodation in the presence of others. It was also reported students were told granting their recommended accommodation would be unfair to others in the class.
Jones pointed out to faculty members the new legislation does not require them to “diagnose” students, rather they should be proactive and make resources available (or become familiarized with resources available) for students should they need them.
Don’t be afraid to ask the student directly about how to help make the classroom/teaching experience more accessible, she says. “You can usually get the best advice from the students themselves.”
“It’s up to the student to identify his or her disability to you,” says McMurran, encouraging instructors to have informal, private conversations with the
student to discuss accessibility needs.
“Those kinds of inadvertent moments of discomfort will likely decrease more and more as professors and TAs understand better how to communicate with persons with disabilities,” adds Peggy Roffey, Director, Learning and Development for Human Resources, and a member of the AODA project team.
Questions were raised about how to balance students’ accessibility needs, like the use of a service animal, and other students’ needs, such as in the case of an allergy. Jones explained there are ways to provide for both and students should be included in finding a solution. In the case of an allergy, seating arrangements can be made to separate the two, or if the allergy is severe, the students can be placed in separate course sections.
Changes will likely be made in the language of course syllabuses to reflect how students receive service disruption notices, for example if a class or a
professor’s office hours are cancelled. It was suggested professors and teaching assistants contact students by e-mail or phone in advance to inform them of a disruption.
Faculty academic counselors, the Teaching Support Centre and Services for Students with Disabilities in the Student Development Centre are valuable resources, says Jones.
Those attending the information sessions can benefit from sharing information with colleagues on their experiences with students. Including graduate teaching assistants in the training process is important in their learning experience, helping them understand how to teach in a way that is accessible to all, she adds.
“The main goal is to be thoughtful, sensitive and respectful in the ways you interact with students generally, and to find ways to address student needs
without making people feel uncomfortable. That might mean finding language that you can apply to the whole class; it might mean having a conversation outside of the classroom,” says Jones.
This approach applies to interactions with everyone on campus, including alumni and community visitors, she noted.
By the end of April all faculty members are expected to have completed the AODA training sessions. A session will be held in May in the Great Hall for graduate students in a teaching capacity and sessional faculty members.
- Advice regarding students: Services with Students with Disabilities,
- Advice on teaching practices: Teaching Support Centre,
- Advice on use of service animals in labs or other sensitive environments: Occupational Health and Safety ext. 84741
- WebCT inquiries: Instructional Technology Resources Centre,
- Alternate format inquiries:
- Classroom technology, accessible desks: Classroom Management Group,
- Building inquiries (e.g. lights, ramps, elevators): Physical Plant,
or 519-661-3304 ext. 83304
- Accessibility at Western website: