Is It Accessible?: Ensuring Accessibility in Higher Education During a Global Pandemic

Is It Accessible?: Ensuring Accessibility in Higher Education During a Global Pandemic

Michael John Kutnak (Queens University of Charlotte, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-6557-5.ch020
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This chapter discusses the role of accessibility in higher education institutions during the COVID-19 global pandemic. Under the law, administrators in higher education are obligated to provide accessible programs and services to students. They are also required to provide accessible work environments for employees. Administrators also have other incentives for doing so, such as building a sense of community. As a result of the shift to hybrid and or totally virtual delivery models of instruction, institutional administrators need a research-based methodology to assess their programs and services for accessibility consideration. This chapter provides higher education administrators with such a methodology. It also makes recommendations for creating return to campus plans, including how universal design can be implemented as part of the plan.
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Accessibility in the United States

In the United States, one in four, or approximately 61 million people have some form of disability (Okoro et al., 2018). As a result, there are a lot of students with disabilities entering our K-12 and collegiate educational systems (Leyser et al., 2001; Kutnak & Janosik, 2014; Kutnak & Janosik 2018: Kutnak & Sullivan, in press; Palombi, 2000). This population has a significant impact on our educational systems (Leyser et al., 2001; Kutnak & Janosik, 2014; Kutnak & Janosik 2018: Kutnak & Sullivan, in press; Palombi, 2000).

The population of students with disabilities has continuously increased for the past 30 years (Leyser et al., 2001; Palombi, 2000; United States Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics [NCES], 2020). From academic year 2011–12 up to academic year 2018–19, the number of students with disabilities in public K-12 schools rose to 14% of the total population attending, or approximately 7 million students. (NCES, 2020; Schaffer, 2020). As of 2019, students with disabilities in higher education composed 19.4% of the total undergraduate population and 11.9% of the postbaccalaureate population (NCES, 2019). According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (2020), 17.9 million students attended higher education institutions in some form in 2019, meaning 3.5 million college students had some form of disability. This student population has grown since the initial passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and experts project this trajectory will continue for the foreseeable future (Kutnak & Janosik, 2014, Kutnak & Janosik, 2018; Rothstein, 1993; Rothstein, 2003; Schaffer, 2020).

Students with disabilities are in our classrooms, libraries, dining halls, and residential facilities whether or not individual disabilities visibly present themselves (Kutnak 2015; Kutnak & Janosik, 2018; Kutnak & Sullivan, in press). Administrators must ensure that institutional programs and services are accessible to this population of students. This obligation is so important, the federal government has enacted a series of laws to ensure students with disabilities can access educational programs and services across the United States. Under the law, students with disabilities have a right to access our educational programs and services (Kutnak & Janosik, 2014, Kutnak & Janosik, 2018; Palombi, 2000; Rothstein, 1993; Rothstein, 2003; Schaffer, 2020). As a result, it is important to understand federal legislation related to students with disabilities and school systems.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Major Life Activity: Activities consisting of, but not limited to caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, sitting, reaching, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, and working.

Accessibility: Capable of being reached; capable of being read with comprehension; easily obtained; easy to get along with or talk to.

Universal Design: A method of design for physical objects and environments that centers the end user in the design process in an attempt to create products or engineer environments that are accessible to the widest possible audience.

Physical Access: The ability of an individual to successfully navigate a physical space and accomplish whatever task that person intended to accomplish within that space.

Programmatic Access: The accessibility of the goods, programs, and services provided by an institution, business, or agency.

Individual With a Disability: Any person with a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activity.

Disability Services: The offices, administrators, faculty, and staff members specifically tasked by policy at a higher education institution to administer the applications of Title I, II, and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1978 to students, faculty, and staff.

Universal Design for Learning: A framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people regardless of ability status.

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