Re/Framing Disability in Geosciences Curriculum
Emerging thinking suggests that disability is the result of inaccessible environmental or systemic design (Shakespeare, 1997). Having been socialized to understand disability as a personal tragedy to be fixed, hidden, or individually accommodated, rather than an experience created and perpetuated by design, faculty and campus professionals are trained on Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance and are not typically supported in making the paradigm shift necessary to operationalize new thinking about disability access and inclusion on campus. Current practice in college and university classrooms prioritizes legal requirements or ADA compliance over cultivating a welcoming and inclusive environment for all students. We ensure that disabled students have access to academic experiences by facilitating individual accommodations, oftentimes retroactively. Accommodations may respond to barriers in the physical environment, such as accessible classrooms or reserved seating; or they may mitigate curricular barriers around inaccessible exams or activities. Often accommodations results in an experience for disabled students that differs significantly from that of their non-disabled peers. While accommodations ensure access, they do not guarantee an experience that is equitable or identical. The process of requesting, determining and implementing accommodations can be burdensome or confusing for faculty and students alike and, further, accommodations are “individual”, and will likely need to be put in place class after class, semester after semester. If we continue to respond to access solely through individual accommodation, faculty miss the great opportunity to address inclusion proactively and sustainably by designing their courses to be accessible and inclusive for all students without accommodation. A more sustainable and effective approach to inclusion requires reimagining the curriculum to be barrier-free. By utilizing concepts of Universal Design (UD), we can maximize access and engagement for all, without the need for modification or individual accommodation. UD strives for equity, flexibility and usability. We can use UD to design specific assessments and activities, or more generally in terms of course requirements so that students are able to choose from options that satisfy degree requirements and best suit their abilities and goals. An outcome of a UD approach to curricular design is that all students will have identical experiences thereby reducing the stigma and separateness of accommodations or special processes.