Increasing Access and Making Practice More Inclusive through Disability Awareness Training

It takes work to effectively practice inclusivity.
By Carrie E. Rood and Michelle L. Damiani

In August 2012, the Beyond Compliance Coordinating Committee (BCCC), an advocacy group at Syracuse University that is dedicated to establishing and supporting an inclusive climate across campus, developed a workshop module on disability for the university’s incoming teaching assistant (TA) orientation. Each year, the TA orientation is attended by hundreds of new graduate teaching assistants who are joining the university community and will be working directly with students. Many academic departments require their incoming graduate teaching assistants to participate in the weeklong training, and attendees represent a wide range of academic disciplines.

We had previously been participants in the TA orientation sessions ourselves, and we had noticed a lack of information about disability. This absence seemed conspicuous, especially since Syracuse University has a history of disability advocacy and an inclusive culture centered on practice.

After that session, we decided to create a training module, which we called Disability Awareness and Culture. With the support of the BCCC, we determined to address the need we saw for a training session to make the issue of disability on campus more visible, particularly by focusing on increased awareness and strategies to support new teaching assistants. Graduate teaching assistants will inevitably work with undergraduate students with a diverse range of needs, including those identified with disabilities. Our training module was presented by four members of the BCCC, all of whom are associated with the Disability Studies Program at Syracuse and two of whom self-identify as students with disabilities.

Moving Beyond Compliance

Formed in fall 2001 by a group of doctoral students in the Disability Studies Program, the BCCC strives to address inequity by encouraging the university to establish and support attitudes, settings, and practices that go “beyond compliance” with the law in order to create an inclusive environment of participatory equality within the scholarly community. Since its inception, the BCCC has worked to maintain communication across the campus community, bringing disability culture and awareness to the forefront.

Access to high-quality teacher training and professional development opportunities is one of the key determinants of success for new teachers. As education researcher Linda Darling-Hammond writes in Powerful Teacher Education: Lessons from Exemplary Programs, when preparation for working with students with disabilities is included, “instruction is often limited to the legal requirements,” and “rarely do programs present concrete skills and strategies for addressing these issues in the context of actual practice.” In developing our training session, we recognized that graduate teaching assistants will assume a wide range of roles on campus and may not receive additional instructional training, particularly related to addressing the needs of students with disabilities. The training we provided was by no means comprehensive, but it did begin to fill the gap we observed.

Our session sought to introduce disability diversity and culture and to provide specific strategies and resources for addressing diverse student needs at Syracuse. The goal was to give participants initial exposure to the variable nature of disability experiences and to support the TAs in their work with students.

In order to meet those objectives, we developed a variety of activities. At the beginning of the session, participants worked in groups to establish shared definitions of disability; with support from the workshop facilitators, the group called into question the notion of disability as a deficit and introduced the idea that disability is a social construction. We used supporting visual materials, such as cartoons and a video clip, to facilitate discussion of the prevalence of disability, language usage surrounding disability, hidden and visible disabilities, and issues related to identification and disclosure. We focused on these topics in an effort to provide new teaching assistants with awareness about the diverse forms of disability they will almost certainly encounter in their new instructional or support roles with college students.

We followed these activities with a facilitator-led discussion about how TAs can help all students be successful in the classroom setting. We made TAs aware of the legal requirements to provide student accommodations and of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a set of principles that seeks to ensure that course materials and information presented in class are accessible to all. We also addressed more general considerations such as flexible approaches to working with students and ways to maintain student privacy and confidentiality. In the remainder of the training session, we worked on familiarizing new teaching assistants with the wide range of student support services available on the Syracuse campus. By making graduate teaching assistants aware of these resources and providing supplementary materials for quick reference in advance, we hoped that TAs would be able to draw on these materials more easily when they work directly with students.

Responses and Future Considerations

The training was well attended, with approximately 130 participants between two sessions. Our evaluations indicated that participants found the sessions helpful. Participants requested additional trainings and provided a range of comments and suggestions, including the following:

 • The “disability lecture should be required.”

• “Loved [the] video . . . [I] want to work this into my classroom in some way if I can.”

• “My favorite session was Disability Awareness as they actually used universal design in their presentation and it was very interesting.”

• “I appreciated the addition of a disability awareness and culture session. This topic seems relevant to anyone TAing and I think it is great that the combination of information on UDL and this session got people thinking about it in advance.”

• “The sessions by the LGBT, disability, and teaching mentors were all most beneficial sessions. Very enlightening.”

• The training was useful because it “introduc[ed] me to the graduate school and all the resources out there and also help[ed] clarify some aspects of teaching that weren’t clear beforehand, such as disability and distressed students.”

In addition to positive feedback, we also received constructive criticism that we have used to improve the module for the future. Responses ranged from requests for larger classroom space to a desire for “more information on interacting with students with disabilities as an instructor” and suggestions that more time be devoted to discussion of specific examples of available services. One attendee commented that “it would be nice to hear more from disabled students about their experiences.”

A recurring comment was that our Disability Awareness and Culture session repeated content from a separate session on universal design. We have since worked to reduce repetition between modules. The result has been the establishment of one plenary session on Universal Design for Learning that incorporates a disability studies framework and introduces all graduate teaching assistants to a multitude of university resources. In the same year that this plenary was introduced, Syracuse University expanded its commitment to fostering an inclusive community by establishing the Disability Cultural Center, the first center of its kind in the United States. According to its website, the center coordinates campuswide social, educational, and cultural activities on disability and disability awareness for students, staff, faculty, and community members.

As we consider the main tenets of disability studies and the rich history of disability advocacy at Syracuse University, we believe that the lived experiences of college students with disabilities will be an important and distinctive part of this training module. Ultimately, we see potential for this module and other sessions focused on disability awareness to form a critical component of any incoming TA training program. This reflective experience can be a model for other colleges and universities planning similar training experiences for faculty and staff members. Higher education must increase access and support for all students, including those with disabilities.

Carrie E. Rood is assistant professor in the Social Foundations and Advocacy Department at SUNY College at Cortland. Her research and teaching center on social justice, inclusion, and disability studies. Her e-mail address is carrie.rood@cortland.edu. Michelle L. Damiani is a teaching assistant/instructor at Syracuse University pursuing her PhD in special education. Her research focuses on disability studies in education, international inclusive education, and capacity building. Her e-mail address is mldamian@syr.edu.

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