The Accessibility of The Community College Classroom to Students With Disabilities
Community and technical colleges, especially those located in rural regions, face significant challenges in effectively addressing the educational needs of students with disabilities and in maintaining information equality as they struggle to keep pace with technology. Blue Ridge Community College (BRCC) in the Appalachian region of North Carolina developed a practice to assess current educational technology accessibility, implement faculty training, and upgrade adaptive technology on its two campuses. The project included the input of a student advisory board, the development of faculty training materials, the creation of a disability services handbook, an assessment by the NC Assistive Tech Project, and the proposal of procurement policies.
Information Technology in the twenty-first century is vitally important to the success of students, skilled tradesmen, professionals, workers in all areas of employment, and those seeking to keep abreast of a fast-paced society. It is no less important to persons with disabilities. To assure their access, postsecondary institutions must be on the cutting edge of educational technology. Yet it has only been in the last ten years that many institutions have begun to recognize this obligation and set about to provide accessible technology.
The mission of tax-based community colleges is to train local workforces as well as students who wish to begin college studies at a much lower cost and then transfer to four-year institutions. North Carolina established 58 colleges across the state so that no resident would have to drive more than 30 minutes to attend. With the appearance of community colleges in local areas and their affordability, the workforce began to expand in the state.
Meanwhile, North Carolina public schools, largely motivated by new federal legislation, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), offered more programs for students with disabilities. These programs resulted in more students graduating high school and entering the postsecondary environment.
Many of these North Carolina students with disabilities chose to attend community colleges. As reported by the National Council on Disability, nationwide approximately nine percent of all college students are students with disabilities (Frieden, 2003); Seventy-one percent of all public higher education students with disabilities are enrolled in community colleges (Barnett & Li, 1997). However, the community college system has not been fully prepared for these students. Many community colleges have no disability service providers, no trained personnel, limited physical access, little adaptive technology, and no designated funds for students with disabilities.
The California Community College system estimated the cost in 1992 per student to provide disability support services as $557 (California Community Colleges, 1992). Years after this report with costs per student in an upward spiral, community colleges in the state of North Carolina were still appealing to the state government to set aside the first funds ever to be earmarked for disability support in the 2004-2005 budget-planning phases.
Currently, community and technical colleges located in isolated or economically distressed regions face significant challenges in effectively maintaining information equality as they struggle to keep pace with technology and obtain affordable broadband access for all students. To combat the added disadvantages of rural locations and tax bases much lower than those of major cities in North Carolina, twelve presidents of Community Colleges formed the Western North Carolina Community College Technology Consortium in September 1999. This collaborative effort was for the benefit of sharing information, leveraging resources, and cooperating in new ventures. Blue Ridge Community College’s president, Dr. David W. Sink, Jr., who has committed himself to providing and improving accessibility for students, faculty, and staff with disabilities, was among the 12 presidents in the technology consortium.
BACKGROUND OF THE INSTITUTION
The Blue Ridge Community College is located in Flat Rock, NC and currently has more than 2000 curriculum students (i.e., students taking classes for college credit) and over 8000 students in Continuing Education. Curriculum enrollment in 2004 was 2,128, which represented a 45 percent increase since 1997. More than 65 percent of BRCC students also worked while attending college and at least 550 students received financial aid. The average age of the student body was 34 and 99 percent of the 2002 BRCC graduates were employed within one year of graduation in an area hit hard by economic downturns (Sink, 2003-2004).
BRCC is typical of the 58 community colleges in NC. Although a few are quite small, the largest, Central Piedmont in Charlotte, has 60,000 curriculum students. The year 2004 was the fourth consecutive year that Blue Ridge Community College earned a superior rating from the state on how well the College serves its students and local business and industry, based on performance measures mandated by the General Assembly of NC to ensure strong public accountability from the 58 community colleges. Only one other college in the system obtained this ranking for all four years.
DESCRIPTION OF THE PROBLEM
For community colleges to remove barriers that hinder access for students with disabilities, changes must be made in procurement policies, in professional development for faculty, in the commitment to purchase and understand assistive and adaptive technology, and in communication with students transitioning to the postsecondary environment.
Challenges are numerous. Adaptive technology is not always available on many community college campuses. Procurement policies that require that product accessibility be considered have not been developed. There is no requirement at the post-secondary level that instructors receive information about accommodating students with disabilities. Misunderstanding of the law interferes with the willingness of instructors to modify materials. Paid release time from the classroom for faculty to engage in professional development is difficult to obtain and skilled trainers are few and far between. Few instructors have encountered the technological accommodations that have emerged in the last five years. The need for professional development activities for faculty in the use of these adaptations is increasing along with the large influx of students with disabilities in vocational and technical programs. It is critical that instructors in these programs become familiar and comfortable with providing access to their courses.
Adequate communication between the colleges and prospective and currently enrolled students regarding access barriers and accommodations is overlooked. Administration is pulled in many directions regarding expenditures and must deal with shrinking budgets, legislated disbursement of funds, and response to request from local governments.
DESCRIPTION OF THE OUTCOMES
It is with this background that Blue Ridge Community College set about to improve services to students with disabilities as a partner of the Southeast Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center (DBTAC), a project of the Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access (CATEA) at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. The Southeast DBTAC provided funding for professional development opportunities for faculty, the improvement of training materials for distribution, the establishment of a panel to solicit advice from students with disabilities, the assessment of the campus accessibility in the area of educational information technology, and the expansion of procurement policies for the future.
The Southeast DBTAC is one of ten regional centers funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) of the U.S. Department of Education (Grant #H133D010207). The Southeast DBTAC is responsible for providing technical assistance, training and information about the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as well as promoting the need for accessible information technology in educational entities across the eight states of the Southeast Region, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The Southeast DBTAC works with colleges, universities, community colleges, and K-12 schools to improve access to information technology for students with disabilities in a wide variety of settings and is assisted in this endeavor by a 21-member Education Leadership Team comprised of representatives from educational institutions throughout the Southeast Region, including rural community colleges and historically black colleges and universities.
In order to meet its goals of enhancing accessibility to information technology, the Southeast DBTAC established an Educational Leadership Initiative (ELI) to address a variety of issues across educational environments in the Southeast region. In the initial three rounds of ELI funding, the Southeast DBTAC provided support to fifteen different education-based projects, in both K-12 and higher education, dedicated to removing barriers to information technology for students with disabilities.
One of the goals of the ELI was to establish at least one school, one community college, one university, one state department of education, and one community learning center in the Southeast region to become models in access to information technology. The focus was for model institutions, such as Blue Ridge Community College, to implement changes in the following areas:
- include access in procurement policies,
- improve website accessibility,
- remove barriers to classrooms, labs, and distance learning,
- improve awareness and skills of faculty and staff,
- provide funding for access improvements, and
- increase participation of students with disabilities and families.
Several steps were undertaken during Fall semester, 2002, beginning with the formation of a student advisory board representative of the curriculum student body. The board was made up of persons with documented physical, emotional, cognitive, and processing disabilities. The ages ranged from 19 years old to 44 years old, with 126 students identified to Disability Services in 2002 out of 1,988 enrolled students. Following is a breakdown of the percentages of students who registered with the Disability Services Office by the stated disability and the number of students chosen to represent that population on the student advisory board:
51.66 % learning (2)
17.64% other (1)
8.90% deaf or hard of hearing (1)
7.70% visual (1)
5.12% emotional (1)
6.30% speech (1)
2.68% orthopedic (1)
Project staff decided that each member of the student board should receive an incentive. Each semester the students were given a grant of money equal to the cost of a four hour course at Blue Ridge Community College ($147.25 in 2002). These grant amounts were designated by the Business Office as payment to the students for contracted services.
The first organizational meeting of the student advisory board was held in September, 2002, and led by Judy Stoneham, Director for Disability Services and grant recipient. The ten students agreed to survey the accessibility of their educational surroundings and report to the board at the first formal meeting a week later. At that meeting, all students cited the lack of training for faculty in giving equal access to students with disabilities as the number-one barrier to success in the classroom. The board also cited computer labs that were poorly designed for maneuverability, online classes conducted in Blackboard, which seemed incompatible with assistive software, and the difficulty in navigating the BRCC website. The input of the student advisory board set the project’s defining parameters as faculty professional development, removing classroom barriers, finding a voice on campus, and developing procurement policies.
Faculty professional development became the first priority, and because 51 percent of the students with disabilities registered with the Disability Services office reported learning disabilities, it seemed appropriate that the initial information would be about that area of disability.
- The 90-minute workshop was held on a designated faculty workday. The support of the Dean of Instruction was vital to the attendance at the training, and all full-time faculty members were present.
- The presentation, entitled, “Get the FACTS About Students With Learning Disabilities” was two hours in length. (FACTS is an acronym for “Faculty And Counselors Together for Students.”)
- Each participant was given a pre-workshop survey and a post-workshop survey to measure the effectiveness of the training. Survey responses indicate that all full-time faculty gained a better understanding and learned new procedures and ways of accommodating students with learning disabilities. In post-surveys participants tended to “strongly agree” that accommodations do not compromise the integrity of coursework, whereas in pre-surveys they tended to “disagree”.
- The adjunct faculty members were trained in basic procedures, law, and accommodations. It is important to note that most were receiving information for the first time and were surprised by the responsibility of accommodation.
- A campus-wide training thrust came in April 2003 at an information session that all faculty and staff of the College were required to attend. The North Carolina Assistive Technology Project sent a representative to discuss accessible web design with faculty, staff, and administration. This step of the project was considered unsuccessful because feedback indicated that the attendees were unable to grasp the most basic concepts regarding accessibility in web design.
The student advisory board was instrumental in the development of a Faculty Disability Services Handbook. Before finalizing the handbook for distribution, students from the advisory board reviewed the material and commented from personal experience, saying such things as: “Whoever wrote the part on speech handicaps hit the nail on the head…..The layout and arrangement are easy-to-read and well-designed……I was happy to see the section on auditory difficulties which for some reason I think few instructors are aware about……Instead of having blue skies and stars, maybe a graphic of a student studying or working with a computer. Yes, it is more bland, but says ‘This is what you must do.’” With the approval of the student advisory board the handbook was printed, distributed to every employee of Blue Ridge Community College, and posted on the website under a password protected faculty page at www.blueridge.edu. It is available for public use at the Southeast DBTAC website at http://www.sedbtac.org/ed/abouted/blueridge/index.html.
The North Carolina Assistive Technology Project (NCTAP) came to Blue Ridge Community College and spent several days evaluating the educational technology at Flat Rock and the Transylvania Center. Both campuses were judged to be progressive, but inaccessible to varying degrees with respect to the following key areas:
- Web accessibility,
- Campus-wide information technology,
- Computer station ergonomics, and
- Computer input and output.
The NCATP presented both short-term and long-term suggestions for each of the areas sited as barriers to students with disabilities. The highest priority was not assistive and adaptive software as expected, but rather to “improve environmental access and maneuverability in the computer lab classrooms and media center, elevators, and the library”. Assistive technologies and accommodations were judged to be in place to meet the instructional needs of the students enrolled at that time, but it was suggested that usability evaluations and accessibility checks should be an ongoing practice each time changes are made. Also, the NCATP suggested that all persons contributing to and designing the Blue Ridge Community College website should consider training in the area of web accessibility. As a result of that suggestion, on December 3, 2004, web developers from BRCC took part in a Web Training Initiative conducted by the Southeast DBTAC and improvements to the website are ongoing.
The Information Technology department had never set forth procurement policies with accessibility in mind. In 2003 the Disability Services Director was placed on the policy and procedure information technology committee with the express goal of preparing guidelines for purchasing that could be developed into policy. With this final piece in place, Blue Ridge Community College can serve as the model of Promising Practices for improved service to students with disabilities and hopes to encourage replication in community colleges in North Carolina and the Southeast.
Project staff of this promising practice learned much from the activities reported in this article. Findings that can benefit similar projects include:
- Faculty have very little understanding of accessible online or distance learning classes.
- Training faculty in accessible online or distance learning classes is best after basic training in barrier awareness for students with disabilities
- Since over 50 percent of students with disabilities in college report having learning disabilities, it makes sense to train faculty first in accommodating these students.
- Many students with disabilities want to give input regarding barriers to the learning environment but are rarely asked beyond the initial contact with the Disability Services Office.
- Colleges are resistant to procurement policies regarding information technology, but can be swayed with facts about savings to the College over the long term.
- Information Technology Departments can appear quite territorial and, consequently, “invading” their space must be done with facts and figures. However, the nature of persons in the technology field is to be of service and once they see the need, they are eager to move ahead and go beyond what is expected.
The leadership initiative reported in this article enabled a rural community college to take a long, hard look at its policies, training, and technology. Many indicators of outcomes from this initiative were anecdotal and yet, provide information suggesting:\
- increased input from students with disabilities regarding barriers.
- increased interest from faculty in accommodating students who have learning disabilities.
- increased awareness of technology department staff regarding students with disabilities and their information technology needs.
- policies for purchase of accessible copiers, computers, workstations, and removal of physical barriers in the computer labs and distance learning rooms.
- the addition of the Disability Service Director on the information technology planning committee.
It is expected that these project efforts contributed to more students with disabilities completing programs of study and an increased graduation rate of 20 percent in three years. This project clearly removed barriers to students with disabilities at Blue Ridge Community College and, in many cases, improved educational services for all students.
Barnett, L., & Li, Y. (1997). Disability support services in community college. (Research Brief ACC-RB-97-1). Washington, DC: American Association of Community Colleges.
California Community Colleges. (1992). Student services and special programs: A report on program effectiveness. (ED 351 065). Sacramento, CA: Board of Governors, California Community Colleges.
Frieden, L. (2003). People with disabilities and postsecondary education. Retrieved March 15, 2005, from http://www.ncd.gov/newsroom/publications/2003/education.htm
Sink, D. (2003-2004). Blue Ridge Community College Annual Report 2003-2004, Flat Rock, NC: Blue Ridge Community College.