photo of Jordyn Castor at Accessible Art event

While our legal obligation is to accommodate any qualified student with a disability, our goals are actually higher.

Last week I had the opportunity to meet with colleagues from the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities (RCPD). As I have described before, the goal of the Office of the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education (APUE), and all related units including RCPD, is to be a “nucleus” for student learning, persistence, and success at MSU. In particular, we aim to help all of our students. RCPD fits every aspect of APUE’s mission – their unit mission statement, to “lead Michigan State University in maximizing ability and opportunity for full participation by persons with disabilities,” fulfills a vital part of the overall mission of APUE.

All institutions of higher education that receive federal funding are subject to a variety of mandated obligations to “accommodate” the needs of students with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act require MSU to provide reasonable accommodations (e.g. a modification or adjustment to the status quo inherent in the program or activity) to allow a qualified person with a disability to participate fully in the educational or academic programs and activities of the university.

Accordingly, one central aspect of RCPD’s mission is to work with MSU students with medically recognized disabilities to identify appropriate educational accommodations that will allow them to participate fully at MSU, and to work with faculty in finding ways to implement these accommodations. Students who register with RCPD receive a VISA (Verified Individualized Services and Accommodations) document which enables students to validate and communicate their needs to faculty. MSU faculty are under no obligation, and in fact should not, provide students with accommodations until and unless these needs are verified and evaluated by RCPD. The RCPD VISA procedure provides the student with confidentiality and institutional support in obtaining any necessary accommodations, and it relieves faculty from having to make medical or psychological judgements for which they have no training.

While our legal obligation is to accommodate any qualified student with a disability, our goals are actually higher. One of MSU’s core values – alongside “quality” and “connectivity” – is “inclusion.” Therefore, to the extent possible, it is important that we work to design classroom environments, assignments, courses, and curricula so that students from diverse backgrounds and with a diversity of abilities, can participate fully without additional, ad hoc, accommodations. One method is to incorporate the principles of universal design. This can be challenging, but as the Boston Museum of Science has found, incorporating universal design can result in gains for everyone. This is a high bar, and a challenging goal – one I hope MSU can begin to meet, especially in our larger-enrollment introductory classes which serve thousands of students each year.

While it is likely not feasible to incorporate universal design into all of our courses immediately, it is important to realize the small steps that we can all take can make a big difference. Three examples in my personal experience (and emphasized to me by RCPD personnel) illustrate this. First, when we use visuals (e.g. PowerPoint slides) in our presentations, we need to take the time and effort to make sure that the font, color, and slide organization makes the visual easy to read from the perspective of the audience. This is beneficial to those whose advanced age (e.g. me) find it difficult to read small print, but is also makes it easier for everyone to focus on the information being presented rather than spending time on deciphering the visual. Second, those of us teaching in larger rooms should use a microphone. Many of us (including me, at least more often than I should) believe that our voices are strong enough to be heard throughout the room without amplification. While not using a microphone may suffice for those in the audience with common hearing ability, many students have partial or limited hearing ability and they need us to use amplification. Furthermore, as in the case with well-designed visuals described above, taking the time to make sure one’s voice can be easily heard makes it easier for everyone to focus on the material being presented. Finally, it is extremely helpful to students when faculty post the content for their classes (say, in D2L) so that those who use technology or need additional processing time can access it directly during, prior to and/or after class via assistive technology. Again, this strategy can help all students – not just those requiring accommodation!

Let’s commit ourselves to making MSU a truly inclusive environment for everyone, including those with a diversity of abilities.

Feedback and suggestions, especially from the MSU community, welcome: email

R. Sekhar Chivukula is the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Michigan State University.