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Overcoming barriers to education

January 06,2017

Education researcher believes students with disabilities are an asset in the classroom

EYES OPEN, EYES HIGH: Inspiring Visions in the Midst of Difficult Teaching and Learning

Graduate student Chris Ostrowski is working to improve accessibility for University of Calgary students with disabilities. Photo courtesy of Chris Ostrowski

By Clayton MacGillivray, Werklund School of Education

Students pursuing a post-secondary degree accept that the endeavour comes with certain challenges such as extensive reading, lab work or attending long lectures, but what they may not anticipate are the additional barriers that make it difficult to succeed in their academic pursuits. And some students are faced with challenges beyond the normal academic expectations.

Werklund School of Education graduate student Chris Ostrowski is researching the obstacles that students with visual impairments face every day, and the ways in which they overcome these barriers.

Distinctive research approach used students' perspectives and experiences

What makes Ostrowski’s research distinctive is that he has gone directly to the students themselves to hear accounts of their experiences, an approach he feels is key to the success of his study.

“I wanted to give students a voice and use their own words as much as possible in sharing their stories,” says Ostrowski. “This was important because the stories of students are seldom heard in literature from the student perspective. Most articles are from clinical, instructor or researcher perspectives and don’t incorporate students' own words.”

For his research, Ostrowski interviewed post-secondary students with visual impairments who are studying at four different institutions throughout Canada. From the narratives shared, several themes emerged, including limited accessibility support outside of the classroom; the importance of assistance from friends and family for things like transportation or funding; and the significance of technology for communication, navigation, class participation and life in general.

Conversation about learning requirements avoids assumptions about a student's learning needs

Another important pattern Ostrowski's research uncovered was the notion of the instructor assuming they knew what was best for the student.

“Participants faced challenges when instructors did not engage them in meaningful dialogue about their accommodations and needs. For example, one student reported an instructor presuming vision loss would prevent them from succeeding in an English course because of the reading requirements. Another student reported one instructor assuming she required enlarged materials, when in fact, she needed adequate lighting.”

Ostrowski says an easy way to avoid such assumptions is for instructors to talk to their students about learning requirements.

“Instructors could initiate conversations with all their students to ensure their needs are being met regardless of whether they have a formal disability. A simple email to the whole class inviting conversations about their needs can be enough.”

Students , instructors and institutions share responsibility for managing student concerns and needs

But Ostrowski is not saying that instructors bear the sole responsibility for managing student concerns; the students themselves and the institutions both play an important role.

“The student should have some awareness of their needs and some ideas of how those needs could be supported in courses. As well, they need to be reasonable and flexible with their requests. That is not say students should compromise their experiences; if there’s a recurring issue or more serious concern, then they should advocate for their needs using the appropriate channels.”

At an institutional level, greater effort must to be made in choosing resources and designing accessible courses. Most vital, says Ostrowski, is that institutions should consult with the students who will be affected by the services they offer and the policies they craft.

Ostrowski says he hopes his doctoral work in Learning Sciences will help instructors devise these accessible courses and encourage people to view individuals with disabilities as a benefit to the classroom rather than a burden.

“The unique perspectives that students with disabilities bring to learning can enrich learning for all students.”