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A Retrospective on 'The Future of ... Disability and Accessibility'

Erica Barreiro, CNM's new Academic Fellow for the Future of Work + Learning, will be writing guest columns throughout the year to help spark discussion at CNM about how we prepare for the future of...

Oct 31, 2019

photo of Erica Barreiro
By Erica Barreiro
CNM Academic Fellow: Future of Work + Learning

A couple weeks ago, I was staying overnight in a Santa Fe hotel and overheard a horrific exchange between a couple who had a reservation and the desk agent. The wife was upset because the bathroom in their room, designated as “accessible,” was not large enough to accommodate her husband’s wheelchair. The desk clerk responded by stating the room met ADA (American with Disabilities Act) standards. Things went downhill from there.

The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, to include jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. Signed into law in 1990, the ADA is about to turn 30; it is older than many of our students and some of you. Although I hope that most of you overhearing that conversation would recognize how painful this lack of access would be for this couple, a CNM colleague shared this insight: “Thirty years is long enough for the rest of us to take the civil right of equity of access for granted; if we are honest, that hotel clerk is many of us.”

Reflecting on the incident later, I randomly wondered what solutions might exist to prevent inaccessible hotel bathroom experiences. Is there an equipment solution, in which accessible bathrooms might have toilets with a wheelchair “transfer” option? Could hotels easily create and upload a 360-degree image that would help customers determine in advance if the room has the needed dimensions? Could an app be designed that uses crowdsourcing to gather data from disability users on accessibility of spaces including local hotels?

As someone with a physical disability, I hold profound hope in how technologies might be leveraged to help those with significant disabilities more easily access the world. Certainly, “universal design” – or creating environments that can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their ability or disability – will continue to be enhanced by advancements in technology. In fact, when we think about the future of universal design in education, such advancements have the potential to profoundly shift the paradigm of how and for whom we have traditionally structured and supported access to higher education learning; advancements that not only allow for someone who might be blind to access learning experiences previously unavailable to them, but those that also support personalized learning experiences and mitigate the need for (and stigma of) “special accommodations” due to difference.

Interestingly, I was at this hotel because I was attending the annual CLOSE IT Summit, in which the primary theme was about “closing the skills gap.” What I really appreciated were those who framed this challenge as an “equity access gap,” and it was promising to learn about some of the emerging technologies that have the potential to address this challenge. But, as with ADA code that defines a minimum standard that still can fall short of genuine access, or the mindset of a desk clerk who believes he is absolved of responsibility because he is meeting that minimal standard, if policies and practices do not also shift, then the “gap” will persist.

Technology gives us the tools, but addressing accessibility gaps for our students is going to require our own commitment to a universal design approach to all of higher education.  This will require a shift in the policies and practices that currently frame our dominant beliefs about what equity of learning experiences looks like. If some hold concerns now about the challenges of maintaining the integrity and rigor of a learning experience when we make minimal “special accommodations,” we will be even more challenged by changes that offer up vastly different, innovative, or personalized alternatives for a much broader range of individual learning needs. But if we truly believe that all of us are capable of learning, and that all of us have the right to be engaged in a lifetime of formal learning and growth, then we need to challenge ourselves to change, to learn, to grow, and to reimagine the learning experiences we offer in ways that truly provide diverse individuals equitable access.

There are many days that I am exhausted or frustrated because of the mental and physical energy it takes for me to navigate the barriers I encounter each day, and this is so true for many individuals facing daily barriers due to “difference.” I look forward to a future of dis-ability and a future of difference that no longer equates to a future of disadvantaged access.

Interested in learning more about universal design applied to curriculum and instruction? Take TLOL 1035: Universal Design