Accessibility Conversations at AHEAD/Pepnet 2 2016

This past week, I had the opportunity to travel to Indianapolis to participate in the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) and Pepnet 2 conference for this year. AHEAD and Pepnet 2 partner every two years to put on a conference that brings together disability access service providers at colleges and universities around the United States, combined with people who work on education provision for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. These types of conferences are always fantastic opportunities, I’ve found, to meet interesting people and have important conversations about accessibility, education, and equality at different places in the U.S. I’m firmly a humanities person, but I still enjoy being able to mingle with the d/Deaf education crowd – especially since these warm-hearted people always inspire me to remember my continuing interest and faith in education and equity.

The presentation I gave yesterday sought to give these folks some personal perspectives on skills, services, and experiences that are important to DHH students as they make the transition from high school to the college/university environment. I also included some insights from my master’s thesis in higher education at Oxford last year, which focused on direct DHH student perspectives on accommodations use and overall accessibility attitudes in their mainstreamed colleges and universities – a great chance to dig out that research from gathering dust and share it with others! (Again, I’m very grateful I was able to chat with a group of these students about their experiences in several interviews for that project last year.) A couple of tidbits from this talk:

I think I’ve always been interested in the idea of well-roundedness and being well-balanced in academics and in life and skills and accessibility. The areas of my research speak to this. In talking about accessibility in the university environment, I drew on three smaller (but each very important) themes: accommodation, awareness, and advocacy. The larger point: to strive for an accessible university campus, we indeed must focus on how to achieve a flexible and efficient accommodations system that can suit the needs of various DHH individuals. But providing accommodations, in and of itself, is only one piece of the puzzle: it’s not like the job is done once the interpreters or CART providers have been scheduled for class. We also have opportunities to spread larger awareness, among hearing people and the larger campus culture, about how those accommodations do and do not work well, about how to use them, and about how to interact with diverse individuals and communicate effectively. (I didn’t say these things were easy.) We also need to address the all-important skill of self-advocacy – which, as I talked about yesterday, is one of the most important skills I’ve needed to learn, but which was often taken as implicit knowledge when I entered college. I’ve spent years figuring out how to become a more effective advocate, even in mundane everyday situations, and figuring out how to spread the awareness that maximizes accommodation provision or just plain effective human interaction. These are the things that few people ever talked to me about when I was 18.

How I wish my freshman-year self had known what I know now, about this dance between fitting accommodations (which for me mostly means requesting and using ASL interpreters) into the larger academic culture and social landscape in which I find myself. Still, all college students are similarly figuring themselves out during their freshman year, discovering which services and which communication style work best for them. This self-discovery is okay, and necessary. I enjoyed being able to expose more disability service providers to these student perspectives. The other students from my thesis research emphasized many of the same things: flexibility is key. One size does not fit all. Campus awareness is key, if DHH students will have the same chances to participate in various events as other hearing students. And students speaking up about problems and issues as they arise, or furthering their self-determination skills, are also key. (Though one issue I keep running into about self-advocacy, as essential as I believe it is: do DHH students, or any other minority students, really need to have that responsibility of constantly advocating for themselves? Is this fair? How much of this can be solved through a sheer increase in awareness? Alas, fair or not, so it goes.)

And a couple of general takeaways from the conference itself: I love attending conferences where accessibility is at the core of event planning and organization. Although most of the conference attendees were hearing, there was a decent small contingent of d/Deaf and signing people, as well as people with other disabilities. There’s nothing nicer than walking into a room and being able to find a cluster of folks signing. We talked about larger education systems, strategies for achieving more equal access and communication, places we’d been and people we knew and books we’d read. Even several hearing people in the conference hotel, including some who weren’t there for AHEAD at all, saw us signing and tried to sign hello! I’m a believer in deaf folks, and ASL, out in numbers. Having people with various disabilities, or various access needs, out in numbers also creates a welcoming environment that feels palpable. I so value being in an environment with several blind people walking around with service dogs, many people using scooters or wheelchairs, and people who immediately stop and ask how they can best accommodate you before making any assumptions. Many of those people broke out on the dance floor the first night of the AHEAD conference, regardless of their embodiment, and with ASL interpreters signing the song lyrics onstage. Inclusive spaces like that remind me why I keep feeling called back to consider these questions of access, and what accessibility does have to offer – for everyone.

So, cheers to all the DHH educators and service providers out there – some of you are among my favorite people, as you wear many hats and juggle many ideas and responsibilities. I’ll be going back to my humanities/book-filled world the rest of this summer, but I’m glad I got to step out into the education/accessibility field again for a bit!