University of Minnesota Senate committee members have greenlighted a resolution asking for required training for faculty, instructors and student teaching assistants on best practices for accommodating disabilities, solidifying its path to the full senate in May.
The Student Senate and the Senate Consultative Committee voted in favor of the resolution last week. The Council of Graduate Students unanimously supported the resolution at the end of March.
Last year, 3,736 students registered with the Disability Resource Center, according to DRC Director Donna Johnson, and there are other students with disabilities who are not registered. As the population of students with disabilities has increased, more students have registered with the DRC.
The resolution, originally crafted by the Organization for Graduate and Professional Students with Disabilities and the Disabilities Issues Committee, would help serve the growing population of people seeking DRC services.
“We think that having that common dialogue and foundation in order to better serve this group of students is critical, because the number of students with disabilities in universities, including ours, is only going to increase over time,” said Ryan Machtmes, vice president of OGPSD.
The resolution would help faculty understand their role in accommodating a disability and the role of the DRC in carrying out those accommodations.
“As more faculty are receiving letters, they’re interested in learning more about what is a reasonable accommodation and how do they implement it, what’s their role in the process,” Johnson said.
Despite the letters of accommodation, some students have difficulties getting their needs recognized by their professors.
When those issues arise, students are supposed to contact the DRC, Johnson said. But some students feel uncomfortable doing so because of the power differential between instructors and students, she added.
"There’s been a number of professors and also graduate teaching assistants who have expressed a desire to understand better how to serve these students, but they don’t feel like they are equipped with the knowledge in order to allow them to do so,” Machtmes said.
The resolution has been at least two years in the making, with the OGPSD and the DIC strategically taking the resolution to numerous committees.
“The disabilities community on campus has always been interested in getting as many people to do training as possible and has always been interested in making these issues front and center in campus discussions,” said Benjamin Munson, chair of the DIC.
Several years ago, the DRC offered training on disability accommodations, but less than 20 percent of the people who could take it actually did, Munson said.
“I think understanding the ways that disability can affect people is really tough for people who are able-bodied and who’ve never had to deal with a chronic illness,” Sarah Huebner, president of OGPSD. “There’s not widespread recognition of what it’s like to be a student with disabilities on this campus, and we really feel like those stories need to be told.”
That lack of understanding and knowledge can make it more difficult for students to receive the accommodations they need.
"There have been questions about, you know, ‘When someone comes to me, as a professor, with an accommodation request, how do I know that it’s genuine?’” Machtmes said.
Better understanding could make the accommodation process smoother for students and faculty.
"We hope that the resolution accomplishes improved campus climate for, really, all people,” Machtmes said. “The University does better when it is diverse, when everyone is able to bring their unique perspectives, values, differences or life experiences to bear in a community environment for a collective good."