Outcomes and Recommendations
Enhancing Success for Students with Disabilities in Higher Education*
Northern Illinois University
Susan A. Vogel
The activities undertaken to address the goals and objectives of this project were designed to focus on four key areas: awareness, knowledge, accessibility, and institutional policies and procedures. This summary suggests how well the activities of this project advanced NIU in each of these areas. Substantively interesting findings in each of these areas are also provided.
Comments from the student questionnaire affirmed that disability awareness was a key issue among students in both the 2002 and 2004 year surveys. Brochures of the Project that advertised the Enhancing Success Web site (http://www.niu.edu/success) were distributed throughout campus and an email was sent announcing the debut of the Web site. This awareness campaign was probably at least partially responsible for more than the 1,204 visits to the Web site from the NIU server. The Enhancing Success Web site appears to have generated great interest from the report of over 15,000 visits since its inception in October 2003. Web statistics show that visitors to the Web site came from at least eight countries in addition to the USA including Australia, Canada, Indonesia, The Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, and the United Kingdom. We believe this is evidence that the grant’s awareness campaign was very far reaching, and went well beyond NIU and even beyond the U.S.A.
One of the most successful activities of the Project to increase awareness and provide a more welcoming atmosphere for students with disabilities (SWD) has been the initiation of a campus-wide effort to encourage faculty to include a paragraph about accommodations for SWD in their syllabi. By developing a sample paragraph and soliciting the Provost/Associate Provost to send a reminder letter or e-mail with the recommended paragraph to all faculty before the semester begins has resulted in an increased use of the welcoming paragraph among faculty. Seventeen percent of hard copy syllabi in Year One included a welcoming paragraph, while 29% of the online syllabi in Year Three included a welcoming paragraph for SWD. Although, more than 70% of the online syllabi found in Year Three did not include a welcoming paragraph, it appears that progress was made during the grant period. It is difficult to determine how much of the difference could have resulted from a change in strategy to identify syllabi in Year One and Year Three (i.e., stratified sample vs. syllabi available online). However, this positive change was also indicated by the survey data, as no faculty in Year One reported using the statement in their syllabi very often, while 60 faculty (80%) reported using the statement very often in Year Three. Further, all paragraphs used current terminology and the tone and location of the paragraphs were more positive in Year Three than Year One.
Another awareness activity that the grant supported that was very positively received was the talk given by inspirational speaker, Beth Finke, author of Long Time No See. Fifty to 100 people attended various aspects of this event and there was significant press coverage. Together, these awareness activities appear to have made positive change toward a more welcoming climate for persons with disabilities on campus. Although, there is still needed change, one of the substantial results of the grant awareness activities has been the discovery of how much awareness is needed on campus. Another perhaps less expected result has been the broad-reaching effects of the awareness campaign to other countries via the Enhancing Success Web site.
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The efforts to increase knowledge about SWD of administrators, faculty and supportive professional staff (SPS) included: providing the Enhancing Success Web site with useful links, reference lists, and resources regarding disabilities, offering in Years Two and Three a tuition-free e-Learning course on disabilities and higher education, gifting media materials to the NIU Founder’s library and partner institutions, and sponsoring two sets of workshops (in the Spring and Fall 2004) designed to enhance knowledge of faculty, administrators, and SPS regarding students with learning disabilities, visual impairments, or hearing impairments. Additional specialized workshops were conducted by Elizabeth Leake and Dr. Jon Gunderson of UIUC on creating accessible Web sites and instructional materials including Dr. Gunderson’s new software package called The Accessible Web Publishing Wizard for Microsoft Office documents.
Both the workshops and the tuition-free e-Learning course had very positive responses from the NIU community and others outside the university. There was a waiting list of approximately 50 persons for the e-Learning course and the course evaluations and all comments were very positive. Evaluations were also very positive for the workshops and comments indicated a clear mandate to continue offering these workshops in future semesters, a recommendation to leave more time for discussion, and to plan future workshops that allow for practice in applying the strategies discussed. These data suggest that the workshops and course were very well received and there was a strong demand for such courses to be offered in the future for both students and faculty. The survey data provide some measure of the change in knowledge during the grant period. From Year One to Year Three knowledge increased across the three constituent groups from a range of 2.24 to 2.61 on a 6-point scale in Year One to a range of 3.05 to 3.82 in Year Three. We cannot discern how much of this change was due to the grant activities, although it is encouraging that the change was positive during the period that these instructional/informative activities were occurring.
It appears that there is a strong need for instructional/informative seminars, workshops and classes on education and disabilities for faculty, administration, and SPS. Judging by the waiting lists for the e-Learning courses, it is likely that regular offerings of this course would be in great demand and would help increase the knowledge of university personnel about concerns with disabilities in higher education.
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Activities in this area included both those activities that were designed to increase Web site accessibility on campus, make the Center for Access-Ability Resources’ (CAAR) Web site more easily located by those unfamiliar with the name of that office when searching on the NIU Homepage, ensuring accessibility of the Enhancing Success Web site, facilitating changes to the student computer labs managed by Information Technology Services (ITS), enhancing faculty, administrators, and SPS awareness and knowledge regarding accessibility (see Web sites reviewed at NIU and partner institutions). Some very tangible changes were made on the NIU Homepage that resulted in the reduction of the number of keystrokes to locate the CAAR Web site from 12 to 1 – 2. Additionally, the grant helped facilitate change in the ITS labs to provide tools for lab assistants in aiding SWD, through 1) providing A-Prompt software in all 23 student labs, 2) implementing a scheduler to access a lab trainer, and 3) updating and adding training binders regarding the most recent adaptive technology acquisitions for the lab assistants and students without print disabilities. Further, the Project Director worked with the campus adaptive technology advocate to secure grant funding for the “AT Chambers” on campus for students with learning disabilities and/or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The Chambers are locations where students can access up-to-the-minute software in a quiet environment and also be coached on the use of the newest Assistive Technology.
The review of Web site accessibility for NIU and its partner institutions was very comprehensive and provided a comparative listing of the accessibility or lack of accessibility for a wide range of campus Web sites at NIU. This activity was important to create awareness of where the university is not in compliance with Federal law and to provide baseline data about where we stand before making large-scale changes to ensure all Web sites are accessible. The results indicate that in most areas NIU is meeting Web site accessibility standards, however, a problem area is compliance with Section 508-accessibility guidelines. NIU’s colleges, program areas, and “other” sites were 14%, 20%, and 42% 508 compliant, respectively. This quite clearly indicates a need for improvement in Web site accessibility across Illinois campuses, particularly with regard to Section 508 accessibility.
The surveys of NIU’s students, faculty, administrators and SPS personnel provide some information regarding their perceptions of the need for information regarding Web site accessibility. Interestingly, the students reported an increased need for information on Web site accessibility from Year One to Year Three, yet faculty, administration, and SPS all perceived less need in Year Three than Year One. This finding warrants further attention and may be an important indicator of differences in perception of Web site accessibility among the various constituent groups.
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It is significant that through the efforts of the Project Director, the grant initiated change in an important university policy, the Grievance Policy and Appeal Procedures germane to students with disabilities. The changes to this policy give students clear directions if they choose to pursue a grievance when they deem that they received unsatisfactory accommodations or were otherwise disserved by the university. However, an outcome of the grant activities was the identification of 16 policies regarding SWD commonly in place in universities and the determination that only nine of the sixteen had a parallel policy at NIU. Little progress was made during the grant period to develop comparable policies to the other seven policies. This is an area recommended for future efforts at NIU. We are encouraged by the recent creation of a new Assistant Vice President for Diversity Initiatives that will oversee the operation of the CAAR office, among other areas related to disability services. The leadership from this new position could be an instrumental force in continuing the work to make the NIU campus more welcoming and accessible for SWD.
However, grant activities acted as a catalyst for institutional changes to track SWD to address their future needs. The Director of the CAAR office in collaboration with the Director of Institutional Research at NIU created a new database to track enrollment patterns, retention, and graduation rates of SWD. In addition, as a direct result of grant activities, questions were added to the NIU Baccalaureate Graduates Survey regarding the effect of students’ disabilities on their college career and the impact of campus personnel and services on their ability to succeed. These changes will provide new sources of data regarding SWD that can be used to improve future SWD’s educational experience at NIU.
Other areas of change discussed in the section on “Institutionalization of the Project” detail how grant initiatives resulted in a more welcoming climate for SWD on the NIU campus and ensured that these changes would extend beyond the grant period. Important areas of change include: making critical Web sites on campus more accessible to SWD, encouraging faculty to include paragraphs about accommodations for SWD in their syllabi, increasing the familiarity of the computer lab assistants regarding adaptive technology in the 23 student computer labs managed by ITS, and increasing the visibility of the CAAR office to SWD through additional brochures and changes in the online directories to their Web site. These changes are an excellent beginning to making systemic change to create a more welcoming atmosphere for SWD at NIU. Recommendations for further change are outlined under “Recommendations” below.
Making the Enhancing Success Project available to other institutions is being planned as a consequence of this grant by creating the Enhancing Success Institute at NIU. The Institute will make the strategies, instrumentation, expertise, and Web site available to other institutions. This activity could have far-reaching effects for Illinois, as well as non-Illinois institutions, and has the potential to elevate NIU to a leadership role in how to create a campus climate that fosters all students’ academic success.
In sum, the Enhancing Success grant has provided leadership in increasing campus awareness; fostering informative events and offering graduate e-Learning courses to increase knowledge about disabilities for faculty, administrators and SPS personnel; assessing and making improvements with regard to Web site accessibility; making information about the Center for Access-Ability Resources more easily located on the NIU Home Page and in print, determining enrollment, retention, graduation, and outcomes for graduates with disabilities, and furthering institutional policies and procedures for SWD. The grant activities were varied and provided a multi-pronged approach to tackling these issues on the NIU campus. The greatest progress seems to have been made in increasing awareness of disability issues and Web site accessibility issues. Further progress is needed in the areas of changing and developing actual policies to enable students with disabilities to experience a more positive campus environment. Through this multi-pronged approach, it appears that substantial progress was made in initiating systemic change to make NIU a more welcoming campus for SWD and in creating institutional changes that will further these efforts beyond the grant period.
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- Student focus groups should be convened regularly to provide input to the ESI staff. One of their roles should be to evaluate the paragraphs in syllabi that are different than the recommended paragraph to determine if they are positive, neutral, or negative. Additionally, their input should be sought regarding Web site accessibility and other accessibility issues.
- Workshops should be offered periodically with more time for interaction and application of teaching and evaluation strategies and policies and procedures. Students with disabilities should be among the discussion leaders.
- The results of the review of course syllabi (and student compared to faculty responses to the online questionnaire in Year Three) indicated a significant increase in the inclusion of a paragraph and many more of them were identical or similar to the recommended paragraph as compared to Year One. However, there are still many faculty who do not include a paragraph at all. The ESI staff should meet with the Provost or his designee to identify additional strategies and next steps to encourage all faculty to adopt the practice of including such a paragraph.
- Faculty, administrators, and SPS should be required to attend a workshop on creating accessible Web sites followed by widely publicizing the availability of user-friendly software and suites of tools to evaluate and correct Web sites and instructional materials in addition to one-on-one assistance, to enhance all in becoming more proficient in creating accessible Web sites and other online information.
- The nine NIU policies that are already in place need to be reviewed and expanded/revised, as needed, in light of the analysis done in Years One and Two and the newly published Association of Higher Education and Disabilities’ (AHEAD) document regarding university policies and procedures germane to students with disabilities. Additional policies not yet in place at NIU need to be crafted and put in place. Locating NIU policies online and in print should be made easier through the use of multiple strategies, e.g., the a-z index on NIU Home Page, and the CAAR Web site, and cross-listing the policies on other relevant Web sites such as Records and Registration and Admissions.
- The university should appoint a Section 508 Compliance Officer who would be responsible for preparing the State mandated plan for continuous improvement in making NIU’s Web sites comply with the accessibility guidelines established by the Illinois Board of Higher Education. Prior to providing space on the NIU server, Web sites should be evaluated to determine if they are in compliance with the State guidelines. If not in compliance, web managers should be offered further training through multiple approaches such as workshops, software packages, online tutorials, and one-on-one assistance to acquire the necessary skills to bring their Web site into compliance.
*A Three-Year Project Funded by the Illinois Board of Higher Education (2001 – 2004)
Last revised on 05/17/2005
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