Education and Accessibility
Student and faculty research and innovation are helping to make classrooms more accommodating to those with a variety of disabilities and learning styles.
Daniel Gillen ’17 has lived in the same room in Kim Hall for the past three years. His choice to stick with what he knows has a compelling rationale: the physics and music double major is legally blind.
“It took me a few months to familiarize myself with the campus and navigate my way from the new dorms,” he says. “My Customs team was very helpful in guiding me.”
Gillen, 22, lost his sight after both of his retinas detached when he was a baby. Since then, he has relied on his memory, his cane, and the help of others to get around.
As only the second legally blind student to attend Haverford—the first was a student who graduated in the 1940s—Gillen has needed to be proactive in ensuring he receives appropriate accommodations. Some of his particular needs include finding a note taker for certain classes, acquiring versions of his textbooks in Braille, and making sure that all of his online course materials support the use of his assistive technology. To complete assignments, take notes, access handouts and readings, and perform most other academic tasks, Gillen uses a Braille computer, which he has owned since high school.
“As far as I know, I am the first legally blind and totally blind student in generations here,” says Gillen. “As such, I have had to be a pioneer in teaching the College about accommodations for this specific group of students—namely, totally blind students with high proficiency in reading and writing Braille, majoring in STEM fields.”
And Gillen isn’t the only one who has been expanding ideas about how classes can be adapted to a wide range of learning needs. With more individuals with a variety of disabilities enrolling at the College, and an increasing number of students and faculty expressing interest in accessibility issues, Haverford has been taking valuable steps toward fully accommodating all members of the community.
According to Associate Professor of Computer Science John Dougherty, Haverford is very responsive to students’ particular needs. Dougherty, who researches assistive technology, began to shift his own approach to teaching after having three children with disabilities.
“Having Eva, who has multiple disabilities and uses a wheelchair, and two kids with autism greatly influenced my approach to my profession,” says Dougherty. “I started to think about accessibility in my research, and I also started thinking about how to make my classes more accessible for students with different learning styles.”
To cultivate more inviting classroom environments, many professors follow the “universal design for learning” framework, or UDL. Universal design for learning grew out of the work of the Center for Applied Special Technology, which was founded in 1984 by a group of Boston-area educational researchers to explore ways of using new technology to improve the educational experiences of students with disabilities. Today, the UDL framework aims to optimize the learning experience for all individuals—disabled and nondisabled. Its set of principles, which have since been adopted by a wide range of postsecondary institutions, often save students who would need to formally apply for accommodations the time of doing so while also creating materials that individuals without disabilities can use.
Indeed, many of the tools Gillen uses function as resources that anyone might benefit from. When he enrolled in “Phonetics and Phonology,” a linguistics course that involves lots of visual charts and diagrams, Assistant Professor of Linguistics Brook Danielle Lillehaugen started to brainstorm with Gillen and others on ways Gillen could fully engage with the course material. Working with Haverford’s Office of Access and Disability Services and other linguistics students, what she and Gillen came up with was the tactile International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) magnet-board system, a device that is now available in Magill Library for any student or faculty member to borrow. In fact, the device is available for lending worldwide, and is currently on loan to a professor in Thailand.
Using the system involves arranging magnetic tiles that are both embossed and printed to reflect the information displayed on a chalkboard or whiteboard. According to Lillehaugen, the board helped the class work together more effectively as a group and aided her teaching.
“Complicated phonology problems need a work space—like long division—and this magnet board worked for us as a space that was accessible to everyone in the classroom,” says Lillehaugen,who was the lead author of a paper on the magnet board that was published in the journal Language. “As a teacher who is sighted, I can read and adjust the magnets on the board and give feedback, and this feedback can be interpreted by students who are sighted or blind.”
Haverford’s propensity for collaboration has brought about many significant changes in its accessibility services. Sherrie Borowsky, who runs the Office of Access and Disability Services (ADS), says she communicates regularly with deans, department chairs, and other members of the College to assess ways in which it can improve.
“ADS provides academic accommodations and housing accommodations, and we’re constantly interacting with other groups on campus to learn how to best support all members of our community,” says Borowsky, who has worked in disability services in higher education for the past seven years. “I always speak at new-faculty orientations to immediately make our new members aware of the services and resources our office provides.”
Borowsky, who also speaks to the incoming freshmen class during Customs Week, partnered with the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, the Office of Academic Resources, and the Athletics Department last March for a panel called “Living with Disability at Haverford.” The panel, an installment of Haverford’s open discussion series “[re]ACT Community Conversations,” featured five students who talked about their successes and challenges in living with a disability at Haverford.
A few panelists spoke about having “invisible disabilities,” or disabilities that are not always immediately apparent to others. The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which was enacted by Congress in 1975 and amended in 2004, lists 13 categories, some of which encompass so-called “invisible disabilities” such as learning differences, ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), autism, and mental-health issues.
Some students with invisible disabilities, says Borowsky, struggle with deciding when or how to reveal this information—especially in academic or professional settings. To help address these questions, ADS is working on a collaboration with the College’s Center for Career and Professional Advising.
“Employers, in addition to schools, are required by law to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees or applicants with disabilities,” explains Borowsky. “You don’t need to reveal your disability if you don’t want to, and employers are not allowed to ask whether or not you are disabled, but if you do provide this information, then you are entitled to reasonable accommodations as long as they do not interfere with the essential functions of the job.”
In addition to enhancing its accessibility services, Haverford has also adopted new technologies into its curricula to facilitate learning for all students. In 2011, the College joined the growing international list of academic institutions that use Panopto, a lecture capture system that allows faculty to record their lectures and share them with the class so that students can watch them later. The application, which was used in 34 Haverford classes during the 2015–16 academic year, also lets users enter notes and alter the playback speed when watching recorded lectures.
Provost and Associate Professor of Chemistry Fran Blase was the first to integrate Panopto into her lectures when she used a Teaching With Technology grant from the College to pilot the application.
“My intention was to support students in their learning and allow them to review each class as it unfolded,” says Blase. “I wanted to give [students] the opportunity to see again the many structures and mechanisms discussed, listen to the lecture in case they missed something, and reinforce the material, particularly if it was unclear when they first heard it.”
Hiroyo Saito, director of Instructional and Information Technology Services, is particularly interested in learning how to incorporate new technologies like Panopto into Haverford classrooms. This summer, Saito attended the second annual Center for Applied Special Technology UDL Symposium, a gathering of educators and researchers focused on discussing the best practices for engaging all learners.
“One of the overarching themes of the symposium was that universal design for learning is not a checklist, but rather a philosophy,” she says. “Some presenters mentioned that if you want to promote UDL in higher education, you need to start with a core group of passionate individuals and then go from there.” Saito has since discussed the possibility of a Haverford UDL initiative with Borowsky.
Instructional and Information Technology Services also frequently works with students one-on-one to find ways to enhance their classroom experiences. For example, when Carl Sigmond ’13 arrived on campus, he was unable to use a computer unless he was in his room. Sigmond, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, types using a LeverBoard, a device he invented himself while he was in high school. Since the original device was too cumbersome to carry around during the day, Sigmond would leave it in his room in Barclay and return to it whenever he needed to use his computer.
“I type, not with keys, but by moving two levers forward and back in different sequences,” explains Sigmond. “Each character is a unique sequence of lever movements, and it is my primary method of inputting text and controlling my computer.”
For his sophomore year, Sigmond decided he wanted to live in Quaker House, which is housed in one of the units in the Haverford College Apartments. So he began brainstorming ways he could use the LeverBoard without having to travel all the way to HCA every time. The solution that evolved was to install the device in a reference room in Magill Library for which Sigmond had a key. By Sigmond’s senior year, he was able to work with Dougherty, Paul Raccuglia ’14, former Associate Chief Information Officer Steve Fabiani, and the late Bruce Boyes, the College’s longtime research machinist and instrument maker, to have the device mounted on his wheelchair.
“It is really thanks to that team of people that the LeverBoard is much more robust,” says Sigmond. “Even with my slow typing I am able to keep up with my work today as an operations manager at a Friends school.”
Student and staff collaborations have also fueled changes in various departmental areas of research and study related to disabilities. After Gillen came to Haverford, physics faculty members Suzanne Amador Kane, Paul Thorman, and Kevin Setter, working with Gillen and Megan Holt ’14, and outside experts on science accessibility, designed and wrote up an accessible curriculum for physics students who are blind or visually impaired. In 2012, Writing Center Director Kristin Lindgren, who is a disability scholar, and Assistant Professor of English Debora Sherman helped organize What Can a Body Do?, a Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery exhibition that artistically explored the capabilities of disabled bodies. And, at the beginning of this school year, Bryn Mawr education professor Alison Cook-Sather and Haverford mathematics lecturer Jeffrey Tecosky-Feldman facilitated a Tri-College faculty retreat focused on fostering inclusive and responsive classrooms. Topics included “inviting active student engagement in large lecture courses” and “creating and sustaining a welcoming classroom environment.”
“There was robust discussion, which was enlivened by having so many different disciplines represented at the retreat,” says Tecosky-Feldman, who estimates 60 faculty members attended.
Accessibility has also become the subject of a growing number of senior theses at Haverford. The work that Megan Holt did with Kane, for example, on a physics curriculum for blind students became part of her thesis research on devising 3-D realizations of graphics used in physics and mathematics courses. Holt’s thesis, “Maximizing Accessibility for the Blind in Physics Education,” looked at how these “tactile graphics” could aid blind and low-vision students. Dougherty, in the computer science department, has also advised a number of seniors who have incorporated accessibility into their theses. Adam Van Aken ’15 and Dorvil Gabriel ’16 both wrote a thesis on the Myo armband, a gesture-recognition device that allows its user to control technology via wrist and forearm motions. For his thesis, Gabriel created scripts that could help someone missing a hand type more efficiently using a Myo armband.
For her thesis, Maggie Perkoff ’15, a computer science and linguistics double major, examined the ability of computers to recognize sign language. Instead of studying technology such as cochlear implants, which aim to “correct” deafness, Perkoff researched how people with hearing disabilities could more naturally interact with the global community without needing to change their degree of hearing. Marcus Firmani ’16 also researched gesture recognition, focusing on how it could be applied to virtual and augmented reality.
“The rise of gesture recognition, virtual and augmented reality, automated speech recognition, etc., is bringing a multitude of interface technologies into common use,” says Firmani. “And that means more people—with disabilities and without disabilities— will be able to interact with the same devices.”
And, though there is still work to be done, Haverford continues to work toward the same goal of being totally accessible for all of its community members.
“Haverford bent over backwards to give me the accommodations I needed in order to be a successful student,” reflects Sigmond. “And I am so grateful to the College.”