New director of Disability Resource Center looks to partner with faculty to promote more inclusive course design

photo of Randall Ward, director of Disability Resource Center

Randall Ward didn’t set out to be a champion for disability rights. He just so happened to be working as a student intern with Michigan’s Youth Conservation Corps when he learned that a young girl had been turned away from a federal camp because of her disability status.

That was back in 1978, just a few years after the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was passed to guarantee equal opportunity for people with disabilities. After meeting with the girl and her family, Ward recruited her to participate in his state camp’s work-learn program instead. She had a great experience, and the event played a pivotal role in framing Ward’s philosophy on access and inclusion.

“A lot of times, people get caught up in why something can’t happen,” says Ward, new director for Purdue’s Disability Resource Center (DRC) and associate director of the Student Success Programs department. “I like to focus on how something can happen and what’s possible.”

This is Ward’s driving vision for the DRC, the campus department designated by the University to ensure equal access to Purdue classes, programs and activities for students with disabilities. The department employs an interactive process to facilitate access, either through determining a reasonable accommodation for students or by working with faculty on inclusive course design.

And what is inclusive course design? According to Ward, the idea is to design environments that meet the needs of the widest possible net of users.

“There are some problems with how we’ve socially constructed disability. The common view is the problem resides in the individual, and as long as society has this view, we’re missing out on the idea that people have always had conditions that made them different,” Ward says. “The condition, in itself, is neutral. Human variation is natural and vital in the development of dynamic communities. Within this context, we understand that ‘the problem’ is derived from interaction between the individual and society, and thus the focus of remedy and intervention can be anyone who can affect the design of an environment.”   

Ward adds that disability is another form of diversity, and thus has the same tenets of social justice and civil rights.

“The DRC’s job is to enhance access and usability in ways that are convenient for both students and faculty at Purdue,” Ward says. “The key is to have open dialog between students, DRC staff and faculty.”

Ward says a few minor course considerations can go a long way toward creating a more inclusive and welcoming environment that considers difference. Examples include ensuring course materials are compatible with screen reading technology "off the shelf"; using videos that have accurate and synchronized captions; and ensuring all students receive their scored exams at the same time, whether they were taken with accommodations or without.

In many cases, inclusive design yields improvements that are broader than intended. Take curb cuts, for instance, which originally were mandated to facilitate sidewalk travel for people using wheelchairs. These days, dropped curbs also benefit joggers, bikers and pedestrians pushing strollers. Likewise, captioning videos, providing simple, consistent navigation in online resources, and providing PowerPoint slides in digital format are inclusive actions that better serve all students, not just those with disabilities.

Ward hopes to have more conversations with faculty about fostering inclusive design, especially because research shows that students with disabilities don’t always advocate for accommodations they need to be successful.

“Research demonstrates that students desire to avoid negative social reactions, such as being singled out for their disability, or they may not feel comfortable explaining their disability to others,” Ward says. “That’s why the DRC is eager to work with faculty to facilitate better access to their course materials and develop academic processes that are more welcoming overall.”

The DRC has already made some changes toward that end. 

“We recently added a courier service to expedite the return of completed exams taken with accommodations at the DRC, and also added Wednesday nights to our accommodated testing schedule,” added Ward.

Faculty who would like to learn more about ongoing initiatives related to inclusive course design or set up a consultation may email drc@purdue.edu or call 765-494-1247.

Writer: Andrea Thomas, Communications Director for Student Success Programs, 765-496-3754, thomas78@purdue.edu

Last updated: Oct. 27, 2016

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