Texas shield logo

Celebrating Disability Awareness Month

Meet three academic advisors who are making accessibility and inclusion a top priority
Josh Barham, Kayla Ford and Sarah McKay, three academic advisors for McCombs

Throughout the “new normal” of virtual schooling, many lessons about accessibility and inclusion have come to light, prompting educators and support staff to alter their teaching methods—from embedding captions in videos to including sign language interpreters in Zoom sessions to providing pre-taped lectures.

Over the past year-and-a-half of online schooling, Kayla Ford, a senior academic program coordinator at the McCombs School of Business, took many of these lessons into account. When she discovered the DDCE’s Dynamics of Diversity Training Certificate program, she immediately signed up so she could learn how to better serve her students and community members.

“What I liked about the course was that it was very broad, and it was focused on how we can best serve diverse populations,” Ford says. “It’s important to always be learning, and to share what we’re doing with experts who can tell us how we can make our programming more accessible and inclusive.”

As part of the certificate program, Ford participated in the Access & Inclusion Disability in Context course taught by faculty and staff within Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD). She then reported back to her colleagues to put the lessons she learned into practice.

“I discovered there is much to learn about accessibility versus inclusion,” Ford says. “You can make a space accessible, but it’s easy to forget about the inclusion piece. For example, you can provide wheelchair access in a big lecture hall, but if it’s all the way in the back next to the trash cans, that’s not inclusive.”

Moving forward, Ford and her colleagues are taking extra measures to ensure accessibility for all their materials, including videos, Word documents and PowerPoint slides. While searching for video captioning services, they found a valuable resource within UT Libraries, which offers low-cost captioning to the university community.

“We’ve made the commitment to caption all of our videos—and the process was much easier than we imagined,” Ford says. “UT Libraries provides very affordable captioning services—and the turn-around time is very quick. “A lot of these steps may seem small, but they have a big impact.”

While incorporating accommodations into their materials and virtual meetings, Josh Barham, a senior academic advisor at the McCombs School of Business, found that the benefits also extend to students without disabilities.

“It can be really helpful sending out information like PowerPoint slides to students ahead of time because people learn and process information in different ways,” Barham says. “This is just an example of how accommodations can be beneficial for a wide range of people who have different preferences.”

The goal, he says, is to be as proactive as possible to ensure students have all the resources they need right from the start.

“The intentional piece is so important,” Barham says. “It’s much more ideal to put these accommodations in place so students don’t even have to ask for them. The more we can do at the front end, the better.”

Even small nuances like modifying face-to-face Zoom interactions can make a big difference, says Sarah McKay, a senior academic advisor at the McCombs School of Business.

“With individual appointments, we learned that it’s helpful to give students the option to turn their camera off, so they won’t have that pressure of video screentime,” McKay says. “For some, having that camera on can affect their mental processing, or it can just cause technical issues. So, we want to let them have a say in what works best for them.”

What matters most, McKays adds, is that the students get all the resources they need to succeed. Although some may not be ready to seek a diagnosis or accommodations, she and her colleagues make sure to inform them about the many resources at the university that can help.

“When a student tells me they think they may have a disability, I tell them they know that experience better than anyone else,” McKay says. “If they have a hunch something is going on, they’re probably right. Not every student is ready to seek help, but I share that SSD protects their confidentiality and that it’s completely normal to seek support when they need it.”