UMN members advocate for disability training

The Disabilities Issues Committee is consulting on a proposed resolution to increase training for faculty and staff.

Austen Macalus

Amid increasing demand for disability resources at the University of Minnesota, members of the University Senate are pushing for mandatory training for employees on disabilities issues.

The Disabilities Issues Committee proposed a draft resolution to implement training for faculty and staff on accommodating and supporting students with disabilities — measures that would be required for all University employees who work directly with students.

Benjamin Munson, chair of the committee, said the proposal is still in its beginning stages. But he said training could be helpful for many faculty and staff on campus.

“It would be pretty far-reaching,” Munson said. “There’s a sense that there’s a pervasive lack of understanding amongst the faculty on how to best accommodate students.”

The committee, which approved the resolution last spring semester, is currently consulting with others in the University Senate. Munson said he hopes to bring the resolution to a vote in the senate by the end of the academic year.

The University does not currently mandate training on disabilities. The University previously offered an online faculty training in 2015, the Minnesota Daily reported.

The committee’s efforts come at a time when resources on campus are stretched thin. The University’s Disabilities Resource Center provides accessibility measures, like testing accommodations and technology resources, for people with disabilities. The DRC has seen a significant increase in demand from students, faculty and staff.

The number of students and employees the DRC served on the Twin Cities campus spiked around 20 percent between fiscal years 2017 and 2018. University officials expect those numbers to continue to rise.

Supporters of the proposed resolution say training could relieve some of the burden.

“The DRC is currently well over capacity in terms of what they can handle and manage,” said David Johnson, a professor in the Institute on Community Integration, who formerly sat on the committee. “One of the solutions to that certainly is to try to equip faculty and staff with a broader understanding of how to support these students in their coursework.”

The training would help faculty and staff better understand accommodations for students with disabilities, methods of teaching and testing in a more accessible way, and how University resources, like the DRC, can help students.

Although training may be challenging to provide to all employees, Johnson said it could allow instructors to make changes on their own to increase accessibility in the classrooms.

“Faculty automatically just send students to the Disabilities Resource Center sometimes without considering the accommodations needed by these students,” he said. “I think most of the accommodations that are required and needed by students are pretty easy to facilitate.”

The training would also educate employees on federal laws — namely the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act — that prevent discrimination against people with disabilities in higher education.

Peggy Martin, a member of the Disabilities Issues Committee and the former chair, said that many faculty are unaware of the protections for equal access.

“There’s just a big disparity about what people know and don’t know about disability across campus,” Martin said. “I hope the training will accomplish a greater knowledge about the federal law and what accommodation means in higher education.”

Graduate student Ryan Machtmes, the co-founder of the Organization for Graduate and Professional Students with Disabilities, said there is a need for better training on campus. Machtmes, a former member of the Disability Issues Committee, pushed for the training resolution in its early stages last year.

Machtmes said some professors question if students who ask for accommodation really need it, especially with disabilities that aren’t necessarily apparent. He has low vision, or an “invisible” disability, himself.

“Almost any student on campus with a disability who you might talk to would have to say that there have been at least one or a handful of cases where either a need was not met or there was resistance to accommodation where there should not have been,” he said. “It can not only be frustrating, it can also be very hurtful.”

Machtmes said the resolution will bolster advocacy and support for people with disabilities. He said he also hopes training will eliminate the stigma that students who request accommodations are trying to get a leg up in the classroom.

“They don’t provide an unfair advantage,” he said. “The presumption of some, which is borne of ignorance, is not only false, it’s something we hope the training will alleviate.”