Providing Leadership, Transparency, and Empowerment around Access
Access UChicago Now (AUN) is a coalition that provides leadership and transparency regarding accessibility for the campus community. AUN works to empower units, divisions, and schools to make University education, research, work, events, and other programs and services that are a part of University life accessible to members of the campus community with disabilities. AUN engages in this work by gathering information from campus partners and members of the campus community and then synthesizing this information to inform current priorities, which are set and enacted by members of AUN and campus partners.
Access UChicago Now began as a partnership between core offices at the University that work for access for people with disabilities: Student Disability Services, the Office for Access and Equity, and Employee and Labor Relations in consultation with the D+I Studio.
Student Disability Services(SDS) is responsible for reviewing and decision-making related to all student accommodation requests at the University and works to provide resources, support, and accommodations for students with disabilities as well as training and consultative services to divisions across campus on disability matters. During the 2019-2020 academic year, over 900 students were registered with SDS, which represents 10% of College students and 3% of graduate and professional students.
The Office for Access and Equity (OAE) supports the full participation of all members of the University community in the life of the University, including reviewing and approving accommodation requests for faculty, other academic appointees, and postdoctoral researchers (“academics”) with disabilities, consulting and coordinating with campus partners on accessibility, and resolving allegations of discrimination or unlawful harassment on the basis of disability under the University’s Policy on Harassment, Discrimination and Sexual Misconduct. OAE also resolves grievances and requests for review of disability-related accommodations.
Employee and Labor Relations (ELR) works in coordination with individual units and divisions across the University to review and make recommendations regarding staff accommodation requests, to investigate and resolve complaints made against staff alleging discrimination or unlawful harassment on the basis of disability (in coordination with Equal Opportunity Programs), and to coordinate policies that affect people with disabilities at the University.
The original purpose of AUN, when it began in spring quarter 2019, was to respond to individual concerns raised by students with disabilities about their experience at the University by conducting a University-wide assessment. While SDS, OAE, and ELR are essential partners working for access at the University, they are not alone in this work. Inherent in the work of every office at the University that advances the University’s core commitment to academic excellence is, also, a commitment to accessibility for people with disabilities. AUN set out to understand not just the experiences of people with disabilities at the University but also those of people working for access. As the Diversity Advisory Council Final Report (2017) stated: “[A]ll have a stake in helping create and maintain a campus environment that affirms the right to learn, inquire, and grow for everyone.”
III. Summary of 2019-20 Efforts
In 2019-2020, the AUN initiative worked as a campaign and an assessment tool to increase awareness about campus accessibility and to solicit feedback from members of the campus community about their experiences and perspectives related to access and inclusion of people with disabilities. In spring and summer quarters 2019, AUN hosted over 35 individual and small group conversations, meeting with over 55 students, academics, and staff with disabilities and/or representing campus partners across campus regarding access. These partners included staff from the Center for Identity & Inclusion, the Chicago Center for Teaching, Court Theater, Deans of Students/ Disability Liaisons, Facilities Services, Housing & Residence Life, Human Resources Partners, IT Services, Library Services, Parking and Transportation, Student Counseling Services, Talent Acquisition/ Shared Services, and UChicago GRAD. Access UChicago Now then hosted a town hall to share learnings and invite members of the campus community to create solutions during autumn quarter 2019 attended by over 55 members of the campus community.
Over 35 interviews with campus stakeholders yielded a multitude of insights, which were divided in to five categories: Our Identities, Our Community, Our Processes, Our Classrooms, and Our Resources. From Our Identities, we gained insights on the various ways in which having a disability in an ableist environment shapes personal beliefs and experiences of people with disabilities. Interviewees expressed a need to be recognized and acknowledged by the University in a broader way. As we looked at Our Community, we learned about the local culture and climate which impacts how much individuals with disabilities feel included, valued, and empowered. We also took an introspective look into Our Processes, which are the institutional policies and practices that people with disabilities on campus must navigate in order to receive proper accommodations. We learned about practices that need improvements in addition to ways the University could include the voices of individuals with disabilities in the development of policies and projects that affect them. Next, insights were gained from Our Classrooms which shed light on the interactions students with disabilities have with their peers and instructors which influences how supported they feel and how they perform academically. In addition, we spoke with faculty with disabilities regarding their experience teaching. We have identified areas where disability awareness and cultural trainings for the entire campus community could lead to significant changes in the classroom experiences for students and academics. Finally, we gained insights about the impact of Our Resources, the institutional infrastructures that individuals with disabilities interact with in order to participate in the life of the campus. Interviewees identified gaps in services and programming that would foster a more inclusive environment for people with disabilities.
We recognize the importance of making the University’s leadership aware of the experiences, as well as the gaps in supports, services and resources which members of our campus community have shared. Although there has been noteworthy progress made to improve access at the University, we acknowledge that there is more work to be done in each of the categories to foster a more inclusive culture and climate.
IV. Next Steps: 2020-21AY
In the 2020-21 academic year, Access UChicago Now, which began as a partnership, transitioned to a coalition to provide leadership, transparency, and empowerment around access.
The AUN leadership team consists of representatives from the Office for Access and Equity, Student Disability Services, Employee and Labor Relations/ Human Resources, the Center for Digital Accessibility, and Facilities Services. In addition, the AUN leadership team includes faculty, student, and staff representation of people with disabilities.
Through Access UChicago Now’s AY20 listening tour and town hall, SDS, OAE, and ELR, in addition to other key campus partners and members of the campus community, engaged on key issues related to accessibility. This work will continue in the upcoming academic year, through project-teams led by AUN leadership team in consultation with campus partners and members of the campus community:
Communication. Increase communication and awareness of AUN, including, reporting to University leadership.
Accessibility Toolkit. Research as a best practice establishing accessibility as a key performance indicator and draft accessibility toolkit for campus community in partnership with the Office of the Provost’s Accessibility Student Advisory Board.
Parking and transportation. Work with Parking & Transportation to relay and respond to feedback from AUN AY20 listening tour.
Employee accommodation process and resources. Work with Human Resources to relay and respond to feedback from AUN AY20 listening tour related to employee accommodation process.
Consultation with people with disabilities. Increase consultation of people with disabilities in University planning that affects them, as appropriate.