time exposed photo of headlights in urban center

The Inaccessibility of Accessible Education

Denisia Mangue

Imagine your average day. You’re up and dressed, perhaps you have an errand to run. Let’s say you’re going to the bank to deposit a check. You get to the bank and you have to climb up a single step to get to the entrance, except, the step is 10 feet tall and you’re only 5’0. Eighty percent of the population towers over you and has no problem clearing the step, but for you the feat is impossible.

For the past 5 years I’ve worked with the 20% of the population who struggle in classrooms to tackle the metaphorical step of inaccessible education, often for physical reasons. According to the US census, about 48.9 million Americans have a disability. Across the world 15% of the global population, about 1 billion people, are reported to have a disability. Accessibility can be an issue for people with disabilities and when it comes to the classroom it’s no different, especially because the type of assistance students need depends on the student. My work ranges from simple in class tasks such as taking notes, to the more taxing, including organization and planning. As most intrapersonal work does, it ranges from one day to another, but for the most part I’m sitting in classes and taking notes for my students and helping them get their assignments done. Never mind that I’m taking graduate level classes as I work towards by MBA. The work for me is often worth it.

On the other hand, for the student I work with it can be equally as, if not more, demanding since teaching styles and expectations differ. For the student, a ‘typical’ day in class includes more than note taking and participation. According to a student, “It’s hard because you’re spending so much time advocating for yourself that you’re not always given a fair chance. Like in a course I took, if it wasn’t for my tutor I would not have been able to complete the course through no fault of my own. It wasn’t that I couldn’t think of how to do the work, it’s that I often don’t have the tools to access my work [on my own].” I’m grateful for the opportunity because, it has invited me to revisit the way I think of accessibility. Handicap accessible education is more than just having students of all abilities in the classroom. It includes accommodating the student once they are there. I can’t tell you how many times people have spoken to me to address a student even when they are right besides me, failing to recognize that there are in fact 2 people in front of them.

I’ve been learning that there are paths to accessibility that are yet to become a part of the general view of inclusion. It has given me the opportunity to re-define accessibility as more than access, but also accommodation. After all, it’s not enough that the building is there. It doesn’t even mean much if the giant step has been smoothed into a ramp if the tellers windows are still 10 feet tall, does it?