Moving AHEAD with Equity and Inclusion


Jennifer Rafferty, Director of the Institute for Professional Development

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wooden blocks with word equity
Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend my first AHEAD conference in Boston, MA. The Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) is an organization dedicated to serving higher education professionals who are committed to equity for people with disabilities. The conference, Equity & Excellence – Access in Higher Education, attracts a diverse range of professionals including disability resource specialists, student affairs personnel, ADA coordinators, diversity officers, AT/IT staff, faculty, instructional designers, as well as those of us who work outside of higher education and are invested in advancing access and equity in the work we do. I had two main objectives for my attendance at this 5-day event: reflect on my own positionality, and enhance my knowledge of equity and access in the disability services context to better inform the Online Learning Consortium in its own broader diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiative. Although OLC’s initiative is still in its infancy, AHEAD provided me with the space and time to reflect on defining the scope of OLC’s initiative so we can foster a culture of inclusion across the organization and for all our community members.

Reframing Disability 

My first two days at the conference were spent with Dr. Amanda Kraus reframing disability in a pre-conference workshop titled, “Socially-Just Services: Unpacking How Ableism Shapes the Disability Experience and Informs Professional Practice”. I am providing just a snapshot of some of the many discussions in this intensive two-day learning experience.  

During day 1, we had the opportunity to examine disability in the context of social justice while considering our positionality as it relates to disability both in and outside of our professional setting. Disability has historically been viewed using a medical model which identifies the person with the disability as the problem. When society operates with this frame of reference, the goal is to cure or accommodate the individual. If we reframe disability using a social model, the problem no longer lies within the individual but rather in the environment. Instead of trying to fix the person, our goal is to remove the barriers in the design of the environment. In educational settings, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an example of a framework that reduces barriers in the learning environment by taking into consideration learner variability in the design of goals, materials, methods, and assessments. Universal Design, an architectural concept that inspired UDL, strives to achieve similar outcomes in the physical environment and is also starting to emerge in higher education settings. The Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology Center (DO-IT) provides a wealth of resources on how to apply UD to university services such as financial aid, housing, libraries, and career centers. Additionally, Dr. Sheryl Burgstaler has published a book, Universe Design in Higher Education, which takes a look at universal design implementation both in and outside of the classroom. A few of my other favorite reads on UDL include UDL in the Cloud: How to Design and Deliver Online Education Using Universal Design for Learning by Kate Novak and Tom Thibodeau and Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education by Thomas Tobin and Kirsten T. Behling.

Unpacking Disability Language

During day 1, we also focused on unpacking disability language with an in-depth discussion about person-first and identity-first language. Person-first language puts the person before the disability or a condition: I am a person with autism. By contrast, identity-first language puts the disability before the person and doesn’t separate the condition or disability from the person: I am disabled. The person-first identity-first debate is ongoing and preferences come down to how one chooses to identify and what the majority opinion is in a particular community. I had never questioned my own language preference in reference to myself. I identify as a person with a disability which is a relatively new development in my life. I am hard of hearing and I use hearing aids. I wonder if I would use identity-first language if I had been a part of deaf culture since childhood. 

I had two key takeaways in this part of the workshop: we can’t make a decision for our students with regards to their preferences. We need to let students tell us how they want to identify. Furthermore, if we take away the word disability from a job title or a department name, are we making disability invisible? Are we distancing ourselves from disability? Are we also making it harder for students to locate disability services if we name the department something else like “Access Services”?  

Disability in the Media

One highlight of the second day of the workshop was the time we spent examining the representation of disability in the media. Have you ever tried googling images with the search term disability? Take a few minutes to google the word, and see what kinds of images come up. Do you see any trends? We saw a few very salient trends in the images Amanda selected to discuss the representation of disability in the media. One trend was that the images do not represent the diversity of our population in the United States or the complete spectrum of disabilities that exist. It was hard to find examples of intersectionality in the media’s portrayal of a disabled person. Mostly there were pictures of Caucasians and there were a lot of chair users.  

We also talked about how the media likes to use stories about disabled people to inspire others who are not disabled. Think about how the word inspiration is used in relation to the story of disabled people in the news. We all need some inspiration from time to time.  But does that inspiration need to be derived from using the story of a disabled person to make others feel good? Celeste Young calls this “inspiration porn” in her TedTalk, “Inspiration Porn and the Objectification of Disability.”   

As I reflected on the media artifacts we reviewed, I worried about how the media perpetuates ideas, assumptions, and beliefs about disabled people and other subordinated groups. I also worried about how those ideas, beliefs, and assumptions are trickling down into the decisions we make when we design curriculum, services, and activities, or even the way we communicate with others. If you are interested in doing a deeper dive into checking your assumptions and creating inclusive learning environments, I recommend the following resources which have further recommended readings:

Haben Girma contact information and book cover for Haben, The Deafbling Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law

More on Assumptions with Haben Girma

Haben Girma, a disability rights lawyer, delivered the Opening Plenary for the conference with a talk entitled, “Students with Disabilities Are an Asset to Universities”. You can visit the Twitter hashtag, #AHEAD2019, for a full run-down of tweets from the Plenary and other sessions, but I would like to share two of my own tweets to summarize two key points of her talk.

“Some barriers are just assumptions.” @HabenGirma #AHEAD2019 #access #accessibility

Haben illustrated this simple statement with a picture she had taken while she was in China. She explained that she had just arrived in the country and she entered her hotel room. While settling in, she discovered an object she couldn’t identify when she touched it. Haben is Deafblind, so she could not see the object, but she could feel it and she suspected it might be something she could eat. To play it safe, she used her phone to take a picture of the object and she sent it to a friend who was able to tell her what it was. It was a dragon fruit. Some might assume because Haben is Deafblind, she would have no use for a smartphone. This was precisely her point. Don’t assume what learners do and do not need. They may be using technologies to assist them in ways that we never even imagined. Barriers come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are obvious to us and we may think we have made great progress with lessening the obvious barriers. Assumptions are a bit sneaky though because we might not even be aware of the fact that we are making an assumption about our learners or colleagues.

“Inclusion is a choice. When you choose inclusion, you role model inclusion for an entire community.” Thank you, @HabenGirma for your spectacular talk at #ahead2019. #inclusion #accessibility #universaldesign

Inclusion is a choice and it needs to be intentional in order to have an impact. As Haben pointed out, “When I remove a barrier, it’s not just for me; it’s for the entire community.” As OLC moves ahead with its commitment to creating a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion, how can we best role model inclusion for others? What should we be doing with intentionality that we are not yet doing? What could we be doing better? 

We at OLC are hopeful that not only our initiatives will result in institutional change, but they will also provide a sense of solidarity, as well as future engagement opportunities for those who are experiencing (or have witnessed) challenging, hostile, and/or biased academic environments. 

If you would like to answer any of the above questions I have posed, or share your ideas regarding OLC’s role in advancing equity and inclusion in the digital and online learning space, I invite you to respond through the channel that works best for you. Leave a comment below, fill out this anonymous survey, or connect with the IDEA Committee at OLC Accelerate 2019. The IDEA Committee holds “un-office hours” at Accelerate and Innovate where you can speak to an OLC volunteer committee member. Whether or not you are an OLC community member, you have the opportunity to shape the culture of inclusion we are striving to create and we want to hear from you.


jennifer paloma rafferty  

Jennifer “Paloma” Rafferty (She, her, hers) is the Director of the Institute for Professional Development at the Online Learning Consortium. She has served on strategic planning committees for inclusion and multiculturalism in higher education and she has worked as an advocate and interpreter for immigrant and refugee communities. At OLC, she provides leadership in researching, scoping, managing, and evaluating a full range of professional development solutions for multiple audiences within the OLC Institute for Professional Development. She has worked for 20 years supporting distance education and online learning initiatives in higher education and in community-based organizations. Her research interests include online foreign language instruction, the instructional design role in the higher education context, and Universal Design for Learning. Jennifer Paloma holds a Masters of Education in Instructional Design from UMASS Boston, a Masters of Arts in Spanish from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an undergraduate degree in Romance Languages from Mount Holyoke College.


One Response to “Moving AHEAD with Equity and Inclusion”

  1. Liz.Ciabocchi

    Thank you for sharing this, Paloma! Your presence at this conference as a representative of OLC is a strong testament to the organization’s commitment to promoting DEI in online teaching and learning. Additionally, there is a great deal of very useful information in this post for those of us who are similarly engaged at our respective institutions. Kudos!


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