Deaf students are attending postsecondary institutions at higher rates than ever before, but the attainment gap has only slightly narrowed in the past decade. Faculty members play a central role in supporting accessible learning environments for deaf students in postsecondary education and training settings. Dr. Stephanie Cawthon, faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin, shares insights and data from NDC’s ACCESS survey.
As a deaf faculty member at a four-year public university, I often find myself both aware of my own students’ needs as well as what I call the “culture of access” on campus as a whole. From funding sources to accommodations requests procedures, the systems around accessibility can make or break a student’s experience. While there are postsecondary institutions that provide specialized programming for deaf students, the vast majority of deaf students are attending local state and community colleges. They are often only one of a few deaf students in their cohort or program.
Building an Equitable Learning Environment
Foundational conceptualizations of access, such as providing legal mandated accommodations and universal design, have been instrumental in building more equitable learning environments but have not been sufficient to ensure equity for deaf learners. Like other students with disabilities, they need equal access to the networks, resources, and opportunities available to all students in order to maximize postsecondary educational experiences. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these barriers; students and employees alike have struggled without intentional consideration of access during the many pivots in the methods and context of learning.
To help expand our understanding of the culture of access, NDC conducted surveys focused on accessibility from three different perspectives: deaf students, faculty, and disability service professionals.
Student responses highlighted both key strategies for access support and challenges that they face navigating access in their programs. The experience of access varied greatly across programs and institutions, often requiring significant levels of self-advocacy by the students. The experience also lacked a constructive, team-based approach from members across the campus community.
Looking at the Data
I had the opportunity to examine NDC data from 181 faculty members from across the country, information that provides a unique and valuable perspective on the culture of accessibility for deaf students. The survey focused on the six areas of access. Faculty responded to questions about access across six domains: (a) attitudes and biases; (b) campus technology; (c) communication; (d) environment; (e) services, and (f) social capital. This survey is unique in that it is holistic and asks for perspectives about the culture of access across experiences in postsecondary education, both in and out of the classroom.
As with any discussion of survey results, it’s important to know the demographic makeup of who responded to the questions. Much like the teaching faculty in the U.S., particularly at public institutions, the sample was predominantly female (67%) and white (76%). Many of the participants had more than 15 years teaching experience (49%) with a good distribution among age ranges.
Something that is different about this data set is that nearly a quarter of the participants were deaf faculty (21%) or disabled (33%) — this is a much higher representation than we usually see in surveys about access for deaf students. Finally, while there was a relatively large contingent of tenured faculty (31%); faculty yet-to-be-tenured (15%) — faculty with an ongoing appointment (33%) accounted for the bulk of survey respondents.
What We Learned
There are several key takeaways from this survey. First, faculty members, on average, scored their institutions in the mid-range in their accessibility for deaf students. Scores ranged from 1.8 to 4.8 out of a total possible 5 points, similar to the findings from deaf students. The Attitudes and Social Capital subscales had the most variation in ratings — participants reported a greater range of perspectives for those more subjective experiences than for the more concrete subscales such as technology access.
While scores on each of the six subscales did not vary significantly by participant race, ethnicity, or number of years teaching, there were some notable differences:
Tenured faculty provided significantly higher subscale ratings than nontenured faculty.
Emeritus and older (ages 55 and up) faculty provided significantly higher subscale ratings than many other faculty.
Both deaf and disabled faculty rated social capital 12% higher than nondisabled counterparts.
Considering Position, Power, and Agency
It seems that a faculty member’s higher rank and status, not years of experience, may be correlated with a more positive view on the accessibility of their home institutions and programs. There are many possible reasons for this relationship, including the power and agency that comes with these titles, as well as (often) reduced connection to the experiences of those who do not have the stability or security that they now have.
This positive view of campus access by the more senior members of the faculty may be modified by whether or not the faculty member is deaf or disabled themselves. I know that in my own experience as a deaf faculty member, I feel much more comfortable “making waves” and pushing for access now that I am a full professor than I did earlier in my career. I both see the challenges that exist and have the resources to help advocate for systems change and raise awareness within campus leadership structures. This ability to effect change creates a positive and meaningful perspective about how to reduce barriers, thus raising my efficacy and hope for the future.
A Full College Experience Matters
A final key point is that the social capital subscale is where deaf and disabled faculty felt that there was a more positive, connected environment than their non-disabled faculty peers. Social capital refers to the “water cooler” moments, informal interactions, incidental learning, advice giving-receiving, and networking opportunities that are such a critical yet often last considered part of an accessibility plan.
Perhaps this higher score for social capital is because deaf and disabled faculty themselves are a source of connection, or that they are more cognizant of where the social network lies and how to advocate for access within it. They may also have more positive interactions with deaf students and higher expectations for them in general, which then in turn leads to a more positive outlook on the quality of their educational experiences. Deaf role models in any context are an essential part of the culture of access for deaf students, of an inclusive and diverse educational environment.
Looking Forward at #DeafSuccess
Looking ahead to the future, I feel hopeful about expanded opportunities and improvements to the culture of access in our postsecondary institutions and programs. Deaf people are following their dreams and continuing to attain #DeafSuccess. They are connecting with each other and finding pathways that draw upon their strengths as deaf people. Faculty members in higher education are a key component to supporting and innovating pathways for these deaf students. I encourage all faculty to think about where they can reduce the extra burdens on deaf and disabled students, and make a positive difference in their lives.
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