October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and about one in four people in the United States has some type of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As many as 80 percent of disabled individuals have invisible disabilities that can include ADHD, learning disabilities, psychological conditions or mental health concerns.
These statistics also apply across college campuses, where students are preparing to enter the workforce amid learning environments where accessibility has become a more routine aspect of the classroom.
“Students arriving at college campuses now have grown up with the idea of inclusion,” said Deborah McCarthy, director of USF’s Office of Student Accessibility Services (SAS). “They’re used to the reality that someone in a wheelchair was in their kindergarten class, or that someone with autism was in their math class. They view accessibility as a communal responsibility and are eager to be proactive. This new viewpoint creates an exciting opportunity.”
And yet, many students with disabilities still do not seek help for various reasons, including stigma. That represents a complex challenge for student accessibility leaders like McCarthy.
Below are some ways USF works to support student accessibility, reduce stigma, raise awareness of available resources and empower individuals with disabilities to share their experiences and concerns.
Student Accessibility Services
McCarthy’s office serves approximately 3,100 students across the three USF campuses – around five times the number it served in 2009 – and provides them with services and support from enrollment through graduation.
SAS works with faculty to accommodate students through Universal Design for Learning, a framework meant to ensure that course materials and activities are accessible and inclusive for all students, regardless of their abilities, backgrounds or preferred learning styles.
This can include providing accessible textbooks, Braille, American Sign Language interpreters, extended time testing, note-taking technologies and transcription services.
When the COVID-19 pandemic sent colleges online in 2020, the shift to platforms like Microsoft Teams to connect faculty, staff and students brought unexpected benefits, such as improved captioning for students with hearing impairments.
McCarthy said the pandemic sped up efforts at USF and across the nation to increase the use of technology that supports accessibility and helped people think about what an in-person university means and what accommodations still need to be made.
SAS also serves as a resource for the broader campus community with a goal of promoting an environment where accessibility and Universal Design are central to the USF experience.
“Disability advocate Alice Wong points out that accessibility is really about hospitality,” McCarthy said. “You don’t invite someone into your home for dinner if you’re not sure they can get into your house. It’s not just ramps and curb cuts. It’s about what it means to be hospitable.”
SAS encourages all students, faculty and staff to participate in AccessiBull, a series of disability awareness events to help educate the USF community and reduce stigma. The office also annually administers the Johnson Scholarship for Students with Disabilities to provide financial support.
Presidential Advisory Committee on Accessibility
Formed in 2021, the USF Presidential Advisory Committee on Accessibility is chaired by McCarthy and advises President Rhea Law on matters pertaining to ability, accessibility and disability for faculty, staff and students.
The advisory committee also evaluates and monitors the university environment for related problems and issues, and it’s a way for multiple areas of USF to come together to embrace accessibility.
Since its inception, the committee has partnered with USF’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning to enhance accessibility and training for online courses and faculty trainings.
The committee co-sponsored USF’s second annual production of “This is My Brave,” a student performance about mental health and disability, and is focusing on updates to USF’s Americans with Disabilities Act policies.
SAS and partners like USF’s Center for Career & Professional Development offer a variety of resources to assist students with employment opportunities.
Information about the U.S. Department of Labor’s Workforce Recruitment Program is available through the SAS website. The program, managed by the labor department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy and the U.S. Department of Defense, connects employers with postsecondary students and recent graduates with disabilities. The apply is Oct. 12.
The USF Center for Career & Professional Development offers articles and videos sharing tips and advice for students with disabilities who are entering the workforce, as well as resources such as career coaching and, on USF’s Tampa campus, 15-minute drop-in visits for students to answer basic career-related questions.
Recent campus career fairs offered a half-hour exclusive time slot with access limited to students needing accommodation so they could navigate the fair without crowds and with minimal sensory overload.
Student Government Accessibility Task Force
Last year, USF students Simone Till and Kevin Moore urged Student Government leaders to create a Campus Accessibility Task Force. Their intent was to enhance the disability culture at USF by raising awareness and empowering students.
Till and Moore spearheaded the creation of a survey last fall asking students to share their experiences and concerns and received 182 responses. The findings will help Student Government look for ways to guide more students toward resources available through SAS and advocate for increased support for disabled individuals.
Till arrived at USF three years ago with an acute understanding of the challenges facing students with disabilities. She experienced hearing loss during her childhood that eventually led to her use of hearing aids.
Because of her long hair, Till’s hearing aids aren’t readily visible. Her sister, however, has cerebral palsy, causing speech and mobility challenges that make her disability more apparent.
“Growing up helped me understand that when you approach disabilities, it’s really a huge umbrella,” Till said. “You have to think about it from a very holistic standpoint.”
Jillian Heilman, the task force’s faculty advisor at the time, credited Till, Moore and other Student Government leaders for responding to what they saw and heard from peers and pushing to make the task force a reality.
“Students started to reach out to us,” said Heilman, an adjunct professor in the USF Rehabilitation Counseling and Disability Sciences Program who researches disability impact, advocacy and awareness. “It was a grassroots effort that solidified students’ need to be heard.”
Till and Moore graduated in May, and one of the students taking over leadership of the task force is Chrissy Zimmer, a College of Public Health graduate student who has utilized accessibility services because of a spinal condition.
Zimmer calls Heilman “a remarkable advocate,” and says McCarthy’s team at SAS has made “phenomenal improvements to its website,” including the addition of webinars and other resources.
She said the task force is planning another survey this fall. There are also plans to create a peer-to-peer mentoring platform and promote a greater student body presence at events focused on access and raising awareness.
“The task force would love to get students more involved and make them aware of services available to them, and to help able-bodied students learn how they can become allies,” Zimmer said. “These are small ways that we can ignite change.”