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Initial Pilot of New Accessibility Measure Yields Key Insights; National Pilot Begins in March

By February 19, 2024February 23rd, 2024No Comments

The development of a new College Accessibility Measure, the first of 10 research studies planned by the newly launched National Disability Center for Student Success, is underway with the completion of an initial pilot survey last fall of more than 500 students at The University of Texas at Austin. 

Co-led by Executive Director Dr. Stephanie Cawthon and Student Fellow Desirée Lama, the initial pilot is the first step in testing and perfecting questions for a national pilot survey of college students that will launch in early March to validate the measure. 

“As we begin to build an actionable research foundation, we must first create a rigorous measure of campus accessibility that is authentic to the whole student experience,” said Dr. Cawthon. “Current measurements tend to be piecemeal or focused on deficits. Our approach is to be holistic and student-centered.” 

Initial Pilot Exceeds Expectations

The initial pilot survey in the fall 2023 semester quickly surpassed the respondent recruitment goal of 50 by National Disability Center researchers, receiving over 500 responses from undergraduate students at the large, public university. With the intent of getting a broad perspective on the topic of accessibility, the survey was distributed through broad outreach via campus flyers and emails. 

In the survey, students pursuing a wide variety of undergraduate degrees answered questions about:  

  • How they disclose their disability identity 
  • Perceptions of institutional- and instructor-level attitudes towards disability
  • Instructor and institutional use of accessible technology 
  • Personal use of services for disabled students, including course accommodations
  • Physical accessibility of both campus and classroom environments
  • Social engagement in the classroom and in the broader university community

A Lack of Understanding, Disclosure, and Accommodations

Even in the sole-campus pilot, the survey yielded valuable insights, in particular about the lack of understanding about disability, the lack of disclosure to faculty and instructors, and the low number of disabled students who had or used accommodations in high school. 

“When I first came to college, I did not know that my mental health disorder was considered a disability,” a student commented in the survey. “I also had no idea that I was able to qualify for accommodations. The accommodations have helped me out tremendously with my course work.”

Forty of the students responded to the survey that they had disabilities, most commonly reporting mental health disabilities, ADD/ADHD, and health-related disabilities. Results from the initial survey show that:

  • Students most commonly disclose their disabilities with their friends (65%), followed by instructors/teaching assistants (57.5%) and their institution’s disability services office (55%)
  • Students disclose their disability to instructors with official accommodations letters from the university (50%) and without (7.5%), although 42.5% did not disclose at all 
  • The majority of disabled student respondents did not use accommodations in high school
  • UT Austin is welcoming of people with disabilities agreed 65% of total respondents, yet only 40% agreed that disability is a part of the university’s culture

After the initial pilot survey concluded, the research team recruited UT Austin students for a series of interviews. These sessions were designed to learn more about how students interpreted the survey questions, formed their answers, and understood how to respond to the accessibility measure items. Those insights, along with responses from the survey, are informing the team’s refinement of the survey questions in preparation for the national pilot survey in March. 

Research As Collaborative Mentorship 

Collaboration is a core value of the National Disability Center, and that’s especially evident in the work to create the College Accessibility Measure — with Student Fellows, Faculty Cadre members, staff, and data partners collaborating on a day-to-day basis. 

This research project is also an essential part of the mentorship experience for Student Fellows. While Lama co-led the initial pilot and student interviews, the other Student Fellows — undergraduate Soren Aldaco and master’s student Lily Alvarez — were also involved in the research. 

Lama is a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Educational Psychology at UT Austin’s College of Education and a first-year Student Fellow for the National Disability Center. They took the lead on the initial pilot survey, helping to collect and analyze data from the subject pool and pilot surveys, conducting several student interviews, and reporting on key findings and data at center meetings with leadership and researchers.  

“To co-lead this project as a student researcher was kind of intimidating at first, but I never felt alone throughout the entire process. It really helped me grow as a doctoral student. I’ve never really been at the forefront [of a research project], and that’s what this accessibility measure [development] is providing for me. It’s been an amazing experience so far and I’m excited to continue working on it,” said Lama. 

National Pilot Survey: Broader Representation, More Validation

So far, the College Accessibility Measurement development process has included:

  • Drafting the initial pilot survey
  • Facilitating a series of student interviews to refine the measure and check participants’ understanding of pilot measure items
  • Analyzing pilot survey data to improve the measure before wider data collection begins  

The next step is the national pilot survey in March, with a broader representative population to validate the measure.

Then, the final survey questions will be provided to the National Disability Center’s data partner, Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE), to be included as a module on their Community College Survey of Student Engagement in early 2025.

The accessibility measure development study is the first collaborative effort of the National Disability Center since its establishment in Fall 2023 with a $5 million grant from the Institute for Education Sciences. It marks the beginning of several studies to be conducted over the next five years by the center, which will contribute to a research foundation that can serve as the basis for future programs and policies that promote disabled student engagement, persistence, and achievement in higher education.

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