New teaching manual helps UC Berkeley professors better understand students with disabilities

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- When students have something to say in class, they typically raise their hands.

But Andy Berk, a history major at the University of California, Berkeley, must resort to other ways of getting a professor's attention. Berk, who has cerebral palsy, can't control the movement of his arms, which are strapped to the armrests of his battery-operated wheelchair.

When it comes to classroom discussions, "I just jump in," the 20-year-old junior said.

This fall, UC Berkeley students with disabilities are getting some help explaining their needs to professors. The campus's nationally recognized Disabled Students' Program has created a new manual on how to better teach students with disabilities, and it's being distributed to the entire faculty.

Caroline Summer, who authored the manual, said she hopes "Teaching Students With Disabilities" will make campus classrooms "more disability-friendly" and improve the learning experience.

In fact, she said, the publication was requested at the urging of UC Berkeley instructors and students. In researching the manual, staff members at the Disabled Students' Program found few other colleges or universities in the United States that already had such a publication.

Steve Tollefson, a lecturer for UC Berkeley's College Writing Programs, welcomes the new booklet.

"I've taught students with many different disabilities, but there's a lot I don't know or haven't thought about," he said. "For instance, some students may be unable to read aloud or answer questions when called on."

Tollefson added that the tips provided in the manual will improve the teaching of all students, not just those with disabilities.

UC Berkeley is popularly known as the birthplace of the disability rights movement, which began in the mid-1960s with the admission of Ed Roberts, the first severely disabled student to attend Cal. Roberts and others started the country's first disabled students' group, "The Rolling Quads;" created UC Berkeley's first official Physically Disabled Students' Program; founded Berkeley's Center for Independent Living; and helped spark a nationwide revolution in disabled communities.

Roberts' work helped lead to the passage in 1990 of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

UC Berkeley now has nearly 900 students with a diversity of disabilities including mobility, visual or hearing impairments; chronic illnesses; psychological disorders; and learning problems.

"Students who have disabilities are a rapidly growing population on our campus," said Barbara Davis, assistant vice chancellor of student life-educational development. "This booklet is a terrific resource for faculty and graduate student instructors faced with the uncertainties of what to do and how to respond."

Teaching suggestions in the manual include the following:

·For students like Berk, who want to participate in class discussions but can't raise their hands, teachers should establish eye contact or other means of communication to determine interest in contributing.

·Many students with visual disabilities can't use Internet Web sites that professors increasingly are creating for class use. When building these sites, instructors should refrain from using image icons as navigating tools. Assistive technology software allows people with poor vision to hear aloud the text on the computer screen, bit it doesn't process icons.

·Students with chronic pain may be unable to use classroom chairs and stand, as a result, during the entire class. Podiums can help students rest their books and write.

·When showing videos or slides, teachers should use captioning so that deaf and hard-of-hearing students can process that information. If the classroom must be darkened, instructors should make sure a student's interpreter can be clearly seen.

·When teaching students with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, instructors should start each lecture with a summary or outline of material to be covered, provide test sites that are relatively distraction-free, and avoid making oral assignments.

Berk emphasized that students never should assume that their instructors understand their disabilities, even if they've received the new manual.

"I meet with my professors as soon as possible and not only tell them what I need, but also get to know them and establish a relationship," he said. "That's really how you make things work for you."

The manual ought to make it easier, though, for students to do just that, he said.

"The fact that professors will know that people have those needs is a big help," said Berk. "The bottom line is, it promotes awareness, and that's the most important thing."

With the help of a recently awarded federal grant, UC Berkeley will be providing even more resources for improving the teaching of students with disabilities.

The three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education will be used to develop and provide training opportunities and technical assistance for teaching assistants, faculty and administrators.

"One goal of the project is to identify teaching methods that naturally work best for a high percentage of learners with disabilities and that result in better teaching for all students," said Ward Newmeyer, UC Berkeley's ADA compliance officer. "By using a universal style of teaching, faculty will have less need to make adjustments for students' disabilities."

Part of the grant will be used to create a summer institute for faculty members, who will receive a stipend for attending. The institute will provide technical assistance and training resources.


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