October 7, 2022

By IGC IGEP Fellow, Amir Mortazavigazar.

My perception of equality changed when I read a memoir by Judith Heumann, a disability rights activist. “Part of the problem is that we tend to think that equality is about treating everyone the same, when it’s not. It’s about fairness. It’s about equity of access", said Judith Heumann. Two years later, I was able to speak with Judith during a webinar organized by InclusiveVT about how we can empower people with disabilities in our collaborative work and study environments. Her answer was consistent: “Put a disability lens on the work you’re doing. Do not think about how to integrate disability into your work only if needed. In fact, design your work in a way that is accessible for people with disabilities.” said Judith.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 61 million people in the United States live with a disability. This means that by not creating an accessible environment in our classrooms, research collaborations, and other interactions we can exclude 1 in 4 people. Furthermore, the Global Change Center at VT (GCC) has committed to promote equality and inclusion not only within its programs but also the broader community. Therefore, this prompted me to compile the following list of 10 practical ways to make an accessible collaborative environment for people with disabilities with the help of Dr. Erin Hotchkiss the Chair of the GCC’s Interfaces for Global Change Curriculum Committee. These best practices were developed in consultation with Wendy Starr, a Special Education Fellow at Hillel at VT, to ensure these recommendations are practical and effective.

1.     Understand Disability

Disability isn’t an unknown abstract concept, on the contrary it can be very well defined by various authorities; for example, the CDC defines “disability [as] any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions).”. These definitions are easily accessible to everyone; however, we should note that disabilities are fluid (like gender) and therefore sometimes those definitions might not fit someone’s personal experiences or identities perfectly.


2.     Disabilities are Visible and Invisible

Disabilities come in various shapes and forms that includes visible and invisible disabilities. Visible disabilities are easier to identify while invisible disabilities require the person to identify them. This difference of identity can cause stigma and stereotypes upon people with visible disabilities. On the other hand, people with invisible disabilities can feel left out or their needs be ignored as it is easy to dismiss their disabilities or encounter situations where they feel unsupported to share their disabilities as part of their identity.


3.     Disability Identifiers and Labels

It is becoming more common for people with disabilities to use disability labels. This has the advantage of creating a pretext for others to acknowledge and respect someone’s disability identification (like what we do with pronouns). These identifiers also make understanding their needs more comprehensively which will in turn result in a more inclusive climate. However, these labels and identifiers come with a price; stereotypes and presumptions about these labels can impinge a fair and equitable environment.


4.     Language Matters

Never assume people with disability need help or will be always dependent on others. In fact, people with disabilities are very independent and can advocate for themselves. They know when they need to ask for help! If you want to offer help or ask if they need help, you can frame it like this: “I don’t want to overstep my boundaries but please let me know if there is anything I can offer to help support you.”


5.     Value Expertise

People with disabilities are experts in our research fields. Ensure every project member’s expertise is utilized and valued throughout a collaboration. Never assume how someone’s disability can impact their comprehension or understanding. One inclusive strategy for valuing differences in expertise during early stages of project planning is to ask every individual to share how they can contribute to different objectives given their strengths and expertise.

6.     One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Many traditional approaches in higher education and research were normalized without considering the diverse skillsets held by students and collaborators with disabilities. Always communicate that you’re open to modify and adjust a task or objective to accommodate someone’s need. Another step forward would be having that accommodation open to everyone, for instance, offer alternative ways of delivering a task or completing an objective. Not everyone can come up with great PowerPoint presentations or a PDF document; try to be open to other alternatives that can yield the same outcome for knowledge assessment or communication. Allowing flexibility and multiple way to perform tasks can specifically help people with disabilities that might not be comfortable doing those tasks in more “traditional” formats.


7.     Groups Can Help Everyone

Working in smaller groups not only helps people with disabilities to achieve their potential but also helps others to learn and experience a more inclusive collaborative environment. Additionally, when you get to know everyone you work with, you can create a more supportive environment by factoring in every individual’s needs and unique skillsets. Furthermore, remember that equality doesn’t mean that everyone in a group must perform an equal amount of work, on the contrary it means that everyone should perform to their best of abilities and everyone should be open to helping others when needed. It is also recommended (only if a person with disability requests) to assign mentors that can collaborate effectively as needed. This will create a sense of security for people with disability and hence a more inclusive environment. This question can be framed like this: “Is there anything you need from me or think I can do to better support you, such as assigning a mentor?”


8.     Words of Affirmation

Words of affirmation can help create an inclusive and welcoming environment. Always ensure you encourage and celebrate accomplishments of everyone. Never exclude or over-celebrate people with disabilities; it is important to ensure that everyone feels valued and celebrated. However, some people will benefit from reassurance throughout their work, and if they specifically share with you that they will perform better with such words of affirmation, you should accommodate that ask. This question can be framed like this: “Will words of affirmation and assurance help you keep on track for your work? If so, I am more than happy to ensure I accommodate this.”


9.     Set Clear Goals and Objectives

Ensure you have a clear set of goals and objectives for assignments and project deliverables that are feasible and clearly communicated with everyone. It is always a good idea to ask for input on goals and objectives in a welcoming environment and allocate time for project members to individually suggest goals before building project-wide consensus. Feedback should be considered, and goals and objectives should be modified as needed to accommodate everyone.


10.     Be Flexible

Delays, pitfalls, and mistakes are always part of any form of work that we do. Therefore, it is important to think about alternatives that can be offered in lieu of missed work. To deal with these issues, first identify that if the task can be completed now or never. Extensions are permitted! Work breakdowns are encouraged! For instance, instead of delivering a ten-minute presentation we can ask for five two-minute presentations. Or instead of asking for a ten-page report, break it up into five, two-page reports delivered in the similar time frame. By being flexible and inclusive in broader classroom and collaborative project planning, we can ensure that tasks are completed regardless of pitfalls and delays.


Finally, making a collaborative environment accessible shouldn’t be looked at as a difficult task that will only be done when needed. We all have a responsibility to make our work environment accessible to create an inclusive climate. By having an inclusive climate, everyone will perform their best and the overall success is guaranteed for the entirety of the team.

Bios for Author: Amir Mortazavigazar, Judith Heumann, and Wendy Starr.

Bios for Author: Amir Mortazavigazar, Judith Heumann, and Wendy Starr. Author: Amir Mortazavigazar Amir is a Ph.D. student at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in Biomedical and Veterinary Sciences (BMVS) in Dr. Ryan Calder’s lab. He received a first-class honors degree in environmental engineering from the University of Melbourne before joining Dr. Calder’s lab. His main areas of interest include public health, environmental health, and policy. Currently, he is a graduate research assistant for Dr. Calder, addressing environmental questions pertaining to the local and global consequences of decarbonization.     Judith Heumann: Judith (Judy) Heumann is an internationally recognized disability advocate. She served in the Clinton and Obama Administration and was a Senior Fellow at the Ford Foundation. Judy's story was also featured in the documentary "Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution," a 2020 American award-winning documentary film produced by the Obama Higher Ground Production. In 2020, she published her memoir "Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist," written with Kristen Joiner. There is also a Young Adult version called "Rolling Warrior." Judy is now the producer of The Heumann Perspective, a podcast and YouTube channel that aims to share the beauty of the disability community.    Wendy Starr:  Wendy Starr is a Special Education teacher with experience in working not only in classroom settings but also collaborative environments in academia. She currently works as a Springboard Fellow for Hillel at Virginia Tech serving the Jewish community in Blacksburg, VA. She has been a great advocate for students with disabilities and have volunteered her time to engage and raise awareness of the need for creating accessible collaborative environments by including people with disabilities. Additionally, she has helped facilitate educational and spiritual trips for adults with special needs.