Texas Tech University Recognized as Top Disability-Friendly Institution
Adjusting to college can be a struggle for many students. Adjusting to college as a student with a disability is even more difficult, especially if that disability is not immediately obvious.
At Texas Tech University, faculty and staff within Student Disability Services (SDS) work every day to make the transition for students with physical, mental and learning disabilities as seamless as possible. With Worldwide eLearning, their efforts to make course and university information consistently and easily accessible to all students, including those at regional campuses across the state, has earned Texas Tech the No. 7 spot on the list of the 2017 top online and most affordable online schools for students with disabilities, as ranked by the SR Education Group.
"Texas Tech has a commitment to serving students with disabilities and making sure the plans and the processes we have in place keep those students in mind," said Justin R. Louder, associate vice provost of Worldwide eLearning. "No matter what, we want to make sure our courses serve those students to the best of our abilities and help them complete their education."
Texas Tech was among 1,265 U.S. colleges and universities evaluated by the group, an education research publisher founded in 2004. The data evaluated included information from university websites, the College Board school database and the National Center for Education Statistics, which collects, analyzes and publishes education statistics as part of the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences.
Proactively providing services
The top schools on the disability-friendly list represent those which provide high levels of support, a wide range of accommodations and a comprehensive list of resources. The top schools on the most affordable list offer all the above in addition to low-cost online degree options. To be considered for these lists, schools must offer four or more online degrees and 10 or more online programs, including certificates.
"Texas Tech offers close to 100 different online and distance degrees and certificates. We offer more online or hybrid doctoral programs than anyone else in the state and more than many of the schools in this region," Louder said. "eLearning includes everything from undergraduate programs to doctoral education and is a testament to Texas Tech's focus on and commitment to online and distance education."
Texas Tech received a score of 86.78 out of 100 when evaluated in several categories for indications of inclusivity and awareness of students with disabilities, including the types of services provided, the thoroughness of online resources and universal design for faculty learning training.
"We work very proactively at making sure the university is in full compliance with federal regulations. We try to be very proactive in figuring out students' needs before they get here," said Larry Phillippe, SDS managing director. "You want students who feel like they need that extra help to not be intimidated or feel like there's something bad about getting assistance. I think we come in pretty high on the disability friendly score because they don't see us as anything other than great support."
Through SDS, Texas Tech provides services not only for physical disabilities like visual, hearing and speech impairment, but also for those with learning, psychological, psychiatric or other documented disabilities.
"Between 80 and 85 percent of the students we serve are those with " hidden' disabilities, things like dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder," Phillippe said. "That's the vast majority of the students we work with."
Many of the accommodations and services provided by SDS are required by federal regulations under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Included on the list are things like arranging course, classroom and testing accommodations; offering scheduled and drop-in tutoring; providing note- and test-taking services; and education for others on campus through disability awareness events.
"I think our students genuinely feel we are concerned about them and their success and everything we do is based on that," Phillippe said. "We go far above and beyond what's required for our university to do."
Phillippe said every Red Raider has access to the same resources, like academic advisers and tutors, regardless of where they receive their education.
"We treat them just like any other student," he said. "Yes, you're in the online program, but you're still a Texas Tech student and we still need to provide you with support."
Texas Tech also strives to make online resources as clear and thorough as possible, Phillippe said. Students receive rapid responses and resolutions when they have questions and concerns, and contact information to faculty, tutors and advisers is readily available on the SDS website.
"We're extremely proactive in making sure they understand that as an online student, if they come across portions of their course that are not fully accessible, we have a very clear process for how they notify us and let us know and then how we get that corrected working with the instructor," Phillippe said.
Faculty training and universal design
Faculty members are also provided with any support they need to work with students, no matter where they are teaching.
Instructors are trained using the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, a set of curriculum development principles that allows for flexible approaches that can be customized for an individual student's learning style.
"We really focus on that concept of universal design," Phillippe said. "When we design anything, our online courses, our face-to-face courses, you need to approach it with the standpoint that this needs to be able to be used by any person at any point with any area of disability."
Like the accommodations and resources offered to students, much of the faculty training complies with federal regulations, but goes beyond the minimum requirements.
"Worldwide eLearning is consistently providing learning opportunities for instructors who want to learn more about online accessibility," said online accessibility specialist Jackie Luft. "Webinars are offered monthly, and this summer, eLearning will host a boot camp for accessible courses."
Consistent course website organization and design, a variety in information presentation and assignments and the availability of supplemental materials for additional studying are all addressed in faculty training.
Within the Texas Tech Accessible Instructional Material guide are instructions on topics like making sure documents are accessible to assistive technology such as screen-reader programs. Information on making images and graphics accessible, the correct use of color and contrast, page navigation and the use of hyperlinks also can be found in the guide.
"An example of a great UDL suggestion is turning PowerPoint slides into text-only documents," Luft said. "The text-only document is much easier for a screen-reader and can be used for study purposes."
Luft said adhering to federal regulations helps more than just students with declared disabilities.
"Online accessibility is beneficial to everyone," Luft said. "Sixty percent of the people who use closed captions don't have hearing loss. About 20 percent of the population has a disability of some sort, but only about half report the disability to receive assistance. Many people may not even know they have a disability."
Accommodations made for audio or video files used in a course are also things that can benefit all students in a course.
"Creating text descriptions for all audio and visual aids also assists people who are not native English speakers. Having closed captions of a professor with a strong accent different than your own is extremely useful," Luft said. "Having text alternatives for videos and visual pieces aids a distance-learning student if there is a broadband issue and they cannot load a video or the images are too big to download. The student is still able to access the necessary information, because text can be downloaded much easier than images."
Luft said federal laws written for digital media date as far back as 1996. Since then, online education has grown significantly in regards to both number of course and degree offerings and the number of students.
Texas Tech continues to be proactive in being compliant with all ADA regulations, Luft said. For example, during the 2015-16 school year, the Office of Provost issued a requirement for all videos to be captioned by fall 2018.
"Last year, Texas Tech made great strides in working with instructors to add captions to all videos," Luft said. "The Online Accessibility Lab has assisted in captioning thousands of videos for instructors and the eLearning department has purchased software called MovieCaptioner to aid in the captioning process. Our next focus will be helping departments with online courses create accessible syllabi templates."
Together, the efforts to make Texas Tech a more accessible campus benefit every type of learner. It's one more way the university is committed to the success of all Red Raiders, Louder said.
"To give a student a quality education, you must make it accessible for everyone, disability or not," Louder said. "Students learn differently. You've got the visual learners, you've got the kinesthetic learners, you've got all those different things, so you want to make sure your content is accessible and reaches the student the way they need to be reached.
"It's not just for those students who need the accessibility or accommodation, it's for all students."