Longer cords on window blinds. Non-squeaking reclining chairs. Multicolored carpet. Such items don’t seem significant, but to some students, having these accessible features can make all the difference.
McGuffey 121, a classroom designed to be fully accessible for students and faculty with disabilities, is open for use this semester.
The classroom began as a project idea in professor Ashley Johnson’s disability studies class and was brought to fruition to help students and faculty have a more inclusive and accommodating experience at Miami University.
Each semester Johnson has her students work on action projects.
“The goal is engaging in meaningful work that leads toward more inclusive or just practices for individuals with disabilities,” Johnson said.
In 2015 two groups of students surveyed McGuffey to see how to make both the building and the classrooms more accessible.
Emily Lacher, now a senior, was one of the students spearheading the project.
“My major is inclusive special education,” Lacher said. “So one thing that was really fun with planning this classroom is thinking about what my dream classroom would be and what it would look like in a college setting,”
The classroom’s features include lowered cords to adjust the window blinds, adjustable LED lighting, rockable chairs, adjustable touch screen display and much more to make students feel comfortable in their learning environments.
“One of the features that I really like about the space is the carpet,” Johnson said. “There are different strips throughout the room that are a deeper color so that an individual with a visual impairment can navigate using the different colors, but those strips also have a different texture so you can navigate based on the texture.”
Lacher commented on how working on the project allowed her to make connections not only with other students but also her professor and the dean of EHS.
“I think constantly keeping [the dean] updated and having that connection helped pushed [the project] and made this happen faster than a lot of other projects tend to happen at the university,” Lacher said.
Johnson also appreciates the impact of relationships between students and faculty.
“It’s a dream for a teacher to have this idea and dream it up with students and for administration to support you and fund it,” Johnson said. “And to have opportunities to teach in that environment and students to have an accessible space.”
During the last two years, Lacher volunteered with the Inclusive University Program, a summer program where students with disabilities have the chance to come to Miami University to take classes and have a chance at a normal college experience.
“It was great to see them use [the classroom] and have actual classes in it this semester and see the comparison of how we were talking about the same disability studies-related topics but the method of teaching was very different,” Lacher said. “It’s really cool to see the difference between this past summer and now.”
Johnson also mentioned how the students in the summer program were able to make suggestions on how to make the classroom more accommodating.
“It’s meaningful for [students with disabilities] to see advocacy work come to fruition and to have the opportunity to see the space working for the students,” Johnson said.
Johnson said teaching in the classroom adds a new aspect to the material in the course.
“When we talk about accessibility, when we talk about action work, we get to experience it,” Johnson said. “When I talk about the elements of universal design, I get to share examples in the space that we’re in.”
Although the classroom is designed with students with disabilities in mind, Johnson sees first-hand how universal design can benefit everyone.
“I notice a difference when I’m teaching in that space and when I come into my office after how harsh these lights are,” Johnson said. “I feel like when I’m in that environment, I’m not keyed into those lights at all, but now I can notice fluorescent lights.”
Both Lacher and Johnson say they love the progress the classroom has made, but agree it will be ever-changing. Recently the project was approved for a $34,000 grant for accessible technology, including an Amazon Echo, wireless keyboards and other assistive and structural technologies.
“We’re going to keep updating it,” Lacher said. “We’re going to constantly add new pieces of technology, and we’re going to constantly try to make it the most universally designed.”
Not only is progress being made on the classroom but within the university as a whole.
“We set up a proposal for the vice president of Student Activities as well as the director of Student Disability Services to have a disability cultural center in SDS,” Lacher said.
Johnson also said students were working to renovate an office suite in McGuffey in order for t students to have easier access to their instructors.
The classroom is booked with priority registration for students and instructors with disabilities, but it is open on 25 Live, a website that schedules classroom space, for other groups to come in and experience the inclusive learning experience.
“That’s what universal design is about,” Johnson said. “When we create design for those within the margins then everyone can benefit.”