"Communicating with Others:
Students with Disabilities Voice Their Perspectives"
Handicapped, physically challenged, slow learner, deaf, blind--individuals
with disabilities generally have their experiences defined for them by those
who are nondisabled. In this paper, I report on a survey conducted by Shawn
Spano, faculty member in the Department of Communication Studies at San
José State University, Lance Dawson, graduate student in the same
department, and myself, in which students with disabilities assessed their
experiences communicating with others on campus. Students answered both
open and closed-ended questions which addressed issues such as communicating
with faculty and students, perceptions of discrimination, and their own
communication skills. Other questions were concerned with the Department
of Disabled Student Services and communication problems the students experienced
on campus. The summary of the findings I provide here is in non-technical
language which administrators as well as students found useful. The memorandum
below was sent to all students registered with the Department of Disabled
Students Services (now the Disability Resource Center) as well as over 200
campus administrators. The results of the survey were used to argue for
and secure more resources for the DRC.
TO: All SJSU Students with Disabilities
FROM: Stephanie Zimmermann, Lance Dawson, and Shawn Spano
DATE: July 15, 1994
RE: SJSU Students with Disabilities Communication Survey
The purpose of this memo is to inform you about the results of the survey
we asked you to fill out during the Spring semester. First, we explain the
methods we used. Second, we present the results from analyzing the responses
to the survey. Third, we summarize what we believe are the main themes based
on the survey responses.
The first step in our research was to write a proposal and submit it to
the Human Subjects Review Board here at San José State. In our proposal,
we had to explain how we would keep your responses confidential and anonymous.
For example, no one outside the research team has access to the individual
questionnaires that were completed. In addition, everything we sent you,
such as this memo and the survey, was mailed by Disabled Student Services.
Even the letter that we mailed to you requesting your participation in small
group interviews (which we did before the survey was put together) that
was sent in a Communication Studies Department envelope was not actually
mailed by the research team. We gave what was to be mailed to DSS and the
staff there applied the labels and sorted all the envelopes for mailing.
So only those students who contacted us and who agreed to be interviewed
either in small groups or individually are known to us as students with
disabilities (and their answers to our questions remain anonymous and confidential
when we analyze their answers). Because of the steps we took to assure that
your responses would be confidential, the Human Subjects Review Board approved
Our second step was to send all of you a letter asking you to attend
small group discussions (for visually impaired students, we sent a recording
of the letter). Fifteen students showed up for these informal meetings.
The discussions mainly focused on communication with instructors, abled
students, and disabled students. Based on what was talked about in these
small groups and other research which has been done on campus communication,
we put together a questionnaire which we sent right before Spring Break
to all 967 students who have registered with DSS. By the end of the semester,
108 students, or 11%, had completed the survey and returned it to us. The
next section presents the analysis of the responses to the questionnaire.
At the beginning of the survey, we asked for factual (demographic) information
about each respondent. Most of the students were juniors (26%), seniors
(37%), or graduate students (27%), although a few freshmen, sophomores,
and "others" (such as students attending through Open University),
also completed the questionnaire. The average age was 34, with 74 women
and 33 men participating.
Experiences at SJSU
The second part of the survey asked questions about your experiences at
SJSU. The majority of students (89%) felt that abled individuals at SJSU
are friendly to them. Most students like working in small groups in their
classes (68%) and feel comfortable participating in class discussions (75%).
However, only about 1/3 of the students (31%) reported having little or
no difficulty following their instructors' lectures.
How instructors can help. Related to difficulties in following lectures
were the responses to the open-ended question, "What do think your
instructors could do to help you succeed in their classes?" The answers
fell into three main categories: teaching style, methods of evaluation (tests
and assignments), and instructor behaviors and attitudes. The vast majority
of answers were concerned with how instructors lecture. Students suggested
that instructors speak more slowly and clearly, use repetition, and present
a well-organized lecture. Using visual and aural aids, such as handouts,
outlines of lectures, copies of class lecture notes, and demonstrations
were offered as ways to improve learning. Other teaching methods, such as
small group activities and taking a hands-on approach were suggested.
Students also presented ideas for improving how instructors evaluate
student progress. Instructors were asked to provide study guides and more
thorough reviews for exams, allow more time for tests, make tests clearer,
and consider alternative forms of testing. For other assignments, students
suggested decreasing the amount of written homework, allowing more time
for papers and other out-of-class assignments, and giving more details on
The final area in which instructors could help students with disabilities
succeed is in instructors' attitudes and behaviors. In class, instructors
should refrain from negative remarks when students appear to not understand
something, not demean students with disabilities in front of class, and
be more aware of the needs of disabled students. More generally, students
suggested that instructors improve their attitude toward students with disabilities.
For example, instructors need to be more tolerant, patient, considerate,
and open minded. Instructors also need to work with disabled students and
DSS, be available for questions outside of class, remember that not all
students learn the same way, and give more help and time.
Experiences with Disabled Student Services
The third part of the survey asked questions about your experiences with
DSS. Most students (86%) felt that the services DSS provides are beneficial
to them and have found that their contacts with DSS are positive (84%).
DSS has helped in many ways, primarily with testing facilities for instructors'
exams, registration, testing for disabilities, notetaking, parking, and
computer training. In addition, DSS has provided ways to cope with school,
such as how to talk with instructors, methods for taking exams, and ideas
for studying effectively. DSS counselors have provided general reassurance
and support, information about specific disabilities, and counseling. DSS
has also been an advocate for disabled students in dealing with instructors.
In suggesting what else DSS could do to better help students with disabilities,
responses generally began with "more": more front desk staff,
more counselors, more office hours, more walk in appointments, more tutors,
more workshops, more equipment, and more publicity about DSS. In addition,
students would like to see front desk staff be more sensitive, empathic,
Communication With Others at SJSU
The fourth section of the survey asked questions about communication with
instructors, abled students, and disabled students on campus. Nearly 3/4
(72%) viewed their communication with their instructors as positive. And
while 40% reported that they had never been discriminated against by their
instructors, 54% reported that discrimination has happened "infrequently"
or "sometimes" and 5% reported that discrimination by instructors
has happened "often."
Communication with abled students was described as positive (84%). About
half (49%) of those who answered the survey had never been discriminated
against by abled students, and about half (49%) experienced discrimination
by abled students "infrequently" or "sometimes." Communication
with disabled students was also described as positive by most students (74%).
Discrimination by disabled students was rare, with 81% reporting that it
never happened, 13% reporting that it happened infrequently, and 5% reported
it occurred sometimes.
Overall, students are fairly comfortable talking with abled students
(79%), feel they have adjusted well to SJSU (69%), and are happy with the
way they communicate with abled individuals at SJSU (73%).
Advice for Disabled Students Planning to Attend SJSU
In the next section of the survey, we asked respondents to "suppose
you were asked to speak to disabled students who were planning to attend
SJSU. What problems should they be prepared for? What can they do to make
their experiences as positive and beneficial as possible?"
Problems. The majority of responses were concerned with faculty. Other
topic areas included the campus in general, other students, and taking classes.
Problems with faculty included instructor hostility, disbelief, rudeness,
insensitivity, lack of cooperation, and inflexibility. In addition, incoming
students were warned about instructor ignorance, instructors with limited
understandings of disabilities and their educational responsibilities for
students with disabilities, instructor discrimination, and problems communicating
The SJSU campus was described as having problems with physical accessibility,
including buildings, restrooms, classrooms, walkways, doors, and broken
elevators and automatic doors. The campus can be difficult to get around
as it is big, spread out, and lacks parking in needed places. A few students
described the campus "climate" as impersonal, uncaring, and not
willing to accommodate disabled students.
Although mentioned infrequently, incoming students were warned about
other students' lack of understanding of disabilities. For example, abled
students sometimes feel that disabled students receive special treatment
Last, incoming disabled students should be prepared for some problems
in their classes. Respondents mentioned the large amount of reading and
homework, fast pace, feeling incompetent and frustrated, and classes taking
more time than expected.
Making experiences positive and beneficial. The number one suggestion
respondents had to this question was to go to DSS and use the services DSS
provides. For example, incoming disabled students should stay in touch with
DSS, meet with a DSS counselor at least once a semester, and attend DSS
Other suggestions focused on attitudes toward school, talking with others,
and coping with SJSU. Incoming disabled students were advised to not get
discouraged and never give up, keep a positive attitude, do your best, make
lots of friends, and be patient.
In talking with others, respondents suggested that in general, students
talk about their disability and needs, ask for help when they need it, ask
questions, voice their needs up front, not be afraid to speak up, and reach
out and talk to people. With their instructors, incoming disabled students
should clarify lectures and what the students need to do to succeed. Also,
being straight and positive with instructors and getting to know them were
suggested. Incoming disabled students were advised to talk with other disabled
students and to educate other students about disabilities.
To cope with SJSU, respondents suggested that disabled students need
to be organized, practice time management skills, plan ahead, and prepare
for class. In addition, students should research instructors, get involved
with the campus, know their own best way to learn, and know their rights
as persons with disabilities.
On the last page of the questionnaire, we asked respondents to describe
their own communication skills on a 5-point scale, with 1=Poor and 5=Excellent.
For these questions, we report the average (found by adding the number each
person circled on the survey for a particular question and dividing by the
number of people who answered the question) for each question.
Respondents feel that their skills in speaking (4.44) and reading (4.12)
English are very good and their skills in writing English are good (3.83).
Their skills talking with abled (4.25) and disabled (4.12) students are
very good and their skills talking with instructors are good (3.90). So
respondents are most confident in their skills in speaking English and talking
with abled students.
Improving Life for Students With Disabilities at SJSU
The very last question we asked was, "If you were hired by the university
to improve life for students with disabilities who attend SJSU, what changes
would you make?" The answers to this question focused on three main
areas: education, physical accessibility, and DSS.
Respondents suggested education for instructors, students with disabilities,
and all those at SJSU. For instructors, suggestions focused education that
would heighten their awareness of the rights and needs of students with
disabilities, teaching strategies, and how to involve students with disabilities
in the learning process. For students with disabilities, suggestions included
training students in the most effective learning methods, having disabled
students tutor other disabled students, offer self-esteem and empowerment
workshops or courses, and have seminars on communication and interpersonal
skills. Campus-wide education suggestions focused on informing administration,
staff, and students about the rights and needs of disabled persons.
Physical accessibility on campus was another major issue respondents
discusses. This included classrooms, buildings, doors, walkways, parking,
elevators, restrooms, and phones (placement and TDD).
Many of the suggestions associated with DSS again focused on "more."
Students suggested more staff and counselors, more resources for DSS, and
more equipment and services. A few students suggested that all students
should be tested by DSS. Greater publicity about DSS and the realities and
myths associated with disabilities were suggested. More interaction among
disabled students, as with support groups and getting new and returning
DSS students together, was advised.
There were many other suggestions for improving life for students with
disabilities. We list a few here, but there were many more. Among these
suggestions were: Hire more disabled instructors, have job fairs for disabled
students, make it easier for professors to accommodate disabled students,
bring in guest lecturers from corporations who are disabled, identify professors
who don't cooperate with DSS, actively seek out employment contacts for
disabled students, and ask disabled students for input and make changes
As we looked over the results of this survey, we kept in mind that this
sample is self-selected and not random (that is, all students who had registered
with DSS were sent the questionnaire and the 108 who responded made the
decision to complete the questionnaire on their own--we did not randomly
choose them). So, we cannot say that the results of this survey reflect
the experiences of all students with disabilities at SJSU. However, they
do reflect the experiences of some of SJSU's disabled students, and for
that reason, the results are important. In addition, our own experiences
at SJSU as abled instructors (Spano and Zimmermann) and as both a disabled
student and instructor (Dawson), lend support to the answers students gave
us on the questionnaire.
What can we conclude from these results? First, students with disabilities
generally report that their experiences on this campus are positive: They
believe abled individuals are friendly; they feel comfortable participating
in class discussions; their communication with instructors, abled students,
and disabled students is good; they feel that they have pretty much adjusted
to SJSU; and they are happy with DSS.
Second, life at SJSU is not without its negative side. Nearly 60% of
those who responded reported some degree of discrimination by instructors
and almost 50% reported some degree of discrimination by abled students.
Further, a majority of disabled students have difficulty following their
Third, we can conclude that improving communication between disabled
and abled members of the campus and improving life for students with disabilities
requires education, resources, and policies. Abled persons at SJSU, particularly
instructors, need to be informed about disabled students' needs and rights.
Instructors need to know their educational responsibilities. Students with
disabilities need to maximize their experiences at SJSU by going to DSS,
using the services available, and developing strategies for effectively
communicating with others, especially instructors.
Educating the campus about disabilities requires resources, however.
The main area in which additional resources are needed is DSS. Students
suggested more staff, more space, and more services. The other area in which
resources are needed is improving the physical accessibility of the campus.
Fixing broken elevators and automatic doors, making doorways and restroom
stalls wheelchair accessible, redesigning walkways so that everyone can
easily use them, providing more TDD telephones, and putting in parking spots
that make it easier to get to every building on campus means that the university
must provide funds to insure that SJSU meets ADA requirements.
Finally, changes in policies were suggested. These are related to both
education and resources. Many students suggested that education about disabilities
be mandatory across campus. Making SJSU physically accessible to all students
(and faculty and staff) would also require developing policies that could
We hope that you have found the information in this memo useful. We are
also sharing the results of this study with DSS and Faculty Development
in an effort to improve communication at SJSU. If you have any questions,
comments, or suggestions, please do not hesitate to call us at 408/924-1372
Also, to better understand the communication experiences of students
with disabilities at SJSU, we are conducting individual interviews with
students who contact us. Some of the interviews have already been done.
If you are interested in meeting with one of us for an individual in-depth
interview about your communication experiences on this campus, please call
Professor Zimmermann at 408/924-1372 or Professor Spano at 408/924-5379.
Thank you for your help in this project.