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    "Communicating with Others:
    Students with Disabilities Voice Their Perspectives"

    Stephanie Zimmermann

    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 proposal.

    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 assignments.

    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, and respectful.

    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 with instructors.

    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 or favoritism.

    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 workshops.

    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.

    Communication Skills
    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 needed.

    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 instructors' lectures.

    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 be enforced.

    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 or 408/924-5379.

    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.