Learning Technology Coach Podcast

S2E2. Partnering with Accessibility Services to Create Accessible Learning Experiences

May 18, 2023 Jason Geary Season 2 Episode 2
Learning Technology Coach Podcast
S2E2. Partnering with Accessibility Services to Create Accessible Learning Experiences
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Featuring Jason Geary - Manager, Accessibility Services (Blundon Centre), Memorial University

As an educator, Jason brings a supportive perspective on working with students who experience difficulties completing their university studies.   

In this episode, discover the history and role of Accessibility Services at Memorial, while delving into challenges and opportunities faced by students and instructors on the journey to create a more accessible and inclusive learning environment for all. 


The Learning Technology Coach Podcast is a CITL production.

Speaker Key:
JA     Javad
TI      Timilehin
JG     Jason Geary
SP      Speaker

JA |
Hello, everyone. My name is Javad.
TI | And I am Timilehin. And welcome to the Learning Technology Coach podcast.

JA | This season we engage with instructors to discuss various accessibility tools.
TI | The challenges they face while implementing them.

JA |
The technologies they use.

TI | Plus a whole lot more. Welcome, everyone to a brand-new episode of the Learning Technology Coach podcast happening at the production studio of the Centre for Innovation and Teaching and Learning, CITL, Memorial University. My name is Timilehin and I’m here with my co-host, Javad. In this season, we’ve been talking about accessibility in higher education. It is my belief that educators cannot do it all alone. They need support systems, especially in terms of technology and subject matter experts to be able to deliver a quality education to every student irrespective of their abilities or accessibility needs.

At Memorial, our faculty members and instructors enjoy the support of the Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning where Javad and I work as Learning Technology Coaches. And the main accessibility resource centre of the university is also available for use, which is also known as the Blundon Centre. Javad, what’s your take on this.

JA | Absolutely. Promoting and delivering access to quality education is a vital step towards building a more equitable and inclusive society.

And I can also comment that for institutions like Memorial University and Blundon Centre in that regard. That sounds like a great resource for both the students and faculty. And I’m very, very glad that our university has such a centre for support inclusivity.

TI | Sure, it’s impressive to see all the strategies for instructors to build inclusive learning spaces.

JA |
Yes, and I would say it’s essential for everyone to feel included and supported in their learning, especially at their own speed.

TI | Yes, and it’s not just about accommodation for students with accessibility needs anyway. It also includes creating a more inclusive and diverse learning environment for everyone. Imagine when instructors provide support and accommodation for students with accessibility needs, every other student in the class, irrespective of their abilities, also enjoy most of these services.

JA | That’s very well said, yes. And it’s important for instructors as well to be aware of these resources, so they can provide the necessary accommodations for their students if it’s needed. And this is part of our task in CITL as Learning Technology Coaches to make sure that instructors are fully supported. And if they need any extra help they are more than welcome to drop by, and we can help them.

TI | Of course, we are always ready. And by now I believe our listeners are now familiar with the Memorial University Blundon Centre, but at this point is important to hear from the management of the centre.

To learn more about the services and the strategies that they have in place to ensure that an equitable access to education at Memorial is in place. Anyways, we had this opportunity to interview the Blundon Centre manager, Jason Geary. We talked about the services that the Blundon Centre offers to support faculty in addressing student accommodations. I believe you will love to hear it.

JA |
So, if you are interested in knowing more about this all-inclusive topic settle in, get comfortable, and get ready for this exciting interview.
TI | Welcome back to the studio. Accessibility in higher education should not only be discussed, but serious actions must also be taken to ensure that every student has equitable access to quality education.

To do this universities and other post-secondary schools must establish strong institutional departments to promote and deliver access to quality education. For example, we have the Blundon Centre here at Memorial University. Javad, have you heard about the Blundon Centre?

JA | I surely have. The Blundon Centre is a resource centre at Memorial University that provides services to support its students with accessibility needs, medical conditions, and mental health challenges. They also offer support to faculty in accommodating students in their classes. They provide a range of services to both the students and faculty.

And I completely agree with your point that accessibility in higher education is not just a topic for discussion, but it’s actually a critical issue that requires serious action. It’s very important to make sure that all the students have equal level for education, regardless of their background, abilities, accessibility needs, and other things. Today, we are privileged to have the Blundon Centre manager from Memorial University here in in our CITL production studio. Timilehin, could you kindly introduce our wonderful guest to our listeners?

TI |
Yes, this is becoming routine for me, you know, getting to introduce the big personalities that we always have in the studio, so let me go ahead and do that. Jason Geary is the manager of Memorial University’s accessibility services centre, which is also known as Blundon Centre. He holds a Bachelor of Education in Learning Disabilities, a Master of Education in Autism and Behaviour Disorders, both from the University of Toledo. And a postgraduate diploma in Community Health and Preventative Medicine from Memorial.

He has been an instructor on the Faculty of Education in Memorial University since 2011. He was the Student Support Coordinator at Memorial between 2019 and 2020, where he worked with students who are experiencing various difficulties while completing their university studies. His team supported students by connecting them with services, tools and programmes both inside and outside of Memorial University.

Let me just begin with thanking you, Jason, for all you have been doing over the time. To be consistently working towards ensuring accessibility is a priority for students here and even for instructors, so I want to thank you. And welcome you to the production studio for the Centre of Innovation and Teaching and Learning in Memorial University. Welcome, Jason.

JG | Thanks so much, it’s great to be here. And I spent about nine years working here as well, so it’s great to be back.

TI |
Awesome. I can’t wait to hear all of the history behind everything. So, talking about history, let me ask you what is the history behind the Blundon Centre?

JG | So, the Blundon Centre, we’re in our 30th anniversary this year.

TI | Awesome.

JG | It was started in 1992, so over 30 years. And it was started in 1992, and it was created as the resource for students with disabilities. It's named after a former student of Memorial who lived with disabilities, Glenn Roy Blundon who passed away before the centre even became to fruition.

But it was named after Glenn to really honour the work that Glenn and his classmates with disabilities faced. They were here in the late seventies, early eighties, and didn’t have supports like the Blundon Centre does now. So, students really were the driving force behind having this centre at all. So, that’s the history, and 30 years later, here we are.

TI |
Awesome. I love to hear that. I know Javad actually mentioned that this is what the Blundon Centre does and all of that. But I want to hear from the manager’s perspective, what does the Blundon Centre do for students and for instructors to ensure that everybody has equal access to a university education at Memorial.

JG |
Yes, so as Javad said, we support, primarily, students. So, we live, we’re housed in student life, and we support students with disabilities through a variety of programmes and services. So, the provision of academic accommodations, accommodated testing, and running programmes that support students with disabilities. We also support faculty and instructors to ensure that they can provide equitable access to students, and we work with staff as well.

So, we really work with a lot of stakeholder groups here at Memorial, with the primary focus being on the student experience to ensure that equitable learning environment and learning takes place for students.

JA | That’s great. I wanted to ask you about how you defined accessibility.

JG | Yes, it’s interesting because it’s grown. And we hear from students with disabilities who actually say the term, accessibility has grown to mean so many things that they almost feel left out now.

So, we’ve kind of lost sight of supporting disabilities specifically, but accessibility, really, in our perspective, is to ensure that Memorial provides access, whether it’s students learning on campus, working on campus, studying, living on campus, that their disability-related needs are met.

I mean accessibility is so broad, but in the disability world and the disability service provision world, we really focus on meeting the needs of folks living with or experiencing disability.

JA | And we talked a lot about the Memorial University, but I was wondering if what we are doing at Blundon Centre, do we have the same offering that other universities across country or globally?

JG |
Yes, so at almost any public institution of higher education, you’ll have an Accessibility Office of some kind. So, we happened to be one of three, actually, at Memorial University.

JA | Wow.
JG | The Blundon Centre focuses on the St John’s Campus, and then we have our Accessibility Services Office on the Grenfell Campus, and accessibility services at the Marine Institute.

And I’m sure, being a new campus. Labrador Institute is the next one to have some folks on the ground doing this important work up there as well.

TI | Awesome. So, I love to hear all of these things that you are talking about. Then, you said that, primarily, these accessibility endeavours are focused on students, they are targeted at students. So, I believe that in a bid to ensuring that students have equal access to education at Memorial, you are definitely working hand in hand with instructors.

So, what are the common strategies that you think instructors can use to accommodate or build inclusive learning spaces for everybody?

JG | That’s a good question. So, we spend a lot of time working with instructors in how to implement specific strategies or accommodations for learners with disabilities. So, it could be, primarily, in one of two spaces. In the classroom or in the lab, what are some of those strategies that these students require?

And then maybe for testing purposes. So, in the classroom, it might be getting copies of classroom notes or for some students, making sure that if you have a PowerPoint presentation that you’re providing copies of those slides. Or it could be, we have a number of students who have service animals or emotional support animals that help address their disability-related needs.

So, it might be just how do I interact with a service animal? Can I let an animal come to my classroom? So, working through some of those challenges in the classroom or in a lab. Then, for testing, one of the big services we provide is accommodated testing. So, we offer spaces for students to come and write their tests or write their exams. We’re getting ready for tomorrow being the first day of final exams.

Where they can get more time, they can go to quiet space, in some cases a private room. So, we work with the instructor because they’re the instructor’s students, we work with the instructor to get these students an accessible format of a test.

JA | That’s interesting. And I’d just like to mention that I’m one of the big fans of those service animals that we have on Thursdays at university centre. And I don’t even use any accessibility features, but you know, I really like that service.

Speaking of challenges, what are the current challenges that Blundon Centre is facing?

JG | Oh, boy. So, there’s a number. The first, I guess, would be the increasing number of students who continue to identify as living with or experiencing disability.

So, offices like mine, across Canada, across North America, across the world, every year, see more and more students register and become involved and look for support from offices like ours. And there’s a number of reasons why but trying to keep up with that number and knowing that there’s fiscal challenges with resources. But that would be a big challenge for us to make sure that we’re able to meet those needs in a timely way is certainly a big challenge.

The other challenge, I think, for us, would be trying to educate the community and educate instructors and staff and other stakeholder groups just on the number of students with disabilities. And some of the things that they can do. Some of them are simple and some of them are not.

And trying to find a balance to providing accommodations and making sure that it’s a reasonable request while also maintaining academic standards, right? Which is something that we have to balance with the requests. So, those would certainly be the biggest challenge. I guess the final thing that would be a challenge for our office, but I think it’s a challenge institutionally, is that the majority of students on any post-secondary campus, living with disability or experiencing disability don’t register with offices like mine.

They don’t reach out. They don’t register. They don’t seek that formal support for all kinds of reasons. We know they’re out there, right? And right now, our office supports about 2000 students, but really, the number of students experiencing disability on our campus is probably more like 4000 or 5000. And of a number of great reasons, the majority just don’t register, and it’s not just at Memorial. It’s any post-secondary campus.

So, doing things that will impact on all 5000 students knowing that less than half are going to register and go through that formal process. So, that’s also a challenge for our office, but also for the institution as a whole.

TI | That’s really touching to know that only under 50% of people that actually need help are seeking the help. That’s touching, but do you have success stories at the Blundon Centre?

JG |
Of course, we do. Listen, here’s the thing that our office does, our office provides an opportunity to even the playing field for these students. So, we don’t provide anything that they’re not legally supposed to have and get. So, this is levelling the playing field and making sure that their access, using these accommodations or any modifications, is the same as a student that doesn’t live with disability.

So, there are success stories of students living with disability just like there are success stories of students living without disabilities. It’s not magical. It’s no more spectacular because they live with disability. Sometimes, it can seem that way, but we support very, very smart, capable students who happened to live with disability who need support in order to level that playing field, so that they are able to get an education.

JA |
Well done. Let’s talk a little bit about the effect of technology. How would you describe the impact or function of technology to make sure that the students with accessibility needs are adequately accommodated in higher education? Here in Memorial, we have the Centre for Innovation and Teaching and Learning. What’s the relationship between Blundon Centre and CITL to achieve this goal?

JG |
We actually rely quite heavily on CITL, as all of Memorial does, to provide that guidance. To provide access to technologies that are accessible, so using Bright Space, our learning management system, to make sure that that has built in features that enhance accessibility.

And we partner quite regularly, the Blundon Centre and CITL, to make sure that we provide resources and programmes for faculty members, and we have to. We can’t do it alone. The Blundon Centre, certainly, is important, and we do great work, but there are other parts of campus that accessibility is front of their mind as well, and it should be. But CITL, we rely quite heavily on their expertise and their ability to provide these accessible opportunities for students.

One thing I will say about technology too is we hear from students quite regularly that because of the technology that’s available, whether it’s provided by the university or just accessible to them to purchase as a consumer, has been incredibly impactful.

And oftentimes students have access to technology that actually now they don’t require a particular accommodation. And we heard that loud and clear during the pandemic when we were learning remotely. That there were students who because they were in their homes they had an access LMS, their lectures were recorded, for the first time they experienced equitable access to education. So, it’s been incredibly impactful, and I think it will continue to be.

TI |
Awesome. This is a proud moment for me as a Learning Technology Coach with the Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. Before the last semester ended and even into this new semester, the centre has always been talking about accessibility. We are really big on this topic right now. We are doing a lot of work in terms of reviewing technologies that are going to be making academic content to be more accessible to students. So, I really like that shout-out. That’s a big one for me.

I believe that most of the time, you’ll see students that need accessibility come to the Blundon Centre with common complaints or challenges. Just to be sure, to let them know that their voices are heard and their opinions really count. Do you want to echo some of these common challenges that you know that these are the common things that people say about accessibility on campus?

JG |
Yes, that’s a great question. Actually, one of the things that we did early, during the pandemic, was a result of some feedback. And it was to make sure that instead of just referring to ourselves as the Blundon Centre, that we add, accessibility services, to the front our name to make sure that folks could recognise that we’re the Accessibility Team. So, we did that. So, on our website, it was added to everything. So, students who were coming to Memorial for the first time, or maybe they weren’t new to Memorial, but had a disability-related challenge, they recognised that term.

Because we did hear from former students, if I had known what the Blundon Centre was earlier I would’ve reached out earlier. So, we made that change. One of the other things we’ve heard from students is, I thought you were only for students with physical disabilities. And then we have students with physical disabilities or some mobility challenges who say, I just thought you were a centre for learning disabilities.

So, we are constantly trying to ensure that, certainly, our students understand that any disability, medical we support. The largest student population that we support are students with mental health challenges or mental illness, including ADHD and learning disabilities.

So, just making sure that everyone knows that we don’t just support one type of disability, but we’re across disability. And if you’re not sure, reach out because our advisors also have conversations with students who don’t have a disability or don’t yet have a disability, but they’re really, really struggling. So, our advisors are equipped to point out some of the other resources that are available here at Memorial to assist

And we also work with a population, that 18 to 24 for the most part, where it’s the first onset of a mental illness, or they’ve acquired disability. So, at any point, we encourage students to reach out. And even if they don’t have a disability, our advisors are disability service professionals, so we can have those discussions with them.

JA |
I can totally relate with what you said. I had friends, myself, that because of their background, what they were dealing with in their own country or in their previous institute, it was not respected and known as an accessibility feature. So, when they came here to Memorial University they felt the same, and they never thought that there is an organisation and there is a place that they can go, and they will be respected. And there is nothing wrong with them and everything is good. I totally relate with that one.

But wow, 30 years in the business, that’s a long journey. How would to describe the evolution of the accessibility education like where we are standing now in comparison with when you started? And where do you think the future is going to be?

JG | So, in 1992 our office supported 32 students, and 30 years later, we now support upwards of 2000 students.
So, we do know that through changing philosophies and approaches to, certainly, the K-12 system and education in general, more students living with disability are gaining access to higher education, which is wonderful. And they’re finding a place here. So, I think that will continue.

I think the other thing, where I see it going I guess is acknowledging that it’s simply not a matter of having a population of students living without disability and then a population of students living with disability. But there’s a number of students in the middle who also benefit from inclusive teaching, accessible teaching.

You know, in our world we talk about the mythical middle student, the average learner. And there’s no average student, but yet we continue to design our courses and our assessment as if there is an average learner. And again, research on the average says that if you design for the average you design for nobody. So, I think the future is just inclusive design of our spaces, of our courses.

So, that we can acknowledge there’s all kinds of learners, and they may or may not know their challenges, but we can design our spaces and our courses and our assessments to just be more accessible right out of the gate. I think that’s where the future is around this, knowing that offices like me will never close. We’re not going away. I think it’s important to know that as well.

Even when we use these universal design frameworks, even when we design really, really well it’s not always for everybody, but could be for most, right?

JA | Right on, yes.

TI | Well, I believe you have said a lot of things, especially to students, to instructors, but now let’s talk about other universities, other post-secondary institutions, what would you like for them to do?

From your own experience at Memorial and what you have been doing and what is working for you, the strategies that are working for you, what would you advise other institutions?

JG | Wow. I guess there are institutions across Canada and North America that we look to for this work. So, we know there are institutions that are doing it better than we are, and we strive to be like them.

And maybe there are institutions that like what we’re doing in providing access here. And I’m part of many networks of disability, accessibility offices across Canada, and we talk very regularly. And frequently we do the same work, just in different provinces and different schools, but to continue to, obviously, provide continuous improvement for the services we provide.

But also to champion at our schools more broadly some of these upstream initiatives get huge impacts. And to continue to reach out globally. I’m consulting with a university in the Middle East that, for the first time, has an accessibility office. Because back to your point, Javad, about intercultural competence and knowing that in some cultures disability is not something that people raise their hands or acknowledge.

JA |

JG | So, some of these institutions in other part of the world, for the first time, are showing up in this space. And they’re reaching out to institutions that they recognise. And some of them have Canadian folks leading this initiative, so we come and share what we can with them. Knowing that I don’t think anyone is going to acknowledge that they’re perfect at this, but just trying to do the best we can for the students that we serve.

TI |
Yes, and this also tells us a lot about what you are doing right because you were recognised, you were reached out to, you are now consulting for them. So, that means you are doing something right, keep it up.

JG | I hope so.

JA | For the last question because we have a very broad of listeners, if you want to give a takeaway point, what would you say?

JG |
What would I say? I mean one of the things that’s a common saying amongst the disability communities or disability service providers or anybody trying to move the needle on accessibility, is the disability community, as a minority group, is the largest minority group in the world.

And is the only minority group that I’m aware of, and maybe there’ll be some comments after this comes out, but it’s the only one that I’m aware of that any one of us could become a member of at any point. So, we often say you’re either disabled or you’re not yet. And at some point, depending on how long we all live, we are likely to experience or live with disability. So, really, this is in everyone’s best interest to do this well because we all will likely become a member of this group.

So, you’re either a member of the disability community or not yet.

JA | It’s just a matter of time.

JG | It’s just a matter of time.

TI | And that’s it, we are ending this interview session with a powerful word that if you are not a member of that group before or now, well, if you are lucky to grow really old you might be one of them or at any time.

So, we are thanking you, Jason Geary, for joining us in the production studio of the Centre for Innovation and Teaching and Learning. Thank you, once again, for joining us.

JG | So great to be here, thanks so much.

JA | Wow, Timilehin, that was a really nice interview. It was an absolute pleasure to speak with Jason, the manager of Blundon Centre.

His passion for empowering students to achieve their full potential was evident. And that was naturally coming out of every single word that was coming out of his mouth. What was your big learning moment?

TI | Well, Javad, I would say that’s truly a good interview. My big learning moment was when he said we have about 2000 students that are subscribed to the services of the Blundon Centre right now, but there are probably about 4000 to 5000 students out there that actually need that support and services.
So, I feel like many students are actually not receiving the help that they need just because they are not disclosing. They are not actually showing up to say well, I belong to this group, and I need this help. And now I’m just saying it as a way of informing our students that if you need any learning help, any learning support or services please reach out to the Blundon Centre, they are there to help you.

This is not them showing you any kind of favouritism. It is them giving you the supports that are legally provided for you. So, you have to access it to achieve your greater potential in academics. And that’s the end of our interview, and we want to thank you all for staying with us throughout the interview and everything that we have done today. Thank you. Until the next time, I am Timilehin.

JA | And my name is Javad. Bye bye. Have a great day.

SP |
The Learning Technology Coast podcast is a CITL production.


Episode Introduction
Guest Introduction
Blundon Centre history
Supports for students
Defining accessibility
Accessibility offices in higher education
Common strategies for instructors to build inclusive learning spaces
Challenges facing accessibility offices in higher education
Student success stories
Institutional partnerships
Reaching the student
Evolution of accessibility in education and where it is heading
Networking with other institutions
Listener take-away
Summary - Big Learning Moment!