Technology in classrooms has been the focus of both the national press and recent columns in the News. These pieces generally argue that students spend too much time on Facebook and not enough time taking notes. While we agree that, for some students, laptops and other devices can be disruptive, we must speak out against the danger that universal bans on technology in the classroom present. For students with disabilities, technology helps to even the playing field. In order to create an inclusive, accessible Yale for students and teachers, we should embrace technology.
Any discussion of the place of technology in the classroom must take into account the needs of all students, those with and without disabilities. Merely concluding that we should preserve “traditional” models of education is a drastic oversimplification of the matter. The question that must be asked is: For whom have these models been “most effective?” We are all guilty of checking Facebook in class or playing with our phones, but regression to a “traditional” classroom further segregates and isolates students with disabilities, excluding them from the academic system.
Accessible technology plays a pivotal role in the lives of such students. We can think of a multitude of different technologies used in the classroom that directly impact and benefit the learning experience of students with disabilities, providing them with a more level academic footing. PowerPoint presentations can provide organization and structure to an otherwise disjointed lecture for students with ADHD. Computers allow students to type and dictate their notes, which is especially important for most students with dysgraphia, dyslexia or the inability to handwrite notes. A student with a chronic illness may need to step out of class periodically, making the ability — with permission of the professor — to record the whole class critical to their success. Technology is fundamental to improving the quality of education that students with disabilities receive.
Each of the authors of this column are among the hundreds of students at Yale who make use of assistive technology in the classroom. We can attest, from personal experience, that it is a key component of an equitable Yale experience. Whenever a visually impaired student cannot take a course for fear that a no-laptop rule will prevent them from participating fully, or when they are forced to make use of inaccessibly small print resources for in-class evaluations, we have failed. Disabled students are being denied the same opportunity to succeed as their peers, and Yale, as a “company of scholars,” loses out.
Some may argue that exceptions could be made to accommodate individuals; an official process already exists through the Resource Office on Disabilities, after all. Once again, we must take a more nuanced view. By removing technology altogether, we place an increased stigma on those who need it. In a “traditional classroom,” the question becomes: Why do they get to use their computer and I don’t? The U.S. Department of Education’s statistics show that, in high school, 97 percent of identified disabled students receive accommodations. In college, only 17 percent make use of available resources. The last thing we need to do is further discourage students from getting the help they need.
If Yale wants to become a truly accessible university for all students, the implementation of universally designed educational resources is essential. We are not talking about half measures that merely show off flashy new devices and programs like those adopted in many high schools, but rather a full-fledged commitment by the University to use technology in a manner that goes beyond merely having student read off of a PDF.
As part of National Disability Employment Awareness month, this October, Yale is offering workshops to help instructors make their online resources accessible. This is laudable, but more needs to be done. Technology has the potential to benefit all students — not just those with disabilities — by creating an engaging and collaborative learning environment. That is, of course, if we — faculty and broader Yale community included — are willing to properly take advantage of it.
We cannot go back to a past where students with disabilities were removed from the classroom. We cannot allow our fear of technology to prevent us from taking important steps toward a more accessible future. We must have the courage to forego “traditional models” in order to develop a truly universal educational system — one that affords all students the same opportunity to succeed. Yale has the potential and ability to do this and more. Accessible technology is a vital aspect of that process. It is not a panacea for disabled students, but it is certainly a start.
Benjamin Nadolsky is a senior in Saybrook College. He is the president of Disability Empowerment for Yale. Brennan Carman and Jack Taperell contributed to the writing of this piece. Contact Benjamin at firstname.lastname@example.org .