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Access Zone training raises awareness of students with 'invisible' disabilities

Training helps faculty, staff support students with "invisible" disabilities.
March 20, 2020

ASU community becoming attuned to challenges of autism, anxiety, depression

Many of Arizona State University’s students face learning challenges that no one can see. These “invisible” disabilities can include anxiety, autism, processing disorders or diabetes.

A new training program called Access Zone is designed to increase awareness among ASU faculty and staff about different kinds of disabilities and how to create support for all students.

Developed last year, Access Zone is based on the same principles as the campuswide programs SafeZONE, for awareness of LGBTQ students’ issues, and Proving Grounds, which helps faculty and staff address concerns faced by military veterans, according to Chad Price, director of the Disability Resource Center at ASU.

“A lot of people are familiar with disabilities that are more visible, such as people who use wheelchairs or white canes,” he said.

“With the invisible disabilities, we would hear feedback from our students that, ‘They just don’t understand,’ and we’re trying to raise that awareness,” he said.

Students register with the Disability Resource Center to get services and request accommodations in class. The disability access consultants work with professors on supports such as notetakers, extended deadlines, access to oral testing, video captioning services, alternative formats such as text-to-audio, and many more options. The center is now working with faculty to make sure all course content is accessible on Zoom as learning takes place remotely this semester.

“The largest number of students who come to our office have hidden disabilities, such as learning disabilities or psychiatric disabilities such as depression or anxiety, or a medical condition, and when you first look at them you have no idea and even when you interact with them, it seems all is well,” Price said.

The number of students with autism has been increasing at ASU.

“A couple of years ago, it was 30 or 40 students and now we’re seeing a couple hundred students on the (autism) spectrum,” Price said. “That’s another question that we get from faculty: ‘How can we do our best work with students on the spectrum?’”

Overall, the number of students registering with the Disability Resource Center has more than doubled in the last five years, with more than 5,600 students registered in 2019.

“I don’t know if we have an answer why it’s grown other than that students are becoming more familiar as well as more comfortable with registering,” Price said.

“We believe that we’re low in our registrations, because when you look at the statistics in the United States of individuals who identify as someone who has a disability, it’s from about 12% to 19%. We’re at about 4% to 5% of total population of students.

“So I think we’ll continue to see an increase.”

Access Zone workshops are intended to increase faculty and staff awareness of all disabilities, including invisible conditions. The sessions are three hours, but can be modified to be shorter. An online version also is in the works.

The seminar covers history, law, the scope of the resource center and the complexities of supporting students with an invisible disability.

“Access is a right, a moral good and it’s federal law. We’re leveling the playing field, which is part of ASU’s charter of inclusion.”

— Jason Garcia, disability access consultant

Jason Garcia and Teddy Moya, disability access consultants with the center, recently held an Access Zone session for several faculty members. Moya helped develop the program along with Shanna Delaney, a project coordinator in the College of Health Solutions, and Elsbeth Pollack, formerly a disability access consultant at ASU.

“Disclosure can be a pain point,” Garcia told the group.

“Students must disclose their disability to the DRC to register for services, but they don’t have to tell their teachers. Then, when there’s an issue, the professor receives a vague letter from the DRC,” but without revealing the student. The center is prevented by law from disclosing a student’s disability.

“We encourage the student to have those deeper conversations with faculty and sometimes the notification letter can be the beginning of that,” Garcia said.

Access Zone also includes interactive exercises to give participants an idea of what it’s like to be challenged. For example, everyone is asked to quickly read a page of text that’s upside down and backwards, as a person with dyslexia might see it. Another exercise simulates how anxiety in a class full of peers can affect performance.

“It’s too nuanced to capture what a disability really feels like,” Moya said, “But these activities raise awareness about how a student with a disability might perceive a classroom task. Students with traumatic brain injury or learning disabilities process differently.”

All accommodations are case specific, according to the needs of the student as well as the requirements of the course, Garcia said. And support goes beyond the classroom, including events and activities on campus.

“Access is a right, a moral good and it’s federal law,” Garcia said. “We’re leveling the playing field, which is part of ASU’s charter of inclusion.”

Troy McDaniel, an assistant professor in the Polytechnic School, attended the Access Zone training session last month. He researches haptic technology for people with disabilities, and so found the session especially relevant.

“I found Access Zone training very insightful and valuable,” he said.

“Most helpful was gaining a better historical perspective of disabilities, both in terms of how protection for individuals with disabilities has progressed as well as how disability has been approached, such as the various models from moral, to medical, to social, and so on.

“The activities were engaging and thought-provoking.”

Contact the Disability Resource Center for information on scheduling an Access Zone training session.

Top image: Jason Garcia, a disability access consultant with ASU's Disability Resource Center, leads an Access Zone training session at the Decision Theater on the Tempe campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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Curating a pandemic

March 20, 2020

ASU team leads effort to archive effect of COVID-19 on everyday lives

From ancient cave paintings depicting epic hunts to modern-day Instagram posts boasting avocado toast brunches, it’s a natural human inclination to document our lives — one that becomes even stronger when we are faced with a shared global crisis.

Perhaps no one knows that better than historians. Last Friday, after President Trump declared a national emergency amid the swift spread of the novel coronavirus, Arizona State University Associate Professor Catherine O’Donnell emailed colleagues in the public history program at the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies asking if there was something they could do to connect their students as historians to this moment.

“A lightbulb went on,” said Associate Professor Mark Tebeau, an urban, public and digital historian who heads the public history program and read through O’Donnell’s email with mounting enthusiasm.

Over the weekend, Tebeau assembled a website, enlisted the aid of graduate students and mobilized a global network of scholars — including colleagues at Northeastern University in Boston and George Mason University in Virginia. “A Journal of the Plague Year: An Archive of COVID-19” is now up and running, already with more than 160 contributions from individuals around the world and thousands of unique site views.

The inspiration for the website’s name came from Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel, “A Journal of the Plague Year,” which documented the experience of the bubonic plague as it ravaged London in the year 1665. Tebeau used Omeka — a free, open source web-publishing platform used to teach curation — to host the site. While its origin is academic, with grad students and scholars doing much of the curating, anyone can contribute.

“In a sense, this is kind of guerilla history,” Tebeau said. “We want stories from everyone: those who are not as digitally active, older folks who are at the greatest risk, communities of color which may be impacted differently than others. The best archives are those which are most representative.”

One of Tebeau’s own contributions is an audio message sent by ASU President Michael Crow to faculty, staff and students updating them on the university’s response to the crisis and advising them to “stay frosty,” a line from the 1986 film “Aliens.”

Over time, and once social distancing is no longer at the top of everyone’s priority list, Tebeau hopes to engage writers, artists and community members in public programming and maybe even host a conference related to the project.

ASU Now asked Tebeau, O’Donnell and School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies Director Richard Amesbury to answer some questions about what makes this archival project special and how to contribute.

Question: How is this archive unique?

Tebeau: What makes this such a good historical document is that it goes where the crowds drive it, through social media and existing scholarly networks, both at ASU and around the country. It’ll take the direction that people who contribute want it to take. And in some sense, that’s also how history is written. There’s this old saw that history is written by the victors. Actually, history is produced by people who create records of material that we can interrogate later on. This act of curation is a first blush at making history. And the beauty of crowdsourcing is that it let lots of people contribute with their different perspectives.

plague year website

The homepage of "A Journal of the Plague Year," built by a team of ASU historians.

Q: Does our modern-day ability to crowdsource a historical archive make it richer than something like Defoe’s novel, which only documented the plague from one perspective?

Tebeau: I’m not sure it makes it richer; it makes it different. The ways in which we’ve experienced these moments in the past is through artists and writers. Then the emergence of mass culture, public culture, began to give us a wider array of voices. Now in the internet age, we have an even wider array of voices expressed in the world. We now take more photos than we’ve ever taken. But one of the challenges of the digital age is — how do we collect those things? There’s so much. So in some ways, we spend less time making sense of everything we’re creating (photos, memes, etc.). What this archive does is ask people, “How is your everyday life being shaped in this moment?” It allows us to get a closer look at the diversity of human experiences.

Q: Why is student involvement so important?

O’Donnell: When students imagine the materials someone in the future would need to understand our current moment, they are thinking and acting like historians. They both analyze and empathize. I think they are also taking pleasure in understanding themselves as intentional observers rather than only as unwilling participants, but that is the case for everyone who contributes, not only for our history majors.

Tebeau: It gets them to think about the role each contribution plays, and to think about the historic process and the way in which different types of resources tell different stories. A personal photo will tell a different story than a screenshot of Instagram or a Twitter meme from someone’s phone or computer. So it gets them thinking about the choices they’re making as far as what items they include and the kind of story that will tell. We’re asking our students to think deeply about what it means to be a curator.

Q: What kind of material are you looking for?

Tebeau: I suspect if I go through the database as it exists now, probably a quarter of it is pictures of empty shelves. And I want people to move beyond the empty shelves and over-the-top hoarding. I want to see the more common things that people are doing. We want to get to that next level of engagement, to see how this crisis is shaping people’s lives and how we can represent that in this archive. One of the photos I contributed is of my son visiting colleges a couple weekends ago, at a time when we were still trying to figure out whether he should even have gone or not. So we’re looking for everything from the mundane to the extraordinary.

Q: How does one determine what is worthy of documentation?

Amesbury: The historical significance of one’s own times is always difficult to assess. We tend to be too close to the events of our own lives to achieve much perspective on them. But we do have access to something future historians might not — namely the texture of our own immediate experience, including the very disorientation and uncertainty characteristic of being caught up in events beyond our control. A Journal of the Plague Year is a chronicle of the particularities of the present which might otherwise be forgotten — internet memes, empty classrooms, shelves bare of everything but cream of mushroom soup. This project — like the phenomena it seeks to track –—is completely fluid, and we are at the very beginning stages. We welcome the involvement of anyone, anywhere in the world, who would like to contribute to the historical record of these unprecedented times.

Top photo: Kristin Mickelson, “New York City Taxi: Stop the Spread,” A Journal of the Plague Year: an Archive of CoVid19, accessed March 20, 2020,