Diversity Fellow Project, Nell Koneczny

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Promoting the Creation of Accessible Classrooms at UIC

Promoting the Creation of Accessible Classrooms at UIC [download poster]

meet Nell Koneczny >

Project Narrative

1. Please describe your activities during your fellowship experience. Describe your final capstone project(s).
As a Diversity Fellow, I worked with a group of mostly disabled students at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC): the Student Advisory Board (SAB) of the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Persons with Disabilities (CCSPD). We developed a training entitled “Creating Accessible Classrooms” for university instructors, including faculty, staff, administrators, and teaching assistants. This training can be and has been adjusted based on the needs of the group. As one of the co-leaders of this project, I organized work sessions with fellow students to identify what material and language would be used in the training, established contacts with various entities across UIC’s campus, and conducted trainings with a few university departments and administrative offices, which included the distribution of a PowerPoint, a resource handout, a survey to improve the training, and for administrators, a breakdown explaining the purpose of each slide in the PowerPoint. This work led to an increased dedication to inclusive and accessible classrooms at UIC from an administrative level and to greater collaboration with administrators and university faculty to share this knowledge with more instructors on campus. This project not only resulted in the creation of these training materials and the development of these interpersonal connections but also a poster that outlines the creation, components, and success of the training.

2. Who did your project inform, help, influence or impact? (UCEDD, individual, community, state) How?
The “Creating Accessible Classrooms” training was specifically designed to inform university instructors, such as faculty, staff, administrators, and teaching assistants, about the diversity within the disability community, how this diversity may influence students in the classroom, and accessible practices that can be used in their classes. Disabled students from the SAB reached out to various departments and offices at UIC to arrange times for trainings and meetings explaining the material that would be provided in future sessions, as well as to discuss how the training may be improved upon or further developed for wider dissemination. This training brought more attention to disability in the classroom setting and also encouraged professors to review 1) their interactions with disabled students and 2) the ways they design and conduct their classes.

3. Why did you choose to work on that project(s)?
My interest in the project developed from personal experiences as both a teaching assistant and a disabled student. As a result, I have become more invested in designing classroom spaces and content that are welcoming to students of all disabilities and abilities. As a student, I find that I thrive in classroom environments that provide choices to meet various learning styles and have been more successful in classes when professors have not only been understanding of my disabilities but have also worked with me to meet my specific needs that result from those disabilities. While I have been fortunate to have understanding and supportive professors, I have also heard of many negative experiences by other disabled students in the classroom, and unfortunately, these have been experiences that sometimes led to students failing courses or even leaving a university. Thus, I want to not only cultivate disability-friendly classrooms as a teaching assistant and a future instructor, but to also distribute the knowledge that is required to successfully do so with more people. Such negative experiences by other students strengthened an interest within the SAB to create a training that encouraged and taught the creation of accessible classrooms as to prevent further ill-treatment, whether intentional or not, of disabled students. The Diversity Fellowship provided me an opportunity to step into the project, which allowed me to take on a leadership position and successfully meet this goal during SAB’s 2017-18 academic year.

4. What did you gain from being a Diversity Fellow?
As mentioned above, being a Diversity Fellowship allowed me to work directly on one of the SAB’s goals for the 2017-18 academic year (the “Creating Accessible Classrooms” training) and to ensure its successful completion. Through this work on campus, I grew more acquainted with the organization of my university, especially UIC’s administrative setup. Additionally, as a Diversity Fellow, I learned more about the AUCD network and about my own institution, the Institute of Disability and Human Development. The Diversity Fellowship also supported the chance to network with more people in the AUCD network, locally and nationally alike, to share experiences with other diversity fellows, and to see what issues are being addressed across the AUCD network and within the disability community at large. More specifically, by attending the Disability Policy Seminar this past April, I also had the opportunity to enter and engage more with the online disability community through Twitter, which also led to new connections. This Fellowship fostered the development of new relationships with people across the country and to be reminded of the powerful community found within the AUCD that is making change with and for disabled people.

5. How will this experience impact your education or career decisions?
Because of my investment in and dedication to my Diversity Fellowship project, I have shifted the focus of my eventual dissertation research. This experience has thus led to new research interests and opportunities as well as an increased desire to 1) better understand the scholarship surrounding disability at the university and 2) more closely examine professor perspectives regarding disability, accessibility, and inclusion at universities and colleges. The time I have spent on this work helped bridge the gap between my advocacy work as a disabled person and student alike with my research as a young scholar. Additionally, learning about the university structure has highlighted other ways I may involve myself in university culture in order to provide guidance to students and instructors and to support eventual cultural changes, both at the university level and more broadly.

6. What are your future goals? Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?
Regardless of what position I settle into in my future, I plan to remain a strong advocate for disabled people in all spaces. I especially want to focus my advocacy on spaces often protected by gatekeepers, such as universities, activist groups, and nonprofits. I intend to become a professor with an emphasis on teaching and supporting undergraduate students, and in this position, I will encourage other instructors to develop accessible classrooms that will welcome and embrace disabled students instead of isolating them. In five years, I hope to not only be an instructor, but also a role model and leader for how other instructors should structure their classes to ensure a disability-friendly university environment. In addition to this, I see myself as an advocate for and active member of the disability community at my eventual institution. Outside of my time at work, I will remain an active part of my local community and lead similar accessible space trainings that will encourage activist, business, recreational, and community spaces to also build environments that not only accept disabled people but in fact welcome us.

7. What recommendations do you have for other Fellows?
Take every advantage to network as a Diversity Fellow and a member of the AUCD network as early as possible in the Fellowship program. Try to connect with people one-on-one before either conference. If you struggle to reach out to people, ask other AUCD members early on to connect you with individuals they believe would be beneficial for your work.

Use this opportunity to explore areas of research or advocacy you might be interested in that you may not have had a chance to consider yet. Do not let former goals prevent you from opening new doors to opportunities that may develop into new goals that better fit your passions.

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