International Disabilities Expert Visits National Louis
By Robert Schroeder
Enter National Louis University's Chicago campus and you will pass over ramps connecting street and sidewalk, through automatic entrance doors, and past Braille elevator signage. Students with physical and intellectual disabilities can get in the building with relative ease, but what about learning in the classroom?
That's the question Geert van Hove, Ph.D., is exploring during a three-month stay at National Louis University as a visiting professor. van Hove is teaming up with National Louis' 3C Program to explore the political, cultural and economic factors of disabilities in education.
As a Professor of Educational Studies at Ghent University in Ghent, Belgium, van Hove studies accessibility in an environment that does not always foster inclusivity.
"We are headed towards specialization," van Hove said. "If you are born with a disability and they bring you up in a kind of parallel system, it is not easy for a young man or woman, at age 18, to say, 'Now I'm leaving that parallel system, and I'm going to the regular university to get my the bachelor's degree.'"
For van Hove, the separate tracks create a socialization problem. Youth are instructed from the start that attending specialized schools is their best option, but no such option exists at the university level. Students who are used to learning in an environment with accessible books, computers, and Internet access are suddenly plunged into an environment lacking these key features.
Professors at Ghent, he says, are often at a loss as to how to best work with students with disabilities. While teachers at specialized elementary, middle and junior high schools are trained in best practices, professors face "attitudinal barriers" to changing their way of teaching and evaluation to fit disabled students.
At National Louis, van Hove is examining how these same considerations play out in American university classrooms. His study of how disability access in America impacts political, economical, and cultural access is being compared and contrasted with his research in Belgium and Europe.
"We're looking at what kind of supports do people with intellectual disabilities need to have real participation, not a puppet on a string who is there because it's good and interesting," van Hove said.
National Louis' grant-funded 3C program works to provide a universal design for learning model in all University classes, ensuring equality access in all face-to-face and online classes. Director Susan Gabel, Ph.D. and van Hove are working to link their research, culminating in the Disabilities Studies in Education Conference hosted by National Louis May 12-15.
The design of the conference is a reflection of the attitudinal shifts Gabel and van Hove are promoting. In order to include attendees with intellectual disabilities, Gabel and van Hove are considering factors such as language, time scheduling, building selection, orientation sessions, and inter-session mobility.
"We can make everything that happens in academics more accessible for people with disabilities," van Hove said. "The question is, how do we make sure that every citizen can be a citizen?"