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Teaching and learning remotely in the past academic year has been a challenging and rewarding experience for many of us. We faced many unexpected challenges – technical difficulties, adapting to new instructional and learning environments, coping with stress, and more. These unexpected challenges, although intimidating and daunting at times, also gave us the opportunity to rethink our strategies and practices in fostering an inclusive learning environment. What does inclusion mean in the context of a college classroom? And how can the remote teaching environment be a catalyst for acknowledging and giving voice to the range of differences that students and instructors bring to teaching and learning? 

On December 8th, 2020, the GSI Teaching & Resource Center hosted an online panel discussion, “More than a Remote Possibility: Rethinking Inclusion in the College Classroom.” Initiated by Sarah Manchanda, Ph.D. Candidate in the Graduate School of Education and moderated by Professor Penny Edwards (Department of Southeast Asian Studies), the panel included faculty members, Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs), and undergraduate students who offered valuable insights and questions about the remote teaching environment and its implications and opportunities for differently-abled students and instructors. In the following we provide a summary of insights generated by panelists.

  • Compliance is not enough: we need creativity and flexibility.

Allison Gleason (Ph.D. Candidate, Mechanical Engineering) shared observations on the inflexible, outdated accessibility practices based on a culture of legal compliance in our current learning environments. She also advocated for innovative thinking in disability access and the acknowledgment that disability represents a broad spectrum of individual needs

Professor Georgina Kleege (Department of English) also elaborated on the problem of a compliance-centered disability access culture. “Good teaching is inclusive teaching, and good teaching involves a constant effort to be flexible and adaptive instead of viewing disability compliance as a ‘one-time’ extra effort.” She also called attention to technological barriers in teaching, noting, for example, that PowerPoint slides and screen shares could be inaccessible to visually impaired students. 

  • Disability is not a liability: it is a cultural identity and a community.

Echoing Professor Kleege’s comments on the problem of viewing disability as a compliance, Sarah Manchanda went further stating “the check-the-box way that disability compliance is handled in the classroom makes disability feel like nothing but a medical liability.”Alena Morales (Nutritional Science) and Jennifer Pearlstein (Ph.D. Candidate, Psychology) described disability as a cultural identity, an expansive and personalized experience that reminds us of the importance of building an inclusive community. “Fostering an environment of inclusivity where people can connect with other disabled folks is crucial,” Morales said, “otherwise, people will feel isolated and intimated.” 

For many instructors and students – especially given the challenges of COVID-19 – disability access can be challenging to navigate. Fortunately, our campus’ Disabled Students’ Program offers a variety of resources for instructors and students, and the TRIO program provides students with higher-touch services, events, and enrichment workshops that cultivate a sense of belonging for disabled students. The campus is also building a living and learning program for students on the spectrum, as well as dedicated resources for students with mental health needs. Karen Nielson, Executive Director of DSP, added that with the support from student advocates such as Alena Morales and alumni who are passionate about disability access, the campus has now established a Disability Cultural Center located in the Hearst Annex. The Disability Cultural Center – currently virtually preparing for its future on-campus operations- will serve as a community-building space and a resource hub for the campus disability community. 

This panel is a stark reminder that our current compliance-focused disability accommodation system urgently needs innovative transformations. As put by Karen Nielson, compliance is “the basement, not the ceiling.” It should be our goal to ensure that these unique contributions are cherished and welcomed by building a safe, inclusive, and adaptive community

Based on the importance of and strong interest in the topic, the GSI Teaching & Resource Center will host another panel on disability and inclusion in the spring semester. 


About the authors: Allyson Tang is a Ph.D. student in East Asian Languages and Cultures at UC Berkeley. She is also the Disabled Graduate Student Advocacy Project Director at Berkeley’s Graduate Assembly and a Professional Development Liaison in Berkeley’s Graduate Division.

Allison Gleason is a Ph.D. candidate in Mechanical Engineering and is a disabled graduate student with a research focus in traumatic brain injuries. She currently serves as Professional Development Liaison in Berkeley’s Graduate Division.


Categories: GradNews, January 2021, Professional Development