Guiding Students to the Path and Keeping Them On It

by Wendy Kohler, Director, Center on Disability

As Community College of Philadelphia engages in transformative reorganization to address the evolving needs of the citizens of Philadelphia, we are reminded of the ongoing obligation to design our programs and services to address the needs of a diverse population.

As noted in “The City’s College: Impact 2025” (Generals, 2016, p. 1), “Opening the doors is a fraction of what it means to provide access.” Indeed, barriers imposed through physical design, digital inaccessibility or ineffective communication close doors to equitable participation in higher education for a substantial percentage of the population and contribute to poor postsecondary outcomes for far too many individuals. The Guided Pathways reform efforts are meant to be inclusive of all students, including those with disabilities.

A key component of Guided Pathways is to clarify paths for students, whether those paths lead to a career or further study at a four-year institution. Considering the College’s primary role in preparing students for employment, workforce development, readiness and economic innovation in Philadelphia, we must champion a population that experiences the highest unemployment and underemployment rates by virtue of the inequality promoted by our perceptions of individuals with disabilities. According to the 2013 “Annual Disability Status Report: Pennsylvania” (Erickson & von Schrader, 2014), approximately 11.2% of all Pennsylvanians ages 21-64 have a disability. In Philadelphia, the prevalence rate for disabilities in this demographic rises to 17.3%. Only 23.7% of Philadelphians with disabilities are employed, and 35.3% live below the poverty line. We also know that individuals with disabilities are twice as likely as those without to attend a two-year college versus other postsecondary institutions (Van Noy, Heidkamp, and Kaltz, 2013). Taken together, this data tells us that disability is overrepresented in Philadelphia, unemployment and underemployment are overrepresented in the disability community, and Community College of Philadelphia will likely be the college to whom this population will turn for hope of a better future.

The Center on Disability (COD) serves a vital role in supporting the College in addressing the social injustices that serve to marginalize individuals with disabilities. From onboarding through commencement, the COD collaborates with colleagues to promote equitable access and participation in the College’s programs, activities and services. We envision a College community in which all of our students feel welcomed and valued; where we all work together to address barriers to equity in our physical, social and educational environments; and where we seek to eliminate the stereotypes and stigma associated with disability.

The Disability-Diversity Connection
Given that disability crosses all socioeconomic lines, exists in all ethnic and racial groups, spans all ages, affects all genders, and can be acquired at any time, people with disabilities have been referred to as the largest minority group. By virtue of disability’s intersection with all facets of our educational community, the COD supports the work of all of our colleagues in addressing diverse needs. Whether a student is taking a placement test or a certification examination, engaging in developmental education or Honors classes, seeking a proficiency certificate or transfer to a four-year college, participating in a field placement or on an athletic team, the COD exists to support the realization of dreams and the elimination of barriers.

The COD supports students in setting goals, formulating strategies, identifying needs, and developing self-advocacy skills that will serve them in both education and employment. We encourage students to become self-reliant and to develop skills and strategies that afford maximum independence and productive social engagement. Our desire is for disability to become interwoven in the fabric of our community, knowing that diverse abilities promote an engaging, dynamic educational environment where we benefit from the unique contributions of those around us.

The COD also works with our colleagues in furthering inclusion as an institutional value, knowing that disability adds to the richness of our diverse community, and in developing strategies for enhancing accessibility benefits all students. For example, we know that in addition to benefiting students with hearing loss, providing captioning on videos aids ESL students, assists all students in mastering new terminology and supports students who struggle with literacy. Likewise, offering text-to-speech software provides immediate access to content for students with weaker reading skills. Documents formatted with accessibility in mind work better for all students, as they offer a level of predictable structure that allows students to increase focus on content by diminishing frustrations associated with navigation. In concert with our colleagues, the COD staff seek creative solutions to traditional barriers to the success of diverse learners, building on our successes as we move forward in creating a more inclusive environment.

The Time Is Now
Guided Pathways offers a unique opportunity to intentionally design programs, services and activities that are responsive to diverse needs. Through emphasis on clearly articulated learning outcomes, we can assist students in identifying end goals and in creating strategies for reaching those goals. As a college, we recognize that putting students on the path is only half of the access equation. We must be equally committed to keeping students on that path, finding multiple means for assessing knowledge and for demonstrating the achievement of outcomes. In this regard, students with disabilities and the COD serve the College well. Our accumulation of experience in working with diverse abilities and responding to diverse needs often serve as a starting point in designing inclusive courses in which all students have an equitable chance of thriving and succeeding.

As Community College of Philadelphia seeks to fulfill its mission by fueling the socioeconomic growth of our city and igniting equity within its communities, the COD stands prepared to support that mission through our daily work with students and collaborative efforts with colleagues. The COD has been fortunate to serve on the ADA Accessibility Committee with colleagues from across the College who are eager to initiate a bold and broad accessibility plan. Within the past year, the President’s Cabinet approved the committee’s Disability Access and Inclusion Plan. In this plan, the College affirms its commitment to and ardent support of students, employees and visitors with disabilities, and embraces its responsibility in meeting their needs. The plan stands in alignment with “The City’s College: Impact 2025” (Generals, 2016, p. 2), where it states, “Among its peers, Community College of Philadelphia will be recognized as an institution that levels the playing field, improves communities, retains and graduates its students, and fuels the local and regional economy.” By serving this sector of the population whose aspirations are compromised far too often by marginalization and lack of academic preparation, we will level the playing field to better serve all students. The Guided Pathways principle of transformation at scale contributes significantly to these efforts and to increasing parity and equity in student outcomes.