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Championing accessibility within disabilities studies

Virginia Tech
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No grandmothers died. No dogs ate homework. No computers corrupted term papers.

And so it was that Carolyn Shivers’ students used no such excuses when turning in assignments — and she knows why. The winner of three Virginia Tech awards over the past year, Shivers credits accessibility as the key to her successes.

“I have implemented a flexible assignment submission policy,” said the assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science. “I still have deadlines, but students can ask me for an extension for any reason — if they’re having a rough day, if they get sick, if they forget, if they’re overwhelmed. Since I’ve implemented that policy, my grandmother kill rate has gone down to zero and I’m very proud of that fact.”

Not only do those numbers please her, but Shivers also feels gratitude that the university community acknowledges her work with accessibility and disability. In the past year, she received a Good Neighbor Award, an Exceptional Leadership in Access and Inclusion Certificate, and the Diversity Award from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Shivers was the keynote speaker for Student Affairs’ spring renewal event. The organizers surprised her with a Good Neighbor Award during the opening ceremony.

Then Emily Burns, her teaching assistant from the spring semester, nominated Shivers for an Excellence in Access and Inclusion Award for her focus on accessibility. Services for Students with Disabilities sponsors these awards, which recognize faculty, staff, departments, and programs for contributing to an inclusive and accessible environment at Virginia Tech. Shivers was one of three award winners from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, including Chase Catalano, an assistant professor in the School of Education, and Elizabeth McLain, an instructor in the School of Performing Arts.

“I nominated Dr. Shivers for an access and inclusion award,” said Burns, a graduate student in the School of Education, “because during her Introduction to Disabilities Studies course, students learn to think about disabilities in relation to their future professions.”

As a continuing theme in her courses, Shivers said she imparts two cornerstones of wisdom for understanding not just disabilities but life in general. The first is the notion that multiple concepts can be true at the same time. The other is that truth exists beyond one’s firsthand experience.

“I constantly repeat that for my students,” she said. “One disability does not negate another disability, and the experience of one disabled person does not invalidate another disabled person’s experience. For example, some people need captions, but others, perhaps those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, find captions distracting. Both can be true at the same time, and they can be true even if you don’t experience them.”

For Shivers’ leadership efforts in advocating disabilities as a critical component of diversity, she received one of her college’s Diversity Awards. Her department nominated her for her work in developing a Pathways minor in disabilities studies. She also serves as the director of that program.

April Few-Demo, head of the Department of Human Development and Family Science, noted that Shivers’ scholarship focuses on siblings of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and siblings of individuals with psychiatric disabilities.

“Dr. Shivers has served in multiple university-level areas,” Few-Demo added, citing especially the Equity in Social Disparity in the Human Condition Destination Area and the Virginia Tech Center for Autism Research. “She is a champion of accessibility.”

In 2015, Shivers joined the department’s faculty because of her interest in helping to create a disabilities studies program that is inclusive of all forms of disability.

She grew up with ties to the intellectual disability community. Her uncle, who has Down syndrome, inspired her during her high school and undergraduate years to work at preschools and summer camps for people with similar disabilities.

Shivers majored in psychology at the University of Notre Dame and received her master’s and doctoral degrees in developmental psychology from Vanderbilt University. Before arriving at Virginia Tech, she finished her postdoctoral work at Michigan State University and Trinity College in Dublin.

Her research has appeared in a number of journals, including Frontiers in Psychology, Developmental Science, and the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

“My goal for the Pathways minor is to give people a lens through which to view society, so they consider disability and disabled individuals,” she said. “I like to say the minor is for everybody. It’s for teachers who will have students with disabilities in their classes. It’s for engineers who will design for a variety of people, and it’s for policymakers who will make decisions for humanity.”

But even with multiple awards recognizing her accomplishments, Shivers said much work remains. She advocates, for example, for a universal design for learning mindset for those who teach. Although setting up a class with special accommodations may seem like extra work, it is beneficial to other students. She again references video captioning.

“It’s not only students who are hard of hearing or deaf that use captioning,” she said, “but those who might have forgotten their headphones in a public place, who don’t want to turn up the volume and disrupt others. Or maybe those with too much noise around them, even when they use their headphones. Efforts such as captioning benefit everybody.”

Story by Leslie King


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