In discussions concerning inclusion and diversity of university education in which I take part, I have been noticing something. When I mention the needs of persons with disabilities, the discussion turns into accessible university teaching material and wheelchair-friendly ramps. These are essential and in fact, there is a lot of room for improvement that university communities can do to improve on making the physical environment and the education materials more accessible. But that is not what I am talking about. My interest is if university curricula address disability issues as course topics.
I was curious to find out how disability topics are covered in my discipline, transportation planning. I am conducting research on how accessible transportation for seniors and persons with disabilities is taught in planning programs in universities in the US and Canada. I have so far surveyed 50 course syllabi of transport-related courses in 24 graduate planning program in U.S. universities. Content analysis of the syllabi shows, only one syllabus out of the 50 addresses the topic as the sole topic of the course material and a few others mention to minor degree. Even though not surprising, it was concerning. One of the findings of the study, however, is that there are plenty of opportunities to incorporate transportation for seniors and persons with disabilities in existing syllabi without making major changes. According to the literature I reviewed, each program has its institutional mission which influences what is included in the curricula. Academic programs are run within a finite number of years and there is not enough time to fit in all relevant topics.
Professors have discretion in terms of what topics to include for a course within the program’s mission. In my role as a professor, I plan to make diversity and inclusion a key element in how I design my courses. For example, when designing a transportation course, I will make sure to address the diversity of needs that exist in communities. Disregarding some transportation needs will not only be a poor practice, it will have serious repercussions; transportation affects all aspects of lives, including access to employment, education, and healthcare.
I am particularly interested in highlighting why addressing transport needs of seniors and persons with disabilities is not only a matter of diversity and inclusion as a principle but of immediate urgency. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are nearly 65 million individuals who are 65-years old and over. These individuals will be needing special transportation services to suit their age-induced disability or physical limitation in the next five to 10 years. Transportation programs will need to teach their students skills and knowledge required to help transportation agencies address special transport needs of such a large group. While disability transportation need might be a minority need at this point, it will not be in the coming decade.
Is there a parallel in your field? Please share.