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staff from disability services

Advocating for Access

Widener’s Graduate Programs in Higher Education recently offered a new service-learning course that challenged students to think about how to improve the higher education experience for students, faculty, and other constituents with permanent and temporary physical disabilities.

“We are enhancing our training of future leaders in higher education,” said Dr. Meghan Pifer, assistant professor and the course instructor, who does not know of any other programs that offer a course of this kind. “Courses such as this will help make Widener a distinct place to receive a degree and work.”

Pifer had a differently abled classmate in graduate school, which initially brought the range of issues faced by students with physical disabilities to her attention. She later found herself as the instructor of a differently abled student, Meredith Much, at Widener. Much has metatropic dysplasia, a form of dwarfism that causes pain in joints and brittle bones.

“I learned on the spot that I was not prepared to support Meredith, and that was not ok with me,” said Pifer.

Pifer enlisted Much’s help in developing the new course, titled Ability and Access in Higher Education. “She has a natural intellectual curiosity, so she was instrumental in bringing me resources,” Pifer said of Much. Much also served as a guest speaker.

“I hoped that the course would be a transformational experience for students and that my personal stories would motivate them to be sensitive to individuals with physical disabilities and enact positive changes on their respective campuses,” Much said.

Catherine Feminella, a student in the class and assistant dean for residence life at Widener, gained motivation from Much and the coursework to make a difference on Widener’s campus. Pifer had challenged all of the students to use their newfound knowledge to execute a project to improve the lives of differently abled individuals. Feminella chose to examine the Widener campus environment from the perspective of a differently abled student and to conduct qualitative research about the experiences of differently abled Widener students.

“Because of this course, I am constantly thinking of ways to improve our current campus environment for differently abled students and have the insight to influence decisions moving forward, whether it’s through the design of classroom or common spaces.”