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PhD Alum Aims to Change Academia’s Approach to Inclusive, Accessible Learning

PhD alum Kevin Mallary with UT Chancellor Donde Plowman

From left, CCI PhD alum Kevin Mallary accepts the 2022 Commission for Disability Graduate Student Award from University of Tennessee, Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman.

“The need for systemic transformation in higher education requires a change in
mindset from the traditional approach to teaching and learning, to an inclusive and universally accessible one. How do we get there?” asked Kevin Mallary (’22), who recently earned his PhD from the College of Communication and Information by successfully defending a dissertation that asked this very question.

Mallary’s dissertation, “Investigating Higher Education Institutions’ Influence on the Everyday Information Practices of Students with Autism,” recently earned him the inaugural Commission for Disability Graduate Student Award; the award is given to someone who is a “champion for support and recognition of people with disabilities.”

His interest in the accessibility of higher education originated from his experience as a graduate student at Wake Forest University. There, he was given the assistive technologies and accommodations he needed for his profound hearing loss that allowed him to fulfill his dream of being an instructor.

Mallary started focusing on information sciences after working as a web developer and webmaster for one of the largest community colleges in North Carolina, where he also taught workshops on accessibility and was a liaison for the college’s disability support services, IT department, and library. He was curious about the intersection of information sciences, education, and accessibility, which is what his research centered on after he started in the CCI doctoral program.

Now, he will be able to take his career even further as he starts as a tenure-track assistant professor in the Library & Information Studies program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. The program, which recently became accredited by the American Library Association, is housed within the university’s Department of STEM Education & Professional Studies, which means Mallary’s work will be especially valued.

“My scholarship, teaching, and service will be tailored toward education. I’m going to have colleagues responsible for training librarians and special educators, whose goal is to make education, including higher education, more inclusive and accessible. I can fully embrace being an advocate for change. I could not imagine a better fit,” he said.

Mallary chose to focus on neurodiverse students because he said they are often left out of the conversation of inclusivity and accessibility. More times than not, research on this population focused on what instructors, librarians, and others who support these students had to say, and not what the students themselves experience, he shared.

“The question I was really getting after is, ‘How can a higher education institution, the people, the information, the norms that govern the institution, and the tools that institution provides—whether its assistive technologies or academic accommodations—better serve the needs of neurodiverse students from the perspective of neurodiverse students?’”

Mallary gives credit to his dissertation committee for pushing him to be creative in his research; they include School of Information Sciences Associate Professor Devendra Potnis, SIS Professor Dania Bilal, Eric Moore (’17, PhD) and Clayton Copeland (School of Information Sciences, University of South Carolina).

“The committee wanted my research to be rigorous, and because it was, I was able to land this ideal position. If it wasn’t for the advising, mentorship, and encouragement I received, I wouldn’t be prepared for this position,” he said.