Accessibility is important because it positions instructors to engage more students than an inaccessible course. Anne-Marie Womack writes, “[Accessibility is] not the exception we sometimes make in spite of learning, but rather the adaptations we continually make to promote learning” (Womack, 2017, 494). An accessible course cultivates a culture of learning, increases inclusion, and creates a strong sense of belonging.
What does accessibility mean?
In many places of learning, the norm is to design a course that is inaccessible to most students and then adjust the course with “reasonable” accommodations. Teachers are often taught to teach to the average student. In this scenario, accessibility comes at the end and is seen as a “deviation from [the] norm” (Womack 2017, 497). Disability studies frames accessibility as a prerequisite to learning. In other words, accessibility can be a starting point, rather than an add-on.
Accessibility in learning spaces means making the environment and activities easily accessible to students of a variety of circumstances, backgrounds, and abilities. “Abilities” here refers to students’ health and wellbeing; it also refers to students’ skills in reading, writing, and other academic skills. While this article frames accessibility from the perspectives on learning in disability studies, an accessible course will benefit disabled and non-disabled students alike. An accessible course is one that leverages the strengths of students of a wider variety of backgrounds than has historically been the case in higher education, and which incorporates examples, problems, and assignments that are relatable and relevant to more students.
What does accessibility look like?
An accessible course is one that is structured to center students with varying abilities and backgrounds. Universal design for learning (UDL) is one way to design accessible courses. The main principle of UDL is that instruction should aim to reach a wide range of students with different abilities, races, genders, learning styles, and more. As Disability Studies 101 says, UDL is instruction that is “usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”
When instructors use UDL to design a course or lesson, it offers multiple modes of:
- Action and expression
First, engagement under UDL prioritizes multiple, varied opportunities for interaction and connection with the course material. For instance, one lesson might encourage students to engage with a text through a short discussion in pairs and an individual minute paper. Second, in this framework, representation involves presenting the same information in multiple ways. In an online class, this could mean using slides to accompany your lecture and turning on the live-caption feature in Zoom to allow students to see and hear the material. Finally, action and expression refer to the ways students show what they have learned. For example, you might give students multiple options for a final project, like a written essay or a podcast episode.
Accessibility prompts instructors to think about norms in the classroom. For instance, if you have students who require extra time on tests as formal accommodations, you might think about how to make deadlines and test times more accessible for all your students. This kind of thinking makes accommodation a regular part of teaching, rather than an afterthought.
Universal design for learning considers these three principles in the overall planning for any course in higher education. This method can make any course more inclusive for disabled students as well as first generation and underrepresented students.
One final observation: simplicity is a virtue. The number of apps and platforms used to organize your course should be minimized, or at last made routine, to ease navigation of it.
Students with Disabilities
An inclusive classroom works on the premise that students with disabilities are as competent as students without one. Students in the classroom may have temporary, recurring, or long-term disabilities. Some common disabilities include:
- Hearing loss,
- Low vision or blindness,
- Learning disabilities, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or dyslexia,
- Mobility disabilities,
- Chronic health disorders, such as epilepsy, migraine headaches, multiple sclerosis, or COVID-19-related sequelae
- Psychological or psychiatric disabilities, such as anxiety, depressive disorders, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,
- Asperger’s disorder and other Autism spectrum disorders, and
- Traumatic Brain Injury
Students may have disabilities that are more or less apparent. For instance, you may not know that a student has anxiety unless the student chooses to disclose this information, or an incident arises.
In creating practical resources for specific disabilities, it should be noted that there is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach to accessibility. A method that works for one disabled person*, or even a group of disabled people, may not work for everyone. The National Deaf Center has resources for teachers, including a Campus Accessibility Guide. Vera published several articles on how to create accessible print materials, webinars, e-documents, and websites. On the subject of neurodiversity, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) has resources for autistic people. The Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network has two webinars, “Disability Justice & Access-Centered Pedagogy in the Pandemic” & “Disrupting Educational Ableism & Racism: Disability, Race & Trauma in Schools”. Neurodiversity Hub has further resources for educators, along with the Heinemann blog. The Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training has resources for vision impairment and other disabilities. Blind Teachers, Teaching Visually Impaired, and Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC) have resources as well. In the context of long-term effects of SARS-COVID-19 infections, specific teaching strategies are still emerging. A starting point is understanding the experience of being a college student with a chronic health disorder/illness.
To create an inclusive classroom, use language that prioritizes the student over their disability (“ability before disability”). Disability labels can be stigmatizing and perpetuate false stereotypes where students who are disabled are not as capable as their peers. Using inclusive language might mean asking students what they need or what they can do rather than what’s “wrong” with them. In general, it is appropriate to reference the disability only when it is pertinent to the situation. When specifically writing or talking about disabled students or accommodations, some students may prefer using identity-first language (i.e., disabled students) rather than person-first language (students with disabilities). Other students might prefer person-first language. Consider asking your students their preferences.
Designing Accessible Materials
The Syllabus. Your syllabus is one of the first things students will receive from you. It is a space that not only tells them what they will do but also what to expect. An accessible syllabus is a first step to having an accessible classroom. It should be easily accessed by people with a variety of abilities and clarify your values on inclusion.
When designing an accessible syllabus, consider the following actions:
- Language: Choose student-centered language. The syllabus is a contract between you and your students, so direct the language at them. For instance, course objectives might read, “By the end of this class, you will be able to…” Language that is warm, inviting, and cooperative shows students your classroom is a space that is open to them.
- Text: Consider giving your students a syllabus they can manipulate to fit their needs. Students might need to increase the font, make adjustments for a screen reader, or prepare it for text-to-speech software. Use headings, hyperlinks, and bullet points to keep your syllabus short and concise. Avoid tables and other formatting tools that are incompatible with screen readers.
- Images: Use relevant images to help students see at a glance what the course is about. Provide alternative text (alt-text) for all images.
- Policies: Consider crafting and including an inclusive classroom statement on your syllabus. It can help set the tone and show students your classroom values. You might also consider contract grading or other flexible kinds of grading methods.
For more information on building accessible syllabi, check out the Accessible Syllabus site.
Accessibility checking tools. Ace, by the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) checks the accessibility of EPUB files. There are several web accessibility tools, such as AChecker Web Accessibility Checker, ARC Toolkit, axe DevTools – Web Accessibility Testing, IBM Equal Access Checker, Pa11y, Total Validator, WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool, Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools List, and Web Audit. Checking color contrast as set by WCAG 2.1, there is Tanaguru Contrast Finder and WebAIM Contrast Checker. For a downloadable program that simulates color blindness, consider Color Oracle. These tools adhere to the 2.1 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1)
UConn Resources for reflection and action:
CETL Educational Technologies Resources
Center for Students with Disabilities Resources
Homer Babbidge Library digital media equipment (UConn)
Request for sign language interpreter (Center for Students with Disabilities)
Center for Neurodiversity & Employment Innovation (UConn Werth Institute)
More about UDL
CAST Universal Design Guidelines
Teaching Tips for an UDL-Friendly Classroom
Universal Design for Learning after COVID-19
Creating Accessible Learning Environments (From Vanderbilt U)
20 Tips for Teaching an Accessible Online Course (from Washington U)
Disability Studies in Higher Education
Disability Justice Self-Study Guide
The Institute for Educational Leadership published a Higher Education Inclusion Guide
The Association on Higher Education and Disability
Disability Studies Quarterly’s “Enacting Equity in Higher Education through Critical Disability Studies: A Critical Community Self-Study”
Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability's "Embracing Diversity and Accessibility: A Mixed Methods Study of the Impact of an Online Disability Awareness Program"
“About Universal Design for Learning.” CAST. Accessed November 28, 2022. https://www.cast.org/impact/universal-design-for-learning-udl.
“Course Design.” UDL on Campus. CAST. Accessed November 28, 2022. http://udloncampus.cast.org/page/planning_landing.
“Disability Justice Self Study Guide.” Center for Diversity and Inclusion. Washington University in St. Louis. Accessed November 28, 2022. http://students.wustl.edu/disability-justice-self-study-guide/.
“What is universal design?” Disability Studies 101. Society for Disability Studies. Accessed November 28, 2022. https://disstudies101.com/definitions/universal-design/.
Boothe, Kathleen, Marla J. Lohmann, Kimberly A. Donnell, D. Dean Hall. “Applying the Principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in the College Classroom.” The Journal of Special Education Apprenticeship 7, no. 3 (2018):1-13.
Womack, Anne-Marie. “Accessible Syllabus.” Accessible Syllabus. Accessed November 28, 2022. https://accessiblesyllabus.com.
Womack, Anne-Marie. “Teaching Is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi.” College Composition and Communication 68, no. 3 (2017): 494-525.
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