Remote Humanities

As winter quarter comes to an end, many instructors may be pivoting to preparations for their spring courses. In that spirit, we recently met with Cathy Baumann of the Chicago Language Center regarding her suggestions for reverse design. This week, we want to recognize the importance of accessibility in the classroom, and to encourage instructors to fold such considerations into their plans for the spring. So, we spoke with Charnessa Warren, the Director of Student Disability Services (SDS), about accessibility and universal design in learning.

In Charnessa’s work, disability is considered a normal element of human diversity, meaning we all have a role to play in creating an inclusive environment. Indeed, environment can often play a role in a disabling experience. Charnessa uses the example of loss: anyone can encounter it at any time, and suddenly be confronted with the repercussions in mental health that come with it. This past year’s circumstances have created environments of isolation and fear, meaning that many people have developed anxiety of some kind. This is all to say that “anyone can have a disabling experience” – and most of us will at some point in our lives – so it is important to design environments to support all kinds of access needs.

Accessibility in learning means that “a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use.” SDS’ role is to accommodate students when they, for whatever reason, don’t have the same access to the pedagogy. But Charnessa also recognizes that accommodations are a reactionary approach – it means changes are being made once a need is identified. In an ideal world, a variety of access needs would be recognized from the beginning of any design process, whether environmental or pedagogical. For this reason, Charnessa personally ascribes to the concept of universal design: taking a proactive approach to designing the course content with the entire spectrum of needs in mind, making it accessible to as many people as possible from the beginning.

The statistics show that this spectrum of need is indeed present, even if it is not constantly visible to us. Each year, SDS works with 20% more students than the year prior. It is estimated that among the population of disabled students, almost 70% of them never disclose their disability. Disability also represents the largest minority group in the world. If we look at CDC statistics from recent years, one in four American adults experiences disability of some kind. Charnessa encourages instructors to shift the question from if there are students with disabilities in their classrooms, and instead consider the question of how many. Disabled students are present – and we must support them whether they choose to come forward or not.

The best way to approach this is to design the course using universal design in learning (UDL) Charnessa remarks that reacting to a need you don’t anticipate will always be more costly with time and resources than designing with a broad spectrum of needs in mind from the beginning. Not to mention, it creates more hoops for students to jump through. Instructors should ask themselves how to adapt to any need that might be present, recognizing that every student, disabled or not, comes to the course with a different perspectives, experiences, abilities, and knowledge.

For instructors who want to consider accessibility more in their classrooms, but don’t know where to start, Charnessa suggests the following:

  • Begin learning more about the principles of UDL.
  • Consider incorporating multiple means of presenting content, allowing students multiple means of engagement, and including multiple means of assessing student understanding.
  • Be reasonably flexible. SDS has several resources on their website to help faculty begin thinking about whether or what type of flexibility is possible in their courses.
    • Flexibility does not mean that instructors cannot utilize the same rubric and objectives, but it does allow students to participate in ways that showcase their variety of abilities while still meeting the course requirements.
  • Investigate the built-in accessibility features in tools you’re already using
    • Zoom and Panopto have auto-captioning options.
    • Microsoft Office Suite includes an accessibility checker tool in the Review tab of PowerPoint, Word, etc.
  • Select materials that have accessible versions available.
    • Do the videos you show/assign have closed captioning?
    • Are there e-copies or audio copies available for the course textbooks?
  • Factor in the current learning format, whether remote or hybrid.
    • Attention spans are shorter in the virtual classroom – break up the monotony of a class by switching the mode every 15 minutes or so
    • Some students may have anxiety about speaking in class, especially on Zoom, where many feel challenged by constantly being observed up close by peers – consider other ways for students to display their understanding of the content rather than mandatory or impromptu in class discussion participation.
    • Reconsider any requirements to always be on camera during the entire class. Or allow students to have an off-camera break when possible – it’s very fatiguing to be on camera all the time, for students with and without disabilities.
  • Initiate student feedback.
    • A survey at the beginning of a course can be helpful – get to know who is in the room and what their needs are.
    • Mid-quarter check-ins are also recommended, either via survey or one-on-ones with each student – check to make sure that students with disabilities are able to access content, participate, and verify that their accommodations are being implemented appropriately.
  • Demonstrate that you are aware and that you care.
    • Consider a syllabus statement that welcomes diversity and disability – an example statement can be found on the SDS website.
    • This creates a culture of inclusion – students will know that you thought about them and their individual needs, and syllabi statements can provide clarity on how to use SDS approved accommodations in the course.
  • Ask for help!

Designing an inclusive and accessible course is new for many instructors. There are many benefits to designing the course to be accessible. One of the most notable benefits is that the time instructors spend proactively designing content to be accessible and inclusive often eliminates their need to go back and retrofit the course materials later. Reacting to student needs will likely take significantly more time and effort for instructors, and can result in delays for students who need the modifications completed in a timely manner.

SDS has created resources for instructors to use! In fact a whole tab on the SDS website is dedicated to faculty, which includes resources such as an FAQ and an accessibility checklist. Every instructor’s past experience with accessibility is different, and that’s okay! Charnessa wants to encourage instructors to reach out for support whenever needed. Instructors don’t have to be accessibility experts – they just need to know how to tap into the accessibility expertise available at the university.