While there has been significant progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, accessibility is often glaringly absent from the discussion. This is particularly true in higher education, where barriers to access intersect and are often compounded when dealing with historically marginalized groups. Whether the barrier is as complex as breaking the stigma around disability and shifting collective views or more straightforward technical changes, higher ed still has a lot to learn.
Often the onus is placed on the disabled learner to do the heavy lifting when it comes to getting accommodations and access. But the toll of continuously disclosing can be traumatic for students who do identify as disabled and intimidating to those considering asking for help.
In honor of International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3, a day established to mobilize support for disabled peoples’ dignity, rights and well-being by contextualizing the lived experiences of the disabled, here are a few essential high-level considerations for establishing an accessible classroom in higher education with DEI in mind.
Universal Design For Learning
Implementing accessibility into higher education requires a fundamental understanding that all students, regardless of ability, will learn differently. By acknowledging this, institutions and instructors can introduce Universal Design for Learning (UDL) into their classrooms. UDL is a framework designed to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how we learn. In short, UDL focuses on providing a diverse pedagogy that accords students more autonomy in their learning.
UDL explores the Why, What and How of learning by breaking it down into three respective categories, Engagement (the Why of learning), Representation (the What of learning) and Action & Expression (the How of learning). Instructors should ask themselves questions such as, “How can I engage all of the students in my class?” “How can I provide information in a way that all students can understand?” and “How can I provide students with realistic opportunities to demonstrate what they know?” Utilizing UDL also sends the important message that obstacles to learning are caused by the environment and not by the student.
Fostering Inclusivity with Course Design & Preparation
A key component in creating an inclusive and engaging classroom environment is ensuring that all students can access their learning materials. Part of this involves reframing the narrative that providing or creating accessible content is too overwhelming or complicated. One does not need to be an expert in the field of digital accessibility in order to remediate inaccessible content, but we do need to be willing to accept our role in both the creation and preservation of an accessible classroom. This can begin with some of the easier accessibility issues to fix, such as always adding alternative text to images, ensuring that Word documents contain headings, and avoiding images that can cause seizures or strain the eyes. It can then extend into the more advanced content remediation space of fixing inaccessible PDFs or ensuring proper color contrast in documents. In this case, the phrase “practice, not perfection,” is paramount in breaking down barriers to learning. The hope is that with time and practice, it will become a more organic and ingrained process for instructors in their continuous quest to create an accessible learning environment.
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