In order to create a truly inclusive learning environment, it’s important not to put the responsibility for determining accommodations entirely on students with disabilities, nor on Disability & Access Services. Instead, strive to be an active partner in making your classroom and the entire university more accessible. While there are always better teaching practices you can learn about and work to adopt, it’s not possible to change everything about the way you teach overnight. Prioritize becoming more knowledgeable, more flexible, and open to making changes that respond to what students with disabilities tell you they need. The first step in creating an accessible learning environment is to signal to your students from the first day that you are listening, so that the conversation can begin. Here are some ways to approach that process.
Fundamentals of Accessible Teaching
- Educate yourself.
- Familiarize yourself with the history of the medical and social models of disability.
- Learn about, and have empathy for, the varied experiences of disabled students.
- Expand your ideas of what accommodation may entail: Think of the wheelchair ramp and additional time on tests, but also think beyond them. For example, allow students the option of using headphones when doing in-class writing, to tune out the sounds of their classmates typing around them.
- Learn about an intersectional approach to accessibility, in particular by thinking more about accommodations for multilingual students.
- Become knowledgeable about the specific resources the university has to offer, as well as their limitations.
- Proactively reach out to your students, and signal approachability and flexibility.
- Let students know that you are safe to approach with concerns about disability, access, and accommodation, and that you are willing to negotiate. For example, during introductions, you might disclose your own disabilities to students, or mention that as an undergraduate, you were registered with the Disability Office (if applicable).
- Act as an informed, invested partner in determining appropriate accommodations in the context of your classroom.
- On the first day, or even before the first class, survey your students privately about their learning needs. (You may also want to combine this with a survey asking about students’ names and pronouns, so as not to deadname students.)
- Move away from thinking about “special cases,” “unfair advantages,” or the assumption of disability as deficit. Move toward a model of accessibility and inclusion in which difference is itself something to be valued and pursued.
- Encourage students with disabilities to register with Disability and Access services, but don’t necessarily make accommodations contingent on their having done so. It is likely that you already offer many accommodations without requiring medical documentation; for example, if a student asked you in class to zoom in on a slide so that they could read the text, or asked you to turn captions on while playing a YouTube video, you would presumably do so.
- Improve pedagogy for all students through incorporating principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
- At the same time, remember that there is no such thing as a perfect, universally accessible design. Sometimes, one person’s accommodation may become another person’s barrier to inclusion.
Steps Toward an Accessible Syllabus
Consider condensing and redesigning the syllabus that you distribute on the first day into a “Syllabus Highlights” document, narrowing the focus to the things that students need to know about your course right away, and shifting dense/boilerplate text and information that won’t be needed until later in the semester to another location (online and/or in Blackboard).
Jump-start your redesign process by using a template (ex. the “newsletter”-style templates included in word processing apps such as Google Docs or Pages). These templates can help you include images, lay out information attractively, and force you to condense verbiage to fit within the constraints. Considering some of the best principles for accessible webpages can also help you make decisions about fonts and typography for your syllabus.
Note that you may also want to include a diversity statement and a land acknowledgment statement on your syllabus.
Example Accessibility Statement:
I assume that all of us learn in different ways. If there are circumstances that may affect your performance in this class, please talk to me so that we can work together to develop strategies for accommodations that will satisfy both your learning needs and the requirements of the course. Whether or not you have a documented disability, there are many support services that are available to all students.
Disability and Access Services is the office responsible for assisting students with disabilities. If you have a disability that interferes with your learning (whether visible or invisible, physical or mental), you are encouraged to register with this office. Disability and Access Services will work with you to provide accessibility aids and/or determine appropriate accommodations for your courses, such as staggered homework assignments or note-taking assistance. This office will give you a letter outlining the accommodations you need that you can share with your instructors; specific information about your disability will remain private.
If you have any questions about accommodation, or what constitutes a disability, I invite you to speak with me, or to Disability and Access Services. You can contact them by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), phone (617-353-3658) or on their website.
Example Attendance Policy:
Since this course is a seminar, your regular attendance and in-class participation are essential both to your own learning and to your classmates’ learning. Because life happens, you may miss up to [#] classes without penalty. Under ordinary circumstances, missing more than one week of class will lower your final grade, and missing more than two weeks of class may lead to a failing grade in the course. These absences need not be consecutive. Note that I do not typically distinguish between excused and unexcused absences, so be careful to save your allowed absences for when you need them.
If you have special circumstances that will require you to miss classes (e.g., varsity athletics, religious observances, chronic illness), please speak with me at the beginning of the semester. We will work to arrange ways for you to make up not only the learning you miss, but also what your classmates miss due to your absence. Our discussion will be framed by this statement: “Attendance and showing up aren’t always the same thing. What does showing up look like for you?”
Example Late Paper Policy:
You are allotted a time bank of 48 hours that you may withdraw from and apply to the submission of any of your final graded assignments beyond the due dates indicated on the schedule. This eliminates the need to request extensions and allows you some flexibility in managing your workflow. After you empty your time bank, graded assignments will be penalized by one-third of a letter grade for each day of lateness. Please note that the time bank cannot be used for drafts. If you submit a draft late, you may not receive timely feedback. We will regularly work with drafts in class; when you are late with these, you will be unable to participate fully in the class, affecting your participation grade.
Accessibility and Remote/Hybrid Classes
Additional considerations about accessibility, equity, and inclusion in remote and/or hybrid classes are also discussed here.
Also see the reading list from our Fall 2017 Faculty Seminar on Disability, Inclusion, and Access.
- CCCC, “Disability Studies in Composition: Position Statement on Policy and Best Practices,” March 2020.
- Dolmage, Jay Timothy. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. Michigan, 2017.
- McKinney, Charlesia. “Reassessing Intersectionality: Affirming Difference in Higher Education.” Composition Forum 39 (Summer 2018).
- Womack, Anne-Marie. “Teaching Is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi,” CCC, vol. 68, no. 3, 2017, pp. 494-525.
- Wood, Tara, et al. “Where We Are: Disability and Accessibility: Moving Beyond Disability 2.0 in Composition Studies,” Composition Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, 2014, pp. 147–150. (Link requires BU login)
- Yuknis, Christina, and Eric R. Bernstein. “Supporting Students with Non-Disclosed Disabilities: A Collective and Humanizing Approach,” in Disability as Diversity in Higher Education: Policies and Practices to Enhance Student Success, edited by Eunyoung Kim and Katherine C. Aquino, Taylor & Francis, London, 2017, pp. 3–18. (Link requires BU login)