Friday, May 28, 2010

Accessible Course Hacks: A Brief Primer

This is a last-minute submission for Hacking the Academy.

Because "disability" is an extremely slippery category, it's not easy to state what percentage of students on any given campus have a disability, but various studies have estimated that between 3 and 11 percent of undergraduate students enter college with some kind of disability. If we're including physical, learning, and emotional disabilities—both those students are aware of and those they are in the process of developing or identifying—I suspect the number is much higher.

So I'm puzzled when faculty members—and there have been many—say to me, "In all my years of teaching, I've never had a disabled student in my classes."

After all, if you're teaching a class of 300 students—and my university has classes that enroll upward of 900, so I'm being conservative here—and 10 percent of them have some kind of disability, you're looking at 30 students who right off the bat might need some kind of accommodation but might not ask for help.

Accommodating students is usually really easy once they ask for help. After all, in order to comply with state or federal laws, most universities have administrative or student-services units that work with students with disabilities to determine for which accommodations they're eligible and ensure they get the needed assistance. Often, the only time faculty hear about students' disabilities is when they receive a note from the student disabilities center informing them that certain students qualify for additional time on an exam. Such accommodations are ridiculously simple to provide.

I've found that it's very easy to accommodate students in other ways as well; it's usually not any additional work, and is in fact a matter of being cognizant and thoughtful. Let me use blind or low-vision students as an example. I arrive at my first class already having posted an accessible version of the syllabus online, and I have both standard and large-print versions of my syllabus available. When I've taught low-vision students, I simply need to remember to e-mail any handouts to them in advance of the class so that they can pull them up on their laptops with screen readers or transfer it to their Braille PDAs. I also am careful to describe any images or video I'm sharing with the class.

When I accommodate students with disabilities, many other students benefit. Drawing again on my examples above, any student might appreciate having a digital version of the syllabus handy. And if I e-mail class handouts to the entire class instead of just those students who have been cleared for accommodations, more students arrive ready to discuss the topic at hand because the handouts I send help to frame their understanding of the material they've read or viewed or listened to. In the case of images I'm projecting onto a screen during class, I frequently have students describe images to one another because they all—sighted or not—find new layers to an image when they discuss it with their peers. In fact, sometimes I'll pass out an image to a group, and only one person in each group gets to look at it at first—they have to describe it to the other students in the group, and the other students ask questions about it, which tends to deepen their understanding of what's going on.

There are dozens, and probably hundreds, of ways we can accommodate students with a variety of physical and learning disabilities, but the most important thing, I think, is that we adhere to principles of the universal design for learning as we develop our courses. To borrow a phrase from the disability movement, we need to "build in" such accommodations instead of "bolting them on" after the fact. Yes, there are certain things—like the amount of extra time a student should receive on an exam—that are best determined, out of fairness to all students, by experts who have documented the student's disability, but there are plenty of things we can do to accommodate students without having to worry about establishing an accidental legal precedent.

It can seem overwhelming at first, I know, but really it's about being mindful—double-checking, for example, that the blog platform or course management system you're using is accessible to all users—rather than about opening yourself up to a ton of additional work. One small step I typically take is not only to include a statement on my syllabus saying that I'd like to hear from students with disabilities, but also emphasize my interest in teaching all students by highlighting this section of the syllabus on the first day of class. Since I began making a bigger deal out of my desire to accommodate students with disabilities in simple ways, I've had greater numbers of students approach me for assistance, and they've never asked for anything unreasonable. Many of them end up going to student disability services for the first time ever to document a learning disability they have suspected for some time. I've taken a good deal of satisfaction in helping students better understand how they themselves learn, as well as in presenting them with resources they might use to explore the complexity of their various identities, including their status as people with disabilities.


Lilian said...

Well, I'm glad that at least one of the people I read are contributing. I don't have the time and energy to do it.

I taught for nearly six years and I had two students with documented disabilities (and some others with problems too, although I cannot recall their cases well).

The first was a legally blind young woman and the other had some developmental/psychological problems. Both were very involved students that participated and did their best. The first one needed help do do exams and performed very well in everything. The second ended up not turning in any papers, but she participated actively in the class discussions. In spite of the fact that she was slightly oppositional, I think we benefited from her presence. I, personally, learned a lot from both students and cases.

Lilian said...

P.S. Don't you agree that one week is not long enough for a productive discussion and meaningful interactions to emerge?