Every person is or will be “disabled” at one point in life.

Some people have permanent disabilities–ones that may change in severity, but are always present.

Some people have temporary disabilities– for example a sports injury that is expected to heal completely.

Some people have situational disabilities — for instance they cannot hear a lecture because there is construction going on outside the lecture hall.

For most of us, these difficulties come and go, and how they affect us varies with the environment. How do they impact teaching and learning?

There are a few principles to keep in mind when designing a universally accessible course:

  1. It should be flexible
  2. It should be equitable
  3. Curricular materials should be easily perceived
  4. There should be tolerance for error
  5. Any interface used to access course material should be simple and intuitive
  6. The materials should be beneficial to everyone
  7. The “ease-of-use” should be proactively built into the course design


So, what does that mean in practice?

Here is a scenario:

Professor Kapadia is teaching a very large Spring term course in the University’s largest lecture hall. There are approximately 400 students enrolled in the course. The course meets on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, in the middle of the morning. She has been informed that there is a student with a disability in her course–he has mobility issues.

The course is highly regarded by students. It is the gateway course to the major, and a favorite choice among non-majors for fulfillment of a distribution requirement. Most of the students are freshman and sophomores, who are approaching the course materials with different levels of expertise. Some are juniors and seniors taking the course to meet a non-major requirement. Their next class is likely to not be in the same “neighborhood”, so they have a long walk to the classes before and after Professor K’s course. Sometimes they arrive late, and they must leave exactly on time to make it to another course across campus.

About 15% of the course is made up of international students. 10% of US students come from high schools that did not teach this particular subject in any depth, if at all.

Professor K. leads two precept sessions herself, on Monday and Tuesday, respectively. She has 35 other precepts in the course, taught by a team of graduate AIs. Because of the number of precepts, some of them  need to meet at the same time, with different instructors.

The AIs who teach on Thursday report that their precepts are full of student athletes who have a gap in their practice schedules on that day. These students are worried because it is the season for their sport and they might miss the Friday lectures owing to team practice or trips to games.

Other preceptors note that some students are unpracticed in how to read and take notes for this type of course, and don’t understand what is expected. The “great” students seem to be breezing through the materials, and dominate precept discussions.

The lecture hall in which the class meets is in a beautiful historic building on campus, designed by an architect who was active in the late 19th-early 20th century. The room existed long before the addition of the technology to the classroom, most importantly the projector and screen. Professor K. relies upon PowerPoint slides and video files as teaching materials to teach. Although the room is lovely, the seats are old wooden tablet arms, bolted to the slanted floor of the bowl-shaped hall. The wooden floors are carefully preserved, but squeak. The sight lines to the screen where the slides and movie clips are displayed are not ideal from the seats in the side and back of the room. Additionally, tablet arms of the chairs are small, and overwhelmingly designed for right-handed users; taller and larger students look uncomfortable in their seats. The sound system is excellent, but the squeaky floors compete with the lecture material.

The man defined as a “special-needs” student uses a powered wheelchair for mobility. He has no problem finding a place to sit in the front row of the room where there are gaps in the seats intended for wheelchairs. The other students obligingly move their backpacks if they are in the way–they have all observed that he needs to back into his space in the lecture hall. There is an elevator accessible directly outside of the room.

In many ways the “disabled” student has better access to this class than some of his classmates. Professor K. is surprised to realize that her worries about him being equitably treated in her course are stood on their head. He is the only person who is guaranteed a clear view of the screen, and the only person sitting in a comfortable chair.

How might the UDL principles be applied here? The challenges presented by the room cannot be fixed directly, as the building is a protected structure.

  • Flexibility:
    • adapt to the different needs and abilities of the learners in the course
      • design precepts around user levels — have extended precepts for self-selected novices
      • give priority non-Friday precept selection to athletes so they don’t suffer for being on a team
      • design digital course handouts to make up for poor sight-lines in the classroom; provide copies of slides for those who can’t see; for those who have to leave early; for those who have occasional athletic events
  • Equity:
    • make sure everyone in the course gets the same access to materials
      • consider recording lectures for the students who can’t attend on Fridays and for those who have bad seats — ironically, the student in the wheelchair is the only person in the course guaranteed a great seat because his only options are front and center
      • design rubrics and teaching plans so the AIs are all offering pretty much the same material, and grading on the same terms
      • make rubrics available to students; give them examples of what earns a good grade and why
      • design low-stakes extra credit assignments. In this way the novice students can practice and gain expertise; the more expert students won’t get bored
      • create assignments that allow those who don’t like to speak up in class can also express opinions, and include them in the discussion–be clear about what “participation” means to you
      • provide any textual materials in machine-readable text
  • Make sure the curricular materials are “easily perceived”
    • The room is handicapping some students because of its poor sight lines to the screen; so a large number of students in this room might have a “situational” disability”
      • provide out-of-class review materials on an accessible website
      • make class handouts digital, not paper
      • provide alt-tags for images and closed captioning for videos
      • make lectures available after class for review — there are recording tools Professor K can use as she designs her PowerPoint and practices for class; such a large room might have the ability to record lectures
      • provide assignments and class materials in different formats: text; charts; data; diagrams; images; video
      • make certain your textual materials are machine-readable, so that students can resize, adjust contrast, cut and past to synthesize, and use as a framework for note-taking
  • Tolerate errors:
    • First define “error.” An error is missing a class. An error is writing an inadequate paper, an error is getting sick, an error is sitting in a “bad” seat
      • Define your tolerance for certain errors on your syllabus (for example, unexcused absence from class)
      • Accommodate excused class absences (sporting events, job interviews, illness) by providing backup material, particularly for predictable absences, i.e. student athletes who travel on one of your scheduled class days — this also ensures “Equity”
      • Create practice materials for more inexperienced students, where failure is not penalized, and exercises can be repeated
      • Design class assignments in a variety of formats so that everyone plays to learned strategies from other courses, i.e. video assignments, written work, oral presentations, drawings . . .
      • Consider more frequent low-stakes assessments (online quizzes, machine-graded tests, clicker questions) so that students can learn by practice
      • Design the final grade to have a small tolerance for error, for example dropping one low grade
  • Find a simple and intuitive interface for course materials
    • Institutional LMS providers, such as Blackboard, are required by law to make their platforms accessible for the blind and deaf. However, materials added to the framework of the LMS should be designed with some accessibility points in mind — and follow the principles of universal design for whatever you upload to the site
      • Keep material accessible from the “top” level of the student menu. Label the menu items clearly and provide access, where possible with one “click.” Not everyone can use a mouse, and clicking requires keyboard actions. Minimize the need for clicks
      • Make the internal navigation of the site clear. Is it easy to see exactly what is required for the lectures in Week 3? Or do you have to search several different documents to find out?
      • Put the syllabus online. Mention if readings come in print and digital formats
      • Supplemental course websites, for instance, a course blog should be run through an accessibility checker such as WAVE. This will mark possible errors — low contrast text, missing alt images, inaccessible content, or other common web mistakes
      • If students are required to complete assignments in formats that are unfamiliar to them (for example creating a short, edited video), make certain they have access to training, and that the effort required to complete the assignment is in keeping with the grade
      • Consider popular consumer websites that earn money by being accessible — Apple and Amazon’s storefronts for example. These sites are designed to make finding and purchasing items as easy as possible. You can learn lessons from studying good site design
  • The materials should benefit everyone
    • It’s easy to favor highly-achieving students because they seem to be a good reflection of successful teaching. It may simply be that they have the ‘situational disability’ of being temporarily beyond the level of your course content. This inequity may even out over the course of the semester. Course content should be challenging, but challenging at an appropriate level for the course — you can engage high performers with bonus material, and provide less experienced students the opportunity for un-assessed practice materials and reward them for their engagement with the material — these rewards should be on par with the bonus points
    • The materials being machine-readable, as explained earlier, can make it benefit the needs of widest audience, not only for disabilities, but by making the structure of the course more transparent, and guiding the learning process
    • Culture, background, and linguistic difference will be present in every class of students. Make sure your course materials are clearly written, and of an appropriate level to the course
    • Be agile in your teaching; if you notice inequities, consider what is causing them, and adjust your curricular materials if it is appropriate
    • If your course requires physical effort, for example, lifting, building, walking, consider the needs of students who may not be “disabled” by the institutional standard, but might be unable to complete some task
  • Ease of use should be “built-in”

The examples given here should go a long way in making your course “easy” to access, so that student effort is spent on mastering course content.