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The Multidimensional Approach to Accessibility

Posted on: August 27, 2021

Katherine C. Aquino, co-editor of Disability as Diversity in Higher Education , discusses how to improve course accessibility.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, educators were forced to examine their participation in and commitment to accessibility for their students and within their - oftentimes fully remote - classroom. U.S. postsecondary institutions have long been required to support students with self-identified disabilities requiring accommodations. However, the pandemic created an increased dialogue around the idea of accessibility within the higher education environment and how postsecondary community members can engage in a more accessible and inclusive learning environment for all students. As we transition to a reimagined higher education environment, it is important to continue our exploration of a multidimensional understanding of accessibility within our classrooms. Specifically, as educators, if we ask three simple questions, it will assist in the preparation of our coursework and our commitment to our students’ success:

1. How can I reimagine my course delivery and materials using a Universal Design for Learning approach?

As we shifted our in-person class sessions to synchronous and/or asynchronous remote formats, instructors no longer had the opportunity to informally engage with students in the casual start and end times an in-person class session might provide. For me, those informal opportunities of chatting with students as we left the building to our next meetings often allowed students to grow confident in sharing preferences in assignment submissions or their potential apprehensiveness in participating in group projects. Those informal dialogues provided my ability to learn students’ preferences and needs, allowing me to adjust my teaching style to best support all students enrolled in my course. As we know, the number of individuals who require classroom accommodations is much larger than those who actually self-disclose a disability with their institution’s disability resource office .

To ensure a more supportive learning environment (even without getting to know specific student learning preferences), begin a deeper dive in the Universal Design for Learning concept. Universal Design, the " process of creating products that are accessible to people with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, and other characteristics ," allows for an individualized experience that accommodates various preferences and needs in an approachable and inclusive structure. The use of Universal Design increases the usability for all participants and provides the opportunity to minimize the use of assistive technology due to the design's accessible construction. When creating accessible spaces, it is essential to realize the potential variation in self-identifying disability status and the need, or formal request, for accommodations to support the user's experience within a particular setting. It is then vital for the curator of a specific space to be mindful in the construction of educational and artistic spaces that are driven by the accessibility for all participants.

An extension of Universal Design, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) , is driven by the goal that all individuals have an equal opportunity to learn within the same environment. If learning spaces are not constructed with all students' abilities in mind , the specific learning experience may limit one, or more, individuals, creating a diminished, or inaccessible, learning experience. By integrating key planning features in the development of a course, the instructor can better address the inclusiveness of the intended class session or assignment. By focusing on the positive and supportive interaction of an individual and their environment, students can better partake in the learning materials and overall classroom objectives. By eliminating potential obstacles that can negatively impact students within a particular space, Universal Design, as well as the use of UDL concepts within the classroom environment, can " accommodate the range of human diversity " and truly promote learning within the educational environment.

2. Am I creating assignments and requiring student participation that is supported through the use of various devices and forms of technology?

When postsecondary institutions transitioned to a fully remote learning environment at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, students were required to participate in their coursework strictly through an online format . Students were no longer able to engage with their instructors and peers in an in-person setting or, if needed, have easy access to their institutions’ computer labs. Instead, students could only engage in their coursework through the utilization of the devices they had access to in their homes. And, for homes without a computer or not fully equipped with WiFi, students were forced to complete required course assignments through their smartphone.

Defined as one of a student's basic needs, access to affordable technology may often be a make-or-break aspect in their postsecondary success. While we often take for granted our reliance and overall need for technology in our daily tasks, it is vital that we, as educators, remember that our students will have varying access to and comfort with technology use. By providing different options for submitting work and including tutorials and resources on required systems and applications, it can alleviate stress for students with limited technology access. Must a paper be uploaded as a specific document type, or is there a way that they upload as just a plain text file? And, perhaps most importantly, it is important to ask yourself: Am I creating a space for students to share if they need assistance with device usage and/or limited access to the internet?

3. Have I made the necessary adjustments to my course materials to best support the accommodation plans of students with self-disclosed disabilities?

Within the higher education environment, students are required to formally self-disclose a disability and provide supporting documentation to receive student support services and accommodations. The institution’s disability resource office develops an accommodation plan that provides the student an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from their educational environment. Once an accommodation plan is finalized, it is the faculty member’s responsibility to ensure that the support services are successfully implemented within the classroom. Failure to support a student’s accommodation plan can create potential liability, as this action would not comply with associated federal law.

Before you receive any accommodation letters, it is recommended to have language in your course syllabus about seeking accommodations and contact information on your institution’s disability resource office. This creates space to provide information for students potentially needing services. Including this language within your syllabus does not mean you have to be an expert with policies on student disability and accommodations. If you are unsure of a question a student has related to disability support services or seeking accommodations, just refer them to your institution’s disability resource office. Remember, this office is there to support student disability on campus. Introduce yourself to the members of the office! Engage in conversations related to supporting and improving the postsecondary experiences of students with disabilities at your institution. If this inspires you, continue to educate yourself  on the accommodation process, important resources from various organizations supporting supporting postsecondary student disability , and best practices for faculty to support students with disabilities within the higher education environment.

Emerging data shows that the pandemic exacerbated the already known inequities within the higher education setting. As educators, it is irresponsible for us to not engage in conversations and initiatives related to increased accessibility for all student learners. While this task may feel a bit intimidating, beginning this work starts with a personal commitment to the overall importance of accessibility to support an inclusive postsecondary classroom setting.