Classroom Accessibility & Universal Instructional Design

This month at Ask a TA we are talking about accessibility and universal instructional design. Our post is a collaboration between myself, Sandy Carpenter your Ask a TA Coordinator, and Elliot Storm, the TATP Social Sciences Team Coordinator and my personal go-to accessibility expert. We’ve also included some resources at the end of the post to get you on your way to accessible teaching.

TAs often encounter students in their class that require accommodations. But as a TA, we don’t usually directly receive the letters that CIs do which include the accommodations. So, how can we support all our students without necessarily knowing what they need? Universal instructional design is a great solution because it considers the potential needs of all students. This can include accessibility accommodations, but also encompasses thinking about diverse learners’ needs and incorporating multiple teaching techniques to meet those needs.

Since I am not a traditional aural learner, as a teacher I constantly strive to find ways to engage audio, visual, tactile, and kinetic learners. But making my classes accessible to all students has especially been on my mind this year – so I was delighted when I recently had a chance to attend the TATP workshop “Accessibility 101: Accessible Teaching and Learning at the University of Toronto.” Something I really liked about this workshop was how the facilitators used accessibility accommodations as a springboard for thinking about how we can support all learners with the concept of universal instructional design. Although universal instructional design was already on my radar (at TATP we talk about it often), the “101” facilitators wed together all the needs of students as a reminder to focus on the diversity of my students and to try to reach each one of them by some means or other.

For those of you who are interested in accessibility but didn’t make the “101” workshop, here are my highlights. Firstly, it must be said that student accommodations are an issue of equity. Accommodations are offered to give all students at the university an equal chance to succeed academically and personally, and as students it is our right to an accessible education in accordance with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Secondly, the facilitators problematized the accommodation model. They put the accommodation model, which places the problem on the person, in contrast with the accessibility model, which locates the problem on the inaccessible environment. This is not to say that the accommodation model is not useful – in fact, it is essential because we do not live in a barrier-free world. The accommodation model is where we are, and it is very helpful to many people who otherwise would face difficult or insurmountable barriers to their education. But regardless of whether or not our students have documented accommodations, it is good practice to constantly ask ourselves how we can make our teaching more accessible to all students. Thirdly, we must remember that accessibility and learning needs vary from person to person. So while we strive to make a learning environment more and more inclusive, we may not reach all students – but that should not deter us from continuing to try. The more inclusive we are, the more we include various teaching and learning styles, the more likely we are to reach our students’ needs and to empower them to take responsibility for their own learning with as few barriers as possible. The idea that we might one day be able to take down all barriers to accessibility may or may not be realistic, but that we continue to try, that we continue to think of all the needs of our learners make me confident like these efforts have an impact on our student body at the University of Toronto.

But, how do we get from wanting to help our students to actually having an impact? I asked Elliot what he thinks people ought to know about accessibility, universal instructional design, and teaching at U of T. Here’s what he said in his own words:

‘I think most people want to make their teaching environments accessible but aren’t necessarily sure what that looks like or what concrete steps they can take to expand access without sacrificing academic rigour. The good news is that there are many small but significant things that TAs and CIs can do to promote accessibility and which are conducive to effective teaching and learning for all students, not just for people with disabilities or impairments.

I think one of the most important strategies a TA can adopt is to actually talk about accessibility with their class. Although many syllabi include an institutional statement about accessibility, it’s common for TAs/CIs to skip it when introducing the syllabus, or to only discuss it very briefly as a matter of mandatory policy. However, using that blurb to segue into a more personal discussion about accessibility can make a great deal of difference by showing that it’s something you take seriously. For example, in my classes I make note of the statement, but follow it up by saying something to the effect of “it’s important to me that this class is accessible, and I am more than happy to talk with you on a one-on-one basis (or with your Accessibility Counsellor, if you have one) about how we can achieve that.” It’s a quick comment, but it signals to students that I’m willing to do what I can to ensure they can fully participate in the course, and that I’m approachable whether or not they’re registered with Accessibility Services.

With respect to universal instructional design specifically, a really great strategy is one that we’re already familiar with in the context of lesson design: the articulation of learning objectives at the beginning of every class. Providing learning objectives makes it clear to all students what they’ll be expected to know, and can be especially useful (to take one example) for students who find it difficult to focus or follow the structure/pace of class. Another good practice is to offer students different options for completing assignments, or to give them information well ahead of time. Participation grades, for example, are often determined wholly by verbal contributions in class, which can be a barrier for individuals who are anxious or who need time to formulate their thoughts before speaking. Developing alternatives or workarounds that still require students to meet the course objectives, such as allowing reading responses that demonstrate engagement with a text, or providing discussion questions in advance so students can prepare comments, are two simple ways to create more accessible learning environments.

Making our teaching environments accessible is an ongoing process, and one that requires continuous adaptation. Fortunately, a little goes a long way when it comes to making teaching and learning more accessible.’

Ready to start making your teaching more accessible? Here are a few resources to get you going. TATP has created this handy guide, “Fostering Accessible Learning” geared toward TAs and CIs just like you!

Here are two more resources that are Ontario-specific. The Council of Ontario Universities’ Accessible Campus Resource is a comprehensive guide to accessibility across the province. The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario published a report in 2013 entitled “Disability in Ontario: Postsecondary education participation rates, student experience and labour market outcomes.”  This resource provides an overview of the current ways that students with disabilities access and experience university and college life.

The book Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice by Sheryl Burgstahler and Rebecca Cory (2008) offers background and great strategies for implementing accessible education standards to help you make your class more accessible right away.

We also have a TATP workshop on Tuesday 22 March called “Promoting Pedagogical Accessibility through Universal Instructional Design.” Hope to see you there!