Best Practices for Accessibility

Making Accessibility an Ongoing Practice

Given that our role as educators positions us within the infrastructure of the university, there isn’t one model for addressing ableism in our classrooms. In addition to following your institution’s policies on access and accommodation, you may also want to consider how you’ll address ableism beyond official policies in relation to your own capacity and ethical approach both inside and outside of the classroom.

Perhaps you are part of a disability justice group, or you have developed strategies to work towards transformative models of disability justice beyond your classroom. However, for those with less experience in disability justice and accessibility work, introducing these principles into your teaching can be part of a process, such as by:

  • Incorporating principles of universal design into your teaching;
  • Learning one tool for universal design each term and then applying these to your next assignment, syllabus, or lecture;
  • Providing options for students to exercise autonomy and self-determination in negotiating their access needs rather than limiting options and making choices for them;
  • Attending accessibility workshops and trainings provided by the university and other organizations;
  • Learning more about disability justice from disabled thinkers, writers, activists, students, and educators; and
  • Developing flexibility in assignments that allow students to make their own adaptations.

Beyond accommodation, faculty can integrate critical disability approaches and material into their courses by engaging with disability rights, disability justice, crip theory and politics, mad studies, disability arts and activism, neurodivergence, and critiques of ableism. Further, in addition to adopting universal design principles for course materials, faculty can work to transform their classes by building relationships with disabled communities, re-envisioning the structure and role of their classrooms, and engaging in continued learning and transformative work relating to disability justice in education.


Flexibility, Self-Determination and Autonomy in Assessment and Course Design

If you’re thinking of ways to adapt your courses, consider which practices you have flexibility around and which are non-negotiable (e.g. alternative assignment structures, flexibility around deadlines and extensions, etc.) Developing flexibility in your courses and your approach to teaching can make your courses adaptable to everyone involved. In a traditional model of teaching, assessment follows a singular trajectory where everyone completes the same assignments with the same deadlines. Providing options for everyone can help students determine for themselves how to adapt their learning approach to your assessment.

Instead of making choices for students, providing options, flexibility, and models for them to work from can empower students in their education rather than require them to self-advocate. This can be accomplished by:

  1. Offering structured models for assignments and deadlines;
  2. Clear and transparent policies on extensions;
  3. Inviting students to manage their timelines rather than using a punitive approach (e.g. grade deductions for late submissions); and
  4. Not requiring medical notes or official documentation for extensions.

Centring self-determination and respect for people’s autonomy provides a good foundation for decisions around best practices. For instance, if a student discloses details of their accommodation request to you, you have an obligation to keep that information confidential unless otherwise stipulated by the student.

Note Taking Strategies

In contexts where note-takers are not provided by university accessibility services, faculty can directly improve access by incorporating note-taking for students through in-class incentives (e.g., marks) for sharing notes or collective note-taking practices, where students rotate taking notes on a cloud-based platform so that notes are available to everyone in the class.

Institutional Access Policies

Institutional policies on access and accessibility generally follow government regulations and human rights and anti-discrimination policies. However, many of these laws, policies, and practices may not reflect the shifting language and best practices in disability justice approaches to accessibility. For example, university policies are sometimes drafted and implemented decades ago and are infrequently updated to respond to how “the discourse and approach to Accessibility and Disability has greatly changed” (Center for Gender Advocacy, Mapping Project, 2020 [PDF]). As such, faculty may be following official university policies with regard to accessibility and inclusion, yet doing so may not be enough to address implicit and explicit exclusions, ableism, and discrimination from taking place in our classrooms.

Access policies can be vague as to what actions are expected of students and other stakeholders (staff, teachers, administration) in securing an accessible learning environment. Faculty are encouraged to provide universal accessibility in their classes but are not required to do so and are not provided with resources or funding to incentivize and facilitate improving accessibility in education. Further, prohibitive costs associated with disability-related diagnosis and new or temporary disabilities mean that a significant number of students and faculty will have accessibility needs that may not be supported at the start of each semester.

Limitations on Access Services

Government and university policies predetermine who is recognized and eligible to access services provided by educational institutions and what accommodations a student is given, usually following an official diagnosis. Specific accommodations are usually determined by diagnosis rather than actual needs, although accessibility office staff may try to adjust accommodations to help support disabled students.

For a variety of reasons, students may have unmet support for their needs, both institutionally and through diagnosis. Financial constraints may limit who can access diagnosis or support services, given that learning disability assessments are costly and not usually covered by schools, public healthcare, or private insurance. In other cases, students experiencing a mental health crisis may require a psychological evaluation and diagnosis to access accommodations, which can be impacted by limits in the availability of appointments with qualified medical professionals. Without an official and recognized diagnosis, accommodations are not easily provided by institutions. The result is that despite the high number of students enrolled with access services, a significant number of students have access needs that remain unrecognized and unmet by educational institutions.

The principles of universal accessibility reduce the burden on individual students by reorienting the classroom in a way that assumes students will have access needs. While the burden cannot rest only on individual faculty members to predict student needs, students with access needs face significant barriers and biases around their navigation of access in education.

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Better Practices in the Classroom by Natalie Kouri-Towe and Myloe Martel-Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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