Strategies for Supporting Students

Student Perspectives on Accessibility

While this section summarizes findings from the Centre for Gender Advocacy’s Mapping Project Report and current practices at Concordia University, many of the findings may be applicable to those teaching at other institutions. Self-advocacy is often expected from students and may even be written into access policies.

While ‘Self-advocacy’ is currently outlined as a Disabled student’s responsibility within Concordia’s Student Accessibility Policy, there are no responsibilities for professors outlined within the policy nor mandatory training on accessibility and disability rights. This leaves students navigating an inconsistent and unsupportive environment when disclosing their disability.

Center for Gender Advocacy
Mapping Project

42% of student respondents to the Centre for Gender Advocacy’s Mapping Project Report (2020) dropped a course for accessibility reasons.

According to the Center for Gender Advocacy’s Mapping Project, students with disabilities and access needs reported that many faculty members invalidated, shamed, or dismissed their needs if students did not provide official documentation from institutional access offices. For this reason, students use early interactions with professors and the syllabus language to gauge faculty receptivity for negotiating access needs.

In a survey done by the Mapping Project, students overwhelmingly reported wanting faculty to receive better training around accessibility. See Table 1.2 (below) for a compilation of the most significant of students’ desires, out of the 252 people surveyed by this project, for faculty to better engage with disability justice.

Mapping Project Survey Results [Skip Table]

Desire for instructors to learn more about: Students (%)
Accommodating students with extensions when lateness is disability-related: 79.76%
Using teaching methods that are more accessible to neurodivergent students: 77.38%
Understanding the accommodations process at the Accessibility Centre: 71.43%
Making use of adaptive technology: 59.52%
Developing methods for teaching for students who have mobility-related disabilities: 52.38%
Not shaming students for being disabled: 46.38%

Table 1.2 Mapping Project survey results.

Including a clear and grounded-in-action section on accommodations in your syllabus and class allows students to know what to expect and what is possible while signalling to students whether their professor is approachable and available to negotiate accessibility needs in the class.

Strategies for Supporting Students

Common Accessibility Challenges and Possible Solutions [Skip Table]

Examples of Common Accessibility Challenges Possible Solutions
A student is not registered for accessibility accommodations but is finding it difficult to focus on readings. The student has started using a screen reader for class readings, but the PDF files are not compatible with the software. Moving towards PDF files that are compatible with screen-readers can be beneficial long-term for courses. The librarian staff can often provide support for generating accessible formatting for documents.
Ensuring screen-reader compatibility is incorporated into the course and syllabus from the outset can improve overall access.
A student is not registered for accessibility accommodations and has recently developed anxiety that is affecting their participation in class. The student emailed to say they were struggling but have stopped attending class and are at risk of not completing the course. If students experience barriers to participation, inviting them to negotiate alternative approaches to class participation could make it possible for students to return to the classroom.
Providing flexibility and reducing the “all-or-nothing” stakes associated with a course can allow students to recuperate and adapt if they fall behind with course progress.
A student is registered for accessibility accommodations and has relied on the note-taker services. Now those services are no longer provided by the university, and the student is struggling with the course. An easy solution to this institutional barrier is to provide in-class incentives for students to share their notes with their peers.
Examples of this include bonus marks for voluntary note-takers, a rotating assignment where students share their lecture notes with the class, or small group work of collaborative note-taking.

Table 1.3 Strategies for Supporting Students

In all the above examples, student access needs exceed what is currently available to them through official university services. Instructor receptivity to working with students on accommodations and accessibility can be a meaningful and impactful way of supporting student learning. Further, adapting teaching approaches and incorporating accommodations and changes to your teaching and your courses can have long-term benefits for all students.


Strategies for Accessibility

Complete “Making Learning Inclusive and Accessible” Modules
Use Screen-Reader Compatible PDF Files
Enable Large-Font Options
Use Accessible Fonts
Provide Image Descriptions
Consider the Visuals
Classroom Notetaker
Collective Revision
Laptop Use
Office Hours (By Telephone, Text-Chat, Video-Chat)
Survey the Students
Consider the Space
Accessibility in the Online Classroom

Complete “Making Learning Inclusive and Accessible”

Developed across multiple higher education institutions throughout Québec, Making Learning Inclusive and Accessible is a free course on making learning inclusive and accessible are offered as a set of online learning modules.

Use Screen-Reader Compatible PDF Files

Develop OCR-compatible (Optical character recognition) documents for your class (i.e., documents compatible with screen-reader technology.) Librarian staff and access offices can often help with generating and sourcing OCR-compatible versions of readings.

Converting a Word file into a screen-reader-compatible PDF file can be done using Word or Adobe Acrobat’s OCR menu feature [PDF]. Avoid using too many special character features in a document, as that may disrupt the OCR function (e.g. tables, unique fonts, etc.)

Use the “Headings” feature in Microsoft Word to facilitate screen-reader navigation throughout the document.

Or, make tables in Microsoft Word screen-reader friendly by assigning them a “Header Row.”

Enable Large-Font Options

Providing optional large-font format copies of documents can be a proactive way of offering more accessible course materials. For example, offering both 12pt and 16pt font versions of class documents.

Use Accessible Fonts

Helvetica, Courier, Arial, Verdana and Computer Modern CMU have all been identified as more accessible fonts for readers with dyslexia. Beyond these fonts, you should prioritize sans serif, monospaced, and Roman font types, reducing italicized fonts. In particular, when using Arial, Italics should be avoided.

Consider the Visuals

Many students may benefit from visual cues to help with learning, understanding concepts, and following topics. If using visuals in class (like slides), be sure not to include too much text and use fonts, colours and images that are easy to read and see with high contrast. You can also provide descriptions for the images you show as part of your lecture.

If you are unsure whether the font you are using or colour choices are accessible and easy to see, you can use an online colour contrast checker to adjust your colour choice accordingly.

Classroom Notetaker

Collectivizing accessibility, such as through organizing class notetakers to help make accessibility a concern for the whole class.

Student contributions to access can even be incorporated into the assessment structure of the course, where students rotate taking notes and posting these on the course page or a shared document as part of their participation grade or as an assignment.

Collective Revision

Asking students to collectively assess the syllabus and classroom at the beginning of a course for gaps in access can be a beneficial teaching moment and an opportunity for students to voice access needs they see missing for themselves or their classmates. Develop a solutions-oriented approach to adapting the course to the concerns raised by students with tangible actions that you can take to improve the course.

Laptop Use

Laptop and other technology use in class have been documented as being disruptive to student learning, in part because these technologies are designed to drive users to scroll and interact with platforms such as web browsers, social media sites/apps, and chat features that distract rather than assist students.

Further, studies have shown that students retain more information when using hand-written notes than typed notes. For this reason, many faculty and departments prohibit using laptops in classes.

However, students using these technologies for accessibility purposes may be disadvantaged or feel unwelcome to request these technologies when restrictive policies are in place. For this reason, faculty are encouraged to develop classroom policies that make laptop use available to students for access needs with clear language around consequences for inappropriate use of these technologies. Faculty should not assume what learning and assistive technology needs students have and can instead make laptops and other assistive technology use available (with conditions) to encourage student self-determination.

Office Hours (By Telephone, Text-Chat, Video-Chat)

Including a phone number where you can be reached during office hours and providing text-based chat and video call options can increase access across a range of disabilities and barriers (e.g. needing reduced screen time, unstable internet connection, long commutes to campus, inaccessible office.)

Survey the Students

Because university accessibility services may only provide details on accommodations once the semester begins, you can use pre-course surveys to give students the opportunity (either anonymously or confidentially) to share their access needs, regardless of whether the university officially provides these services.

Consider the Space

Doing an accessibility audit [PDF] of the spaces you teach in and meet with students can help identify ways to reduce barriers and troubleshoot access before the semester begins.

Some example questions you could consider when checking your spaces for accessibility:

  1. Does your classroom use fluorescent lighting?
  2. Is your office in an accessible building?
  3. Is the classroom and nearest washroom accessible by wheelchair and electronic chair?
  4. Is there construction, or are there obstacles that block accessible pathways?
  5. Is your office furniture set up in a way that allows people with different kinds of mobility to access the room?
  6. Are there alternate accessible spaces available nearby?
  7. Could a meeting that is happening in person happen remotely instead?
  8. Are strong chemicals used in the space? Allergens? Do you wear perfumes and fragrances?

Accessibility in the Online Classroom

When teaching remotely, turn on “closed captioning” and/or “live transcription” when teaching. Using this function enables students to toggle on this feature. Although this software isn’t perfect and not the most reliable format for full accessibility – it provides a helpful tool for students who benefit from reading along with class discussions and lectures.

License

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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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