Accessing accessibility

The word ‘accessibility’ comes up all the time in education. But do we understand how to successfully integrate accessibility into the courses we are building and delivering, especially with more and more teaching online?

I sat down with Associate Professor Jennifer Smith- Merry, Director of the Centre for Disability Research and Policy at the University of Sydney, to discuss the common barriers and assumptions we make around accessibility, and how to take a more holistic approach to disability inclusion.  

There are a multitude of disabilities people live with. A disability can be visible, invisible, permanent, or temporary and can impact can a person’s abilities in a number of different ways (Wayland et al., 2020). When we make decisions about the design of our units and classes it is important to consider all learners and their varying needs. Indeed, Pearson and Koppi (2002) show that providing accessible learning materials can benefit all students, not just those with different needs.

Be curious

Asking and listening are important when it comes to disability inclusion. One approach involves bringing in students with lived experience of disabilities to consult on a unit. They can test and give feedback on content and advise the academic team on how they can improve accessibility.

Jennifer likens it to the importance of peer review in teaching and suggests building accessibility checking into existing frameworks so they sit alongside other procedures and quality control approaches we implement.

I think that we undervalue the resources we already have and I think that those students undervalue that as a resource as well. It’s sort of like a win/win, in that you’re saying to those students, you have this important knowledge that we want to draw on.”

Be open to feedback

A more localised, one-on-one approach can be simply asking ‘what do you need?’

Jen gave an example of a postdoc student who was deaf-blind. Jen didn’t know what the student’s accessibility requirements were, so she asked. It turns out the student just needed the learning materials in the form of a Word document to be able to navigate the content. This eliminated the need to engage an accessibility assistant for the whole session. It was a simple solution that was easy to implement and positively impacted that student’s learning experience.

“We don’t know many deaf-blind people, so we can’t understand what their accessibility needs are. I wouldn’t have guessed that, I had to say, ‘how can we make it so that it’s accessible?’

I can’t guess that for her.”

Be flexible

It is also important to maintain a sense of flexibility when teaching those with disabilities, especially when it comes to assessment. Jen suggests taking the time to build out assignments so they can be submitted by students in different ways, depending on the student’s needs. For example, allowing students to submit either an essay or a piece of multimedia, or to work on their own or in a group, gives students with disabilities the opportunity to showcase their knowledge in a way that is accessible to them.  

“Unless one of the learning outcomes is to write a really long essay on something, then it doesn’t need to be an essay.”

Be inclusive

Understanding the needs of students with disabilities and embracing the insights of those with lived experience can start to shift the way educators approach accessibility and unit design. Without these voices, it is easy to make assumptions and forget that accessibility for these students is not an optional extra, but a core component to their success at university.

“Inclusion breeds inclusion. The more you have people included, the more people understand what it’s like to live with disability. The more likely it is that people are going to think about accessibility, the more likely they are to create the environment where people with disabilities are able to participate.”

What can you do?

Take a moment to think about one change you could implement to enhance the learning experience of a student with a disability. Welcome feedback and input from students to guide you. Learn more about Universal Design for Learning and digital accessibility. If you’re part of the USYD community, you can attend the UDL forum on next week.

This work is will enhance your teaching, enhance student learning and enhance the culture of inclusivity in your place of work.

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Stacey Petersen works as a Digital Learning Designer in the Business Co-Design team, building sustainable Connected Learning at Scale (CLaS) units that bring engaging digital learning experiences to students. With a background in communications, distilling information and transforming it into something meaningful to the receiver is something that informs all aspects of both her life and learning design practice.

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