Three steps towards making your classroom more accessible

12 January 2020

As faculty continue to consider how to make classrooms more inclusive, one area of discussion has been approaches to make our classrooms more welcoming for students with disabilities. In the summer of 2018, the LTC, Academic Technology, and the Office of Disability Services teamed up for a couple of targeted workshops with small groups of faculty to discuss this topic. Last month, both the new faculty workshop and the advising workshop included some tips and ideas for supporting students with disabilities. Tuesday’s LTC lunch will be a chance to learn about the work of the Carleton Assistive Technologists, student staff who are trained to support students with disabilities who are using assistive technologies.  

I have learned a lot from the programming, and from associated conversations with Celeste Sharpe and Chris Dallager, but I have also found that the sheer number of recommendations for improving classroom accessibility for students with disabilities can be overwhelming. I can become frozen as I ponder where to start making changes. Here are three do-able suggestions to make your course more accessible.   

Make your documents friendly to screenreaders 

Formatting elements that make a document friendly to screenreaders include: 

  • Using headings to format sections of your document (rather than just changing the size or formatting of the font). 
  • Embedding hyperlinks and using informative link text (rather than pasting links in a document or embedding hyperlinks in text that says “link.”)
  • Including alt text for images that describes the content of images or graphs. 

Here are some resources for key software: 

  • For Microsoft Word users, the built-in accessibility checker in Microsoft Word will help identify formatting that will not be friendly to screen readers and make the suggested changes. 
  • For Google doc users, reference this list about how to make your Google doc or more accessible. Also, when you create a new Google doc, underneath the “Tools” menu, go to “Accessibility settings” and check on the box to enable screen reader support. 

Be aware that if you scan a document to a PDF, it will not be screenreader friendly. To make scanned documents accessible to screen readers, use the tools in Adobe Acrobat Pro to convert the document to text (with appropriate tags) in order to make the document compatible with screenreaders. Web Accessibility In Mind provides a resource about how to make PDF documents accessible with Adobe Acrobat Pro

Present information in multiple modalities

Not all students access information equally well with all senses so aim to provide students the opportunity to engage with course material in multiple modalities. Here are three things you can do:

  • Caption video content. 
  • Verbally describe images that you reference during lectures or class discussions. 
  • In course materials and activities include text and graphics, audio and visual, rather than only one or the other.  

Learn about the Universal Design for Learning framework and use it to help design your courses

Universal Design for Learning is a framework for rethinking how you structure course activities and resources so you can support all students. The UDL guidelines consist of three key components: 

  • Provide multiple means of representation (e.g. materials are available in accessible file formats; use a variety of media; use both instructor created and student created course materials). 
  • Provide multiple means of engagement (e.g. vary the type of activities in the classroom; integrate self-assessment and reflection; invite students to apply their learning in a variety of different contexts; provide low stakes assessments with feedback).
  • Provide multiple means of action and expression (e.g. give students options for assignments; allow student choice about some aspects of course activities; provide opportunities to get feedback).

Many of these suggestions aren’t new, but UDL provides a more intentional approach to thinking about how you design your courses. If you would like some specific ideas about how to revise your course, the University of Calgary Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning has a UDL guide that includes reflection questions and planning worksheets for faculty.  

One important thing for faculty members to remember is that making your course and your course materials more accessible for all students doesn’t happen overnight. Each time you teach a course, consider one small change you could make that would address some of the points above. A series of small changes add up so don’t become discouraged if the number of tasks seems daunting.