Table of Contents
Accessibility is a very personal topic for me.
Growing up with severe depression and anxiety, coupled with Fibromyalgia and migraines, I struggled in school and had to find my own ways to approach coursework.
These were my “invisible” barriers—the physical and mental challenges that millions of us struggle with on a daily basis… and yet remain unseen by our peers and colleagues.
For students who are trying to earn their degree while juggling all their other commitments, invisible barriers can make learning and studying feel like untenable burdens.
In my role as a Learning Designer II at South Dakota State University, it’s my job (and my passion) to help faculty achieve just that by designing engaging and accessible courses. A big part of this work is being intentional in tackling accessibility challenges and helping faculty build accessible content while still meeting the objectives of their course.
Of course, we always want to support ALL of our students— but changing our teaching habits can add stress to our own plate. The good news: you actually can support all of your students, without having to make drastic changes to your course content.
Let’s explore invisible barriers students face in class—and how you can help your students feel empowered and motivated, even on their most challenging days.
🧠 Understand the reality of invisible barriers and the effects they can have.
💬 Demonstrate greater awareness of accessibility options.
🔎 Explore opportunities to increase accessibility in coursework and assessments.
Steps for Ensuring Accessibility
1. Review your current coursework. This is a great time to go through older learning materials and do some spring cleaning. Remove resources you are no longer using.
2. Optimize what you have. Consider running older documents through accessibility software.
- Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe have built-in trackers that are great for picking up most issues.
- Reach out to your IT department and see if there are other accessibility tools offered at your institution.
Questions to Ask IT
- Do you know if the accessibility tracker is turned on for our LMS?
- Could we make sure our word processing software has accessibility checkers?
- Is there software for checking the accessibility of websites?
3. Keep track. When creating new documents, be sure to turn on the accessibility tracker. This allows you to keep track while you create documents.
4. Think digital. If you are working in a face-to-face environment, consider adding content that students can access using a Learning Management System (LMS).
Write down questions for your IT team.
5. Be adaptable. Be mindful and open to change if it is needed. Showing compassion and being a role model in your classroom can inspire silent students to speak up.
6. Repeat. This is a fluid and growing process.
Try Universal Design for Learning
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) allows for a more flexible way to provide instruction and content. UDL may work in broad terms, but that added flexibility can also allow students the space to find content formats that work for them.
Seek to understand more about the different formats that accessibility software offers students. The more you are open to learning and becoming attuned to accessibility, the more naturally it will become part of the design of your course and materials.
Staying on Track
🔵 Seek feedback from your students and peers. Having extra eyes on a project can help you find gaps.
🔵 Accessibility is a constant process of refining and fine-tuning. Be open with your students and colleagues and tell them about your goals to make a more accessible course.
🔵 Review your materials on a regular basis. A best practice would typically be every other year, especially because tech and tools are always evolving. Try to obtain different formats of the materials (mp3, braille, large print, audio/ text) and see if they are easy to get and use.
🔵 Monitor your students’ engagement. Are students more engaged with the new content? Are areas where students traditionally struggled in your course showing marked improvement?
🔵 Place yourself in your students’ shoes and walk through the course from their perspective.
🔵 Survey your students. Consider using a midterm survey or even a journaling assignment. Do not be afraid to ask them questions and actively listen to their suggestions. Given an opportunity to discuss things that really matter to them, many students will.
Accessibility questions to ask your students:
- Did you feel you were able to access the content effectively?
- Do you have suggestions to make content easier to access?
- Which formats do you use most in your courses? If you are comfortable with it, can you share any accessibility software you use?
Write down accessibility questions you’d like to ask your students.
Unspoken Expectations and Misconceptions
There are unspoken expectations that instructors and learners create for each other.
Both sides expect the other side knows best. Students assume and expect that their instructor—often seen as the absolute authority—is providing them with all the tools they need. Teachers might assume a student will ask for help if they need it.
Whether intentional or not, these expectations create barriers that can stop the learning experience.
By recognizing the possibility of these unspoken expectations, I believe both learner and instructor can overcome them and experience learning and development in both roles.
Don’t assume that…
- Students can find all the help they need with disability services.
- A student who needs help will ask for it.
- Accessibility is only for online courses.
Check Your Tech
Many word processing tools now offer accessibility such as Microsoft Office 365, which has a built-in accessibility checker that can be turned on to check existing documents. These checkers can also be used while documents are being created.
Adobe and Apple products also offer similar services. If your courses are online, check with your IT services and determine if your institution’s Learning Management System (LMS) has accessibility options. Several of these systems, such as Canvas and Blackboard have accessibility checkers built in.
Blackboard also offers a service called “Blackboard Ally”, or simply “Ally”, which can be used in other LMSs to check accessibility. Many of these resources are also free or are offered for a small fee.
Download the Ebook
- Practical strategies to improve accessibility for students.
- Questions you can ask to meet students’ needs in class.
- A wealth of resources to explore accessibility further.
- McMaster University provides an excellent listing of the alternative formats that are currently available to students: https://accessibility.mcmaster.ca/digital-accessibility/alternative-formats
- Web Accessibility Perspectives Videos: Explore the Impact and Benefits for Everyone. Presented by the Web Accessibility Initiative: https://www.w3.org/WAI/perspective-videos/
- “Access and Accessibility in Online Learning Issues in Higher Education and K-12 Contexts,” Katherine McAlvage and Mary Rice. Online Learning Consortium, June 2018: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED593920.pdf
- “Beyond Compliance,” Mallory Smith, Laura Pineault, Marcus Dickson, and Krystal Tosch. InsideHigherEd, 2 September 2020: https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/09/02/making-accessibility-priority-online-teaching-even-during-pandemic-opinion
- “Universal Design for Learning and Digital Accessibility: Compatible Partners or a Conflicted Marriage?” Judy Ableser and Christina Moore. Educause Review, 10 September 2018. https://er.educause.edu/articles/2018/9/universal-design-for-learning-and-digital-accessibility-compatible-partners-or-a-conflicted-marriage
- “Online learning accessibility during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Shanna Russ, Foad Hamidi. Presentation from the 18th International Web for All Conference. 20 May 2021. https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/3430263.3452445
- “Inclusive Design for Online and Blended Courses: Connecting Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and Universal Design for Learning,” Educational Renaissance, vol. 7, 2018. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1218623.pdf
- “Strengthening Mental Health Awareness of University Students Using an Online Training Module,” Lavern Bourn. Doctoral dissertation presented on ProQuest. https://scholarworks.waldenu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=10331&context=dissertations
- “How do you feel today? Nurturing emotional awareness among students in online learning,” Josephine Luz De LeonPineda. Reflective Practice, Vol 23 Issue 3, 2022. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14623943.2022.2040010