Accessibility, Universal Design for Learning & Supporting Neurodiverse Students
We all learn differently. Some of us prefer images or graphics, some like to move around, some really need words spoken and some need words written down. Some need all of that. And some students have diagnosed disabilities that require accommodation. But it’s best to design your courses so students don’t need accommodations, to design for all types of learners and all types of people. To the extent possible, include multiple ways for students to access your course content, e.g., a video along with a written transcript of your lecture; descriptive captions for images, etc. Of course this takes time, but adopting the perspective of awareness of people’s differences and valuing those differences and what they bring into the learning environment is a place to start. Most importantly, ask individual students how you can help them learn. Most students haven’t really thought about how they learn: ask them to think about what they were doing when they were most engaged and learned best, employ metacognitive strategies, then them how you can support them, make adjustments to your course plan in response, and solicit frequent feedback about your course. Consider including a statement about your values, including that you value different voices and experiences.
Issues to keep in mind:
- When you use video, use captions.
- When you use images, write descriptions of them.
- When you use images in a presentation or lecture, describe them.
- Keep text to short, digestible chunks.
- Include section headings.
- Intersperse text with images and icons.
- Be mindful of font and type size: clean, sans serif fonts are more readable and students should be able to resize text.
- Be mindful of use of color: use a neutral background; avoid neon or bright hues; use high contrast; and remember that not everyone sees red and green the same way.
Be sure that your syllabus links to Student Disabilities Services and that students are aware of the university’s policy of providing equal access for students with disabilities. Include a statement on your syllabus that encourages and invites students who need academic accommodations to meet with you individually to discuss any special learning needs, and refer them to follow up with student disabilities services as well.
As you make decisions about your teaching and in-person and online classrooms, develop a habit of constantly asking yourself “Who is being left out as a result of this approach?” The more you let this question guide you, design your course with accessibility in mind and pay attention to who might get left behind, the less likely you’ll be to unintentionally exclude students.
Student Disabilities Services maintains a Faculty Resource Guide.
University Design for Learning (UDL)
Universal design for learning is a particular framework intended to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.
The core principles of UDL include providing multiple:
- Ways to acquire the course content
- Means to assess what students learn
- Motivations for students to learn
- Opportunities for engagement, interaction, and challenge
UDL is an approach that advocates providing multiple means of engagement, representation and action and expression. Faculty use multiple modes of engagement to recognize that different students learn differently; they use audio and video, text and graphics. Faculty who practice UDL allow students to choose how they submit work, e.g, a research paper or a website or a video or a game. There are many ways to demonstrate learning outside traditional papers. Faculty promote more and broader student engagement by using small groups and pair-share exercises to encourage participation from students who may be uncomfortable to speak in front of the whole class. Faculty include time for written reflection to support students who need time to think and process and/or for non-native English speakers. Faculty deploy peer learning because we all know something and students have a lot to offer. Employing peer learning opportunities deepens learning because it’s much harder to explain something to someone else than simply to learn it yourself. It also promotes collaboration and community building.
You can track how accessible your course is to students with different learning styles by completing this UDL Checklist.
Canvas also has accessibility tools. You can view the list of accessibility features and standards in Canvas and check for accessibility issues or errors in content being added to Canvas.
For faculty who want to explore Universal Design for Learning in greater detail, the CAST organization Universal Design for Learning website has extensive resources and materials for download.
Supporting Neurodiverse Students
Neurodiversity encompasses those with thinking and learning differences, including autism spectrum, dyslexia, and ADHD. The term ‘aligns with a reconceptualization of these disabilities as representing a normal variability in human cognition rather than disorders of the brain.’ As many as one in five students may experience ‘significant issues with learning due to underlying cognitive differences.’ (Bower and Dahlstrong-Hakki, 2019) The practices proposed above for universal design are helpful to all students. Below are some further general suggestions:
- Be explicit about everything, including explanations, examples and anticipated time on task for assignments and activities.
- As with UDL, provide multiple means for students to engage with content.
- Promote group work with intentionally assigned grouping and allow for extended group activities over time to promote team growth and development.
- Role play promotes learning about social nuances and exploration of multiple perspectives.
- Teach students how to read.
- Promote metacognitive learning strategies.
- Encourage students to advocate for their learning needs.
- Consider the environment of the physical or virtual classroom and speak with all students about what aspects of the room might be changed to support better engagement, attention and focus. For instance, is there substantial extraneous noise, visual distractions, poor air circulation, and how might those affect students’ learning, attention and engagement.
For more more information on supporting neurodiverse learners, see these additional resources: