Creating Accessible Courses: Five Strategies for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Suffice it to say that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to syllabus craft and course design when accounting for diversity. A working mother of two might have different needs than a young football player and no two wheelchair users are exactly alike. What can we do to proactively anticipate and reactively accommodate diversities in academia? In this blog post, I invite discussion of best practices for creating environments of equity and inclusion in higher education by analyzing five vectors of academic accessibility. While far from comprehensive, my analysis should be enough to spark conversation about some of the implicit and explicit assumptions regarding age, race, class, gender, ability, and other intersectional factors of identity that shape our pedagogical craft. As humane humanists (or aspirants thereof), I argue that it is our mission to recognize such assumptions and actively combat them through awareness raising activities and other kinds of deliberate teaching praxis. By doing so, we may facilitate intellectual exchange as well as personal and practical growth.

1) Accessibility and Diversity Statements

One way of demonstrating our commitment to diversity is to incorporate accessibility and diversity statements into our syllabi. Wording and placement of such statements is a key indicator of our intellectual priorities and should be taken seriously. While there is no singular “right” way to craft an accessibility and diversity statement, there are certainly things to avoid. 1) Do not banish your statement to the bottom of your syllabus next to penalties for plagiarism; 2) do not assume that you can address all kinds of diversity in one block of text (accessibility and diversity statements can permeate your entire syllabus!); and 3) do not speak to diversities as if they are problems to be mitigated via campus resources centers. Instead, adopt language that reflects your personal and institutional commitment to diversities and emphasize your willingness to work with students to ensure that their access needs are met in all aspects of course design. Toward that end, encourage students to attend your office hours or contact you in other ways.

2) Multiformat Everything

When developing course materials, consider how diverse students might interact with them. Print and digital copies of syllabi with varying text sizes are a start, but also explore web accessible versions as well as audio/video formats to reach the widest audience possible. Another important thing to keep in mind is that syllabi need not be completed before the start of our courses and can be shaped and modified to meet the individual needs and desires of students as we become aware of them. Toward that end, I would highly recommend the distribution of optional and confidential forms at the beginning of each course that allow, but do not require, students to share aspects of their identities that they find relevant to learning in their own terms. Such forms can be useful tools in structuring the space and contents of our courses to ensure they accord with student interest. By creating multiformat materials we can performatively demonstrate our commitment to diversity.

3) Privacy and Disclosure

It is important to recognize that many students are unaware of the existence of campus-based resources for accessibility and inclusion like Offices for Students with Disabilities and Counseling and Psychological Services. Building information about such resources into your syllabi can help students negotiate many of the challenges associated with higher education. Additionally, it can also help your students avoid being ‘outed’ about otherwise sensitive issues. Students who cannot fully access the space, content, and experience of your class due to diverse issues may be unwilling or unable to speak with you or their classmates for numerous reasons. Assuring them that the campus has confidential intermediaries and resources in place to assist them in negotiating such issues can put everyone at ease and create a welcoming environment.

4) Classroom Expectations

A fourth technique for fostering diversity via your course syllabi is to include a section on classroom expectations that subverts traditional norms of student behavior and comportment. Invite students to interrogate how they’ve been trained to act: being quiet, sitting still, facing forward, dressing and talking in certain ways, avoiding food and drink, and so on. Suggest that your students need not abide by such norms in your course or, at a minimum, that you are open to having a conversation about alternative modes of participation that might help them learn. On a related note, consider using ‘participation’ in all its forms as a metric of evaluation rather than compulsory attendance or other measures that might create difficulties for students with diversities: physical, psychological, cultural, economic, or otherwise. When arranging participatory learning projects, but sure to include a line saying that alternative arrangements may be available upon request and encourage students to actively seek you out.

5) Technical Accommodations

A final tip for syllabus craft is to include a section explaining why you allow for the use of computers and other assistive devices in your classroom (you do, right?). Such devices are critical to many students with disabilities and those who cannot afford to print out or purchase other kinds of course materials. By proactively allowing for their use and building them into your course plan as opposed to reactively permitting them after receiving an accommodations request, you can not only expand the scope of your course but create an inclusive atmosphere. Indeed, technology can be an essential component for ‘flipping the classroom’ and making the most of in-class learning opportunities by directly linking them up with out-of-class workflows. It is worth mentioning to your students that for all its generative potential, technology in used in different ways by different people. By calling attention to the fact that you are aware of such differences, you can diffuse stigma associated with technical illiteracy and other kinds of limitations.

The strategies that I have outlined above are a beginning and not an end to the conversation of accessibility in higher education. As I mentioned at the outset of this blog post, there is no one-size-fits all solution to diversity as every person is unique. “Universal design” is not universal, “accessibility” is inaccessible, and “barrier-free” is barrier-full. Nevertheless, it is our mission to strive to be as inclusive as possible and create a more humane humanities.

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Author: Mark Bookman

Mark Bookman received his B.A. in Global Interdisciplinary Studies from Villanova University in 2014 prior to researching Buddhist Philosophy in Japan as a Fulbright Fellow. Mark earned his M.A. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016, where he now studies the history and politics of disability as a Ph.D. Candidate. In 2018, Mark spent a year at the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology as a Japan Foundation Doctoral Research Fellow. Outside of the academy, Mark is also an accessibility consultant.

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