How to Teach for Accessibility
Here are some tips on how teachers can make learning accessible for students with disabilities, online and in the classroom.
Making the learning experience accessible for students with disabilities is obviously important, but maybe it feels daunting. It needn’t. Here are a few tips on how it can be done.
Present instructional materials in multiple ways
You don’t have to restrict yourself to one type of presentation to be accessible. In fact, the more ways you get your point across, the better!
If you have slides, make sure the important stuff can be seen and heard. Also, make it available for download online so everyone can access all the information. And, if you have important pictures on your slides, describe them.
While you’re lecturing, don’t turn away from your class or the camera in case some students might be trying to read your lips.
If you show a video, make sure it is captioned or that a transcript is available. Also, think about information displayed on-screen, such as important statistics about an issue. Make sure those statistics are posted somewhere so students with visual impairments can access them. Having a video with description would be fantastic.
Plan out any in-class activities and reading requirements because some students might require materials in an alternate format. If you have any blind students in your class, for example, they won’t be able to read printed materials or participate in your activity.
Some people with learning disabilities would benefit from being able to put the material on their computer with assistive technology. If there are accessibility concerns, extra time and planning comes with the territory.
It’s important to be flexible when teaching and designing assignments, quizzes and in-class activities. For example, if you have to do a last-minute reading activity that can’t be converted in time, having students read together might help everyone understand it better.
In terms of assignments, remember what you’re trying to assess. If you want to assess someone’s knowledge of geographical locations, having them draw a map might seem like the simplest way to do it; however, if you have a student who is blind, for example, that might not be that easy. So, having them describe where something is in relation to its surroundings would do just as well. It’s all about the concept you’re trying to reach, not the way of demonstrating it.
Format materials for assistive technology
Digital documents have a better chance of being accessible, but only if they’re written properly, i.e. semantically correct. Screen-readers are good at interpreting important parts of a document, such as headings and tables, but only if they’re created that way. They’re not good at guessing that your block of text in a bigger font is a heading, or recognizing that a block of text is a table.
If you’re teaching math, remember that MathML is better than images of equations because assistive technology can read it. You don’t have to know how to write MathML either. The D2L Equation Editor, among other editors, can create MathML.
Avoid uploading scanned images of journal articles or other supplementary materials. To the assistive technology, that file is just one big picture so it doesn’t try to read it. The student then has to put the image through optical character recognition, hope what comes out is comprehensible, and then try to read that. It would be much easier if, after you scanned the image, you ran optical character recognition on it and then cleaned up the errors. Finding materials that aren’t images would be even more awesome.
Learn how your students learn
Disabilities aren’t always obvious, especially if you’re teaching online. Sometimes, people with invisible disabilities, like learning disabilities, have learned ways to get by without asking for accommodations. So, you can’t assume that, because no one has identified themselves as having a disability, you don’t have anyone in the class who has any sort of challenge. It wouldn’t hurt to put out a survey asking how students learn best.
The cool thing about teaching for accessibility is you end up helping other groups you might not have considered. For example, captions in videos can help people for whom English isn’t a first language. Some considerations you might make for a student with a visual impairment could help someone with a learning disability. Doing an activity in groups rather than individually helps encourage collaboration. Offering multiple ways of assessing the same concept could help someone who is simply more expressive in words rather than pictures, or vice versa.
The biggest tip is don’t panic. If you’ve never had to consider accessibility before, and a student approaches you and indicates they need accommodations, it can feel overwhelming. But the thing to remember is it’s likely that this student knows what they need. All they’re asking for is some cooperation from you. Listen to them. If your mind is open, and you and the student are working together, it’s amazing what you can do.