Graduate student instructors sometimes operate under a lot of external constraints, because they do not have much control over the curriculum they are being asked to teach. That can make receiving an accommodation notification from a student rather fraught. Teaching Basic Writing, a reading and writing intensive course in Fall 2016, brought me a lot of clarity on these limitations, and it started on Day 1: I found my student, “Cam,” pacing the hallway outside our class.
An athlete whose sport was in season during the fall, Cam told me, “Maybe it would be best if I took this class at another time. It sounds like a lot of work.” I agreed that it would be a lot of work and I encouraged him to stick with the class and me as the instructor. During our conversation, Cam revealed that he never thought of himself as a strong writer and that reading was an even bigger challenge. Connecting to his experience as an athlete, I offered, “Yes, we do a lot of writing and reading in this course; but, just like you prepare for game day with scrimmages and gym workouts, we build up to writing a 1,000 word essay by doing small tasks that exercise and develop your writing skills.” Ultimately, the decision was his and I’m happy to report that not only did Cam stay in the class, he excelled as a writer. What he did not tell me at this time, but I learned later through an official notification from our campus’s Disability Services office, was that he needed a significant amount of accommodations.
According to Cam, the most important accommodation (of the ones identified by campus disability services) was being able to access course texts in optical character recognition (OCR) PDFs; this would allow him to use audio assistive technology in addition to extra time for assignments. Because most of our readings were no more than fives pages and were available online, this required very little of me as an instructor. What it also brought up was an ongoing issue I had with the cost of books my students were required to purchase when nearly all of the readings were available freely online.
More forcefully than in any other single class, I realized the importance of universal design for learning (UDL). This curricular design features multiple access points for learning, engagement, and assessment. As Dr. Jennifer Stone puts it, “designing on the front end” with UDL minimizes the need for individual learners to make a special request.