A roundup of news articles, journal articles, essays, opinion pieces, and other items of interest about accessibility and universal design for learning.
News and Opinion
Academic Ableism (University of Michigan Press) notes the progress higher education has made to be more inclusive of people with disabilities than in the past. But the book isn’t full of praise. Rather, it offers critique after critique of the way colleges have ignored or responded inadequately to the needs of many students and professors.
The author is Jay Timothy Dolmage, associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo, in Canada, who takes disability issues seriously. Below the signature line on his emails is this phrase: “If you have an accommodation need for a planned meeting, please email me directly and I will do my best to make appropriate arrangements. Should you require any materials sent via this email address in an alternate/accessible format, please let me know.”
Via email, he responded to questions about his new book.
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.
In higher education, discussions around accessibility often start with federal mandates and accommodations. This framing tends to cultivate a campus culture focused on accommodations, but “. . . accommodation is a reactive approach to provide access to an individual . . . [whereas] Universal Design processes are proactive approaches to ensure access for groups of potential participants.”
At Dartmouth, we realized that this distinction creates an opportunity for changes in both teaching and learning. While some legal requirements for accessibility are not necessarily met through the practice of universal design, we hope to guide our institution toward a culture aimed at designing for the widest possible set of student needs.
With life-changing condition, Williamsburg native looks to technology for sight | Williamsburg Yorktown Daily
Veronica Lewis was three years old when she was diagnosed with a life-changing condition.
Chiari Malformation is a structural defect of the skull and the brain. In Lewis’s case, it contributed to her poor eyesight. Now, 17 years after her initial diagnosis of vision impairment, Lewis is studying information technology at George Mason University with the dream of making technology more accessible to the disabled.
Her goal inspired the Redmond, Washington-based technology giant Microsoft to create a video featuring Lewis about assistive technology and their products.“
Technology doesn’t just make things easier, it makes things possible,” Lewis, a long-time Williamsburg resident, said.
Benetech, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit, received a five-year, $42.5 million award from the U.S. Department of Education to expand and improve availability of free, accessible books for qualified students through an online library. Bookshare — one of Benetech’s global literacy projects — provides personalized access to over 800,000 titles to students with visual and reading impairments and currently serves approximately 500,000 students across the United States.
With this grant, Benetech plans to reach an additional 200,000 students through Bookshare and provide at least 4 million free e-book downloads to students over the award’s five-year span. The company also announced its intent to work directly with scholastic publishers to ensure that accessibility features are included in over 50 percent of the nation’s educational books by 2022.
“Access to knowledge through reading is a basic human right and a critical step on the path to economic, educational and social development,” Brad Turner, Benetech’s vice president of global literacy, said in a statement. “Many students struggle in school and in life because they read differently. Benetech is proud to work with these students, their parents, and their educators to make reading not only possible but also fun and enjoyable with personalized reading experiences.”
Canvas, the popular learning management system from Instructure, has added a new accessibility function that will automatically flag and fix online content that presents challenges for students with disabilities. The Accessibility Checker is now available to the 3,000 universities, school districts and global institutions that use Canvas. It aims to reduce the burden on anyone creating content in the learning management system by identifying and correcting common accessibility issues — “saving time, granting peace of mind and providing a better experience for all students,” the technology company said in its announcement, which was made in conjunction with the annual gathering of higher ed technology leaders at EDUCAUSE.
Although accessibility awareness is growing, putting theory into practice can be a tough endeavor for educational institutions around the globe. To better understand the challenges of making education accessible to all students, E-learn interviewed speakers from Blackboard’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day webinar series.
In 1945 a disabled World War II veteran named Jack Fisher petitioned the city of Kalamazoo, Mich., to make cuts in the street curbs in order to allow him and other wheelchair users to navigate the city more easily. Fortunately for Fisher, the son of Kalamazoo’s city manager also used a wheelchair, and so Fisher’s arguments found a sympathetic audience. Curb cuts were introduced around the city, and thus was born what has become a ubiquitous feature of our built environment today.
In the decades that followed Fisher’s advocacy, as curb cuts became more commonplace, it became clear they were not just for wheelchair users. They proved a welcoming feature of the environment for parents wheeling children about in strollers, for senior citizens who had trouble with stairs and steps, for people temporarily on crutches, for bike riders and skateboarders and more.
What began as an accommodation for people with disabilities became a design strategy that had almost universal appeal.
The trajectory of curb cuts — from specific accommodation to omnipresent design feature — is an oft-told story in the literature of Universal Design (UD), which seeks to create and modify physical spaces in ways that take into account the diversity of human bodies and minds. The educational equivalent of that theory is Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which likewise argues that faculty members should take the diversity of learners into consideration up front as we design our courses. And if we do, we will need to make fewer accommodations at the request of specific students, because inclusive design practices help all learners succeed.
An exciting and well-established concept known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is gaining attention in higher education as a way to make digital learning programs more accessible to all learners, including those with a wide variety of learning challenges. Endorsed by EDUCAUSE’s Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) and the Department of Education’s Horizon Report, UDL is a framework to design learning in a systematic way to anticipate and remove barriers to student learning.
UDL isn’t about accommodating people after the fact, or just for students with physical or learning challenges–it is meant to design learning that’s engaging and effective for everyone, right from the get-go. It does this by encouraging and supporting multiple ways for students to express ideas, demonstrate knowledge and engage with their learning environments–all lofty goals that are difficult to do in practice in a traditional classroom, but uniquely enabled by technology like the Learning Management System (LMS).
As a new semester approaches, the academic’s to-do list can fill up pretty fast. All of that course planning you’ve been putting off all summer now seems pretty urgent. Your chair wants a copy of your syllabi by the end of the week. And there’s still the matter of those writing deadlines. I’m here to add one more item to your list. Now is the time — not later — to think about accessibility in your classroom.
For many of us, accessibility is a topic handled by a brief section toward the end of our syllabus — a paragraph detailing the steps a disabled student can take to receive accommodations. Such policies are very much figured as an exception to the norm, an appendix pinned onto the end of the syllabus, as if to say: “Oh yeah, and if you’ve got a disability, we can probably work to find some kind of solution.” For Anne-Marie Womack, assistant director of writing at Tulane University, that way of conceptualizing accessibility is all wrong.