Accessible Teaching

by Agnes Eshak

Some notes on accommodation and course design

As I write this, I’ve already missed the submission deadline. This post should have been completed a week ago, primed for the PiP newsletter to land in your mailbox. Missing deadlines isn’t new for me; I’ve missed many before this one, and I’ll probably miss many more (although the stress over it never goes away). But this isn’t just about poor planning, it’s that living with a chronic illness means plans often don’t work out in the first place.  

For me, it’s the overwhelming fatigue, generalized muscle weakness, and unrelenting brain fog that make writing—and doing much of anything, really—more difficult. The severity varies from day-to-day, week-to-week, even year-to-year, and it is, for the most part, unpredictable. These symptoms, though in my case are brought on by Myasthenia Gravis—a rare disease, are probably familiar to anyone with a chronic illness. And while Myasthenia is a rare disease, rare diseases are themselves quite common. And chronic illnesses and disabilities, more generally, are even more common. The CDC estimates that one in four adults in the U.S. live with some type of disability. 

That means you probably have a disabled or chronically ill student in your class. In fact, you probably have many. 

I was lucky: I didn’t have to disclose any of this to my WAC team to get an extension. I didn’t get chastised either. Although I have no doubt they’d be gracious about it, disclosure is sometimes its own burden, and it’s one I was already too tired for. Working with a compassionate group that is already oriented towards disability justice meant that I didn’t have to double down on the pressure. A flare is taxing enough, and worrying about disappointing or angering my supervisors would have likely made it worse. Instead, because I was working in an environment consciously built around accessibility, I was able to get back to writing this piece with as much peace of mind as my body would allow. 

Many students are less lucky. But it doesn’t have to be this way.  

A space must be accessible in order for disabled people to participate in it. And accessibility is about a lot more than accommodations like extended test time—though that’s important, too. In this particular case, access looked like flexibility. I was able to complete my task at a later date, with no questions asked, and no penalties given. As progressive pedagogues, we strive to create more equitable classrooms. Working towards this project demands that our pedagogy be informed by the principles of disability justice. What does a more accessible classroom look like? Here are some notes to help us start working on it:    

Setting the tone 

Put your own disability access statement in the syllabus. Don’t make it an afterthought. A syllabus is often the first document students receive from you and it serves as a continual reference throughout the semester. Include information about campus accessibility resources like Student Disability Services. Make it clear that meeting access needs is a priority for you and that students can feel safe in approaching you. Mention your commitment as part of your announcements on the first day of class. Check in with your students throughout the semester, not just at the beginning. Give students opportunities to communicate their needs. And then listen. 

Consider your attendance and participation policies. Missing class is often unavoidable. Asking for a doctor’s note makes a classist assumption about access to healthcare providers. Women, gender nonconforming people, people of color, and working class students are statistically more likely to be disabled, less likely to have access to healthcare, and less likely to advocate for themselves. Rewarding attendance or penalizing absence risks compounding the difficulties already faced by disabled students.

Don’t put your students in situations that force disclosure of disability. Don’t out students. Consider who else is around when discussing accommodations with an individual student, including giving extra time on exams or assignments.

Beware of pathologization. Think about the language you use while teaching. Metaphors about being “crippled” or “blind” contribute to a perception of a lesser disabled other. Don’t use terms like “special needs” or “differently-abled” to refer to disabled people. Use “disabled” or “person with a disability.”

Multiplicity

Disabilities vary, they aren’t always visible, and they don’t always manifest the same way over the course of an individual’s life. That is, students have different needs and a student’s needs can change over time. Additionally, one accessibility solution might pose another accessibility problem. But the existence of multiple, conflicting, and sometimes unknown access needs doesn’t have to mean accepting exclusion. Instead, we can think of ways to expand access by offering multiple avenues for learning. 

Provide students with choices for engagement, including alternatives for assignments and options for participation. For example, use the chat function to accommodate students who would like to remain unavailable by audio or video—due possibly to disability or illness, anxieties over appearing on screen, or perhaps due to shared space or resources. 

Try to present course material, or make it optionally available, in multiple formats (including file formats like PDF or Word), and with multimodality (text, image, etc.) for various kinds of learners. 

Technology

Some students with disabilities may greatly benefit from using technology in class. Blanket bans on computers and other devices undermine these students’ options for being present in the course, and not all students can get official notes to explain their need for them. 

Consider assigning a notetaker (or rotating notetaker) in class. Try multiple per session (students could collaborate on Google Docs). Involving students as notetakers can help make accessibility a class-wide concern and shared responsibility. A compendium of class notes benefits everyone, prof included. 

Tools like WAVE can help you determine if content is accessible to screen-readers. PDF files are generally less accessible than other formats like HTML. To make PDFs more accessible to text readers, don’t use security features to lock them and make sure they’re searchable by performing OCR (Optical Character Recognition). Use image descriptions and alt-text to make non-text elements legible to screen readers so that students who use them can know what the image is of.   If you use Zoom, you can generate automatic live transcription

We all have needs

All of our students need accommodations: some are official, some aren’t, and not everyone requests them. It helps to remember that every one of us has needs, but only some needs have been stigmatized and are thus hypervisible. 

When disabled people can fully participate, we all benefit. But making our classrooms accessible to disabled students isn’t just an issue of inclusion and diversity, it’s about liberation. Please don’t forget disabled students after we return to “normal.” COVID-19 posed many challenges, so we granted and were granted allowances for that. Let’s carry the lessons of accommodation during this time into the post-COVID future. 


Agnes Eshak is a Writing Across the Curriculum Fellow at Baruch College. She is working on her PhD in Cultural Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is very sleepy.