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Making classes accessible to all students

Universal Design

When designing your course, it is strongly recommended that faculty consider incorporating Universal Design principles. In UD the focus is on the learning environment and the creation of the learning environment instead of adapting the individual student or student functions to fit within that environment. Anticipating the needs of all students and building in features to meet those needs from the very beginning increases usability for everyone.

Universal Design represents a cohesive approach to promoting inclusion, one that considers, on an ongoing basis, how curriculum, instruction, and assessment can be designed to meet the learning needs of the greatest number of students without compromising academic rigor.

It is an approach to creating environments and products that are usable by all people with a broad range of abilities and disabilities to the greatest extent possible.

Universal Course Design is the design of college courses including the course curriculum, instruction, assessment, and the environment, to be usable by all students, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for accommodations.

Accessible courses by design

Imagine that a person who uses a wheelchair approaches a building where the only way to enter the building is via a set of stairs that lead to the only entrance. No ramp. No ground floor entry. The person who uses the wheelchair cannot get into the building. Is it that person’s fault that entry is not possible or is the issue with how society designed that building? What is the real barrier here?

Why is access so important? Disabled students must be able to engage in the same activities, access the same information, and enjoy the same services, benefits and experiences as a person without a disability, in an equally effective and integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. (OCR Case No. 15-13-6001)

When the university must collaborate with professors and students to facilitate an accommodation for a course, the accommodation is a reactive response to an aspect of the course not designed with full access from the outset, much like a building with no ground level or ramp entry. Accessible course design from the outset is best practice.

Three different images side by side with different versions of three people of different heights watching a soccer game. In the first image labeled "Equality", there is a solid fence and all three people have been given a wooden box to stand on, however the shortest person still cannot see over the fence. In the second image labeled "Equity", each person has been given enough boxes to stand on to see over the fence. In the final image labeled "Justice", there is a chain link fence and no boxes are needed for everyone to see the game.
Equality is the assumption that everyone benefits from the same support. This is equal treatment. Equity means that everyone gets the supports they need. Justice means that all three can see the game without support or accommodations because the cause of the inequity was addressed. The systemic barrier has been removed.

It is not always possible to make every course fully accessible at all times. For example, there will always be the need for sign language interpreters when a deaf student fluent in sign language is present in the class. However, intentional course design can reduce the need for reactive accommodations.

What is UDL?

The Universal Design for Learning framework provides an approach to designing meaningful learning environments that support learning variability in classrooms. UDL practices help ensure all learners can meet learning goals by removing barriers to learning and creating a flexible learning environment. It provides a blueprint for designing strategies, materials, assessments, and tools to reach and teach all students, including those with diverse needs. Most practices are tweaks to course design that make learning more accessible for all students.

Why is UDL important?

Implementation of UDL principles creates a learning environment that supports all learners by removing barriers to learning before the learner encounters the barrier. UDL practices promote purposeful, proactive, and reflective design that improves student learning across all levels. As the UMD learning community grows, the potential for learning variability grows as well. College course design should grow with the learning community.

How do I go about doing it?

Integrating UDL into your classes works best when you design it from the start. Building UDL into the design of your content, activity, or assessment, instead of trying to retrofit it after the fact, is the best way to take all learners’ needs and abilities into consideration.

UDL focuses on designing for everyone, instead of differentiation between those who need special support, and those who do not. There isn’t a single, step-by-step guide for implementing UDL practices in an individual piece of content, activity, or assessment. Instead, UDL is a framework for thinking about how to make your classes more accessible to everyone, whether they have learning or physical disabilities, or simply like to learn things visually.

UDL is guided by three basic principles:

  • Provide multiple means of engagement
  • Provide multiple means of representation
  • Provide multiple means of action and expression

The team at CAST (the Center for Applied Special Technology) provides an excellent visual guide to these principles of UDL. This guide simply and visually breaks down each of these principles into simple, actionable, task-oriented guidelines. They even provide specific guidelines for applying UDL principles to creating assessments.

It’s important that you do not try to redesign your entire class at one time to apply the principles of UDL! Instead, start small. Pick one activity, assessment, or class session and put the principles to work. Learn what works for your students, and for you, and build UDL into more of your classes.

Suggested UDL design ideas

While by no means an exhaustive list, the following access ideas and considerations can create a better experience for all students and reduce accommodation needs for students with disabilities by proactively making a course accessible and inclusive. The Teaching and Learning Transformation Center (TLTC) is a resource for you to assist with accessible course design. Please contact them if you want to explore further.

Course notes access

  • Identify a student or a rotation of students in the class to provide a copy of course notes for all students after each lecture. With this resource, a student with a disability does not have to seek a specialized resource through ADS. The resource benefits all students.
  • Consider providing PowerPoint slides to students in advance of the class to assist with note-taking during class.

Auditory and reading access

  • Only use videos where full, accurate captioning is an option.
  • Offer syllabi in advance of the class starting on the web course so that students can read, review and process, if interested, prior to the day it is discussed.
  • Ensure all handouts and other course materials are accessible. It is common for professors to send out PDF scans of articles, but these cannot be read by speech to text software or a screen reader.
  • When adopting required reading materials, such as textbooks, confirm with the publisher that electronic text (e-text) formats are available for purchase. For supplemental reading materials, ensure that these can be read by text-to-speech software. Ask ADS if you need assistance with such a search.

Test, quiz and other assessment access

  • Consider inclusive alternatives to pop, short in-class, and iClicker quizzes. Facilitating extra time on quizzes generally requires students to come to ADS or meet with their professor right before or after class in order to get the extra time. (See "The Accommodation Dilemma of Pop Quizzes" by Ruth J. Fink, Ph.D.)
  • Design tests with multiple means of assessment (multiple choice, true/false, essays, problems, etc. when aligned with content).
  • Take-home exams, where students are allowed multiple days to complete the work, most often eliminate the need for extra time for tests.
  • Online exams are often easier to accommodate and allow for a more inclusive test experience than paper exams. A simple time extension to the student’s online test allows the student to test in the same online environment as everyone else in class.
  • Consider offering multiple assessment options when possible, such as allowing students to do a presentation, a video, or write a paper to fulfill the same course objective.

Course activity access

  • Reconsider exercises or assignments that require a response based on an individual’s sensory abilities. What barriers may be created for different students when these abilities are being assessed?
  • Consider the question, to what extent is course attendance truly essential to the learning objectives? Any course policies should be directly connected to the specific course learning objectives.
  • When feasible and practical, identify ways in which the course policies can be adjusted and flexible for case-by-case student needs. Some course policies, such as absolutely no make-up exams, can be significant barriers that limit a student’s ability to truly demonstrate academic understanding.