Small Changes That Make a Big Difference to All Learners

About 11-15% of the population experiences some form of disability in their lives, a percentage that’s also reflected in the Northwestern Community.  In class and across campus, there are a number of opportunities for instructors and staff to ensure Northwestern is providing an accessible learning environment to all our students.

Wondering where to start? Try the free, online short course called Accessibility 101

Developed by The Big Ten Academic Alliance Information Technology Accessibility Group and sponsored by AccessibleNU, Accessibility 101 educates instructors on pervasive accessibility issues and how to resolve them. The course takes about 30-40 minutes to complete and contains seven modules on topics such as “Principles of Designing for Accessibility and “Understanding Your Legal Requirements.”  Each section contains a very brief quiz to reinforce the material. 

Jim Stachowiak, Director of Assistive Technology & Assistant Director at AccessibleNU, encourages instructors to take the course, saying, “It is a valuable use of time to help people understand the basic issues of accessibility for students with disabilities and how to make some adjustments that can make a big difference.”

One of the points Accessibility 101 clarifies is the difference between digital “accommodation” and “accessibility.”  For example, a building with a set of stairs leading to the main entrance might have a ramp to the side of the stairs, but, if the design were made with accessibility in mind, the door would be on a level where neither stairs nor a ramp were required and any person could enter by the same method. Obviously, whether designing physical or digital spaces, prioritizing accessibility and inclusivity at the early stages makes it easier to avoid barriers that can impede access.

Accessible Design Benefits Everyone

When developing a course, it’s always a worthwhile exercise to consider whether the course will be accessible to everyone and remove possible barriers. Whether or not an instructor has a student in their course with special needs, such as visual, auditory, motor, cognitive, or age-related -- designing around accessibility has proven to benefit everyone. Ensuring that any video available to your students contains closed-captioning benefits not only students with low-hearing but students who might be watching the video in a noisy location or who speak English as a second language.

Making Resources Accessible

Not only is making courses accessible to all students the right thing to do and the good thing to do, it also happens to be a legal requirement. Any institution that receives federal funding is required by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) to make digital resources accessible to all individuals. The good news is that the Digital Age provides fairly simple ways to provide accessible materials to your students.  Northwestern’s learning management system, Canvas, is committed to the W3C’s (World Wide Web Consortium) Web Accessibility Initiative.  Any Northwestern Library course reserve material provided through Canvas will meet accessibility guidelines. 

Simple things any instructor can easily incorporate

  • Use high contrast colors. Don’t rely on color to convey information, it will be missed by color-blind students and students using screen readers.
  • Provide appropriate headers and incorporate lists.  Headers allow students using screen readers to quickly scan a page of text for relevant information.  Similarly, lists (like this one!) facilitate keyboard navigation and provide meaning and structure.
  • Provide alt-text for images.  Alt-text summarizes images. 
  • Create thoughtful links.  Scan this article and notice the links.  They usually stick out easily, and, if I’ve done my job right, you know exactly where you’ll go if you click on them.  Links like “Click here” and “more” don’t provide helpful information.
  • Provide captioning or transcripts for media.  Providing captioning for video and a transcript for audio clips is essential for students with hearing impairments, but also helpful to students in distracting locations or students who speak English as a second language. 

There’s an easy way to identify potential issues in your Canvas course.  UDOIT (pronounced “You do it”) is a tool that will not only point out areas that need improvement to meet accessibility standards but also provide instructions on how to fix problem areas. Learn more about UDOIT.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) 

Judy Franks, gave an enthusiastic talk about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to her colleagues at the Medill Integrated Marketing Communications Program. She began by saying, “Who’s thirsty? Get some water! Who’s tired of sitting? Stand up and move around.” She waved her arms and encouraged the group to use the space as they wished. “Who needs to do something with their hands?” she asked, tossing her fidget cube into the crowd.  For Judy, building an accessible course meant removing the barriers that would impede students with disabilities, like providing readings and lecture notes in PDFs that are easily interpreted by screen readers, but also keeping in mind other barriers that some students face. For example, a student who has to work before and after class might not have time eat a meal. A student from another culture might not come from an educational background where it’s accepted to have a spirited debate with your instructor.

In a population with students from many different countries and cultures, students arrive with a wide background of learning environments.  Summing up the concept easily, Franks said, “UDL is about building a course where the student can do whatever it is they need to do to learn.”