Beginning with Accessibility

Printby Jerod Quinn, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center I had a paradigm shifting experience a couple of years ago. I dabble in web development and have built a number of websites over the years for friends, companies, and for my own projects. My friend Jay asked if I could build a basic website where he could showcase his music but be able to navigate and update the website himself. I enjoy building websites, but I loathe managing and updating them, so this sounded like a good idea to me. But, this was going to be a new challenge for me; I liked to think I build accessible websites, but I have never been held accountable for accessibility. Jay’s website would have to be 100% accessible to a screen reader because he has been blind for the past forty years. I have watched Jay navigate his computer and music recording software using the JAWS screen reader. Or, more accurately, listened to him navigate because he doesn’t have a computer monitor. It’s really quite impressive. Listening to him navigate his website really emphasized the pieces that were easily accessible, and the ones that were hidden from his screen reader. It took about six weeks or so of building and testing to get all the features worked out. As I was building the website, my work-world and my outside-of-work-world collided when I had the thought, “Would Jay be able to access the course materials for my class?” Universal Design in education is really just about giving all individuals equal opportunities to learn. As I started looking through my course materials, both online and traditional courses, I got pretty overwhelmed thinking about how I could go about making all my materials accessible to all people. After a few moments of panic, I decided that while I may not know enough to make all my materials accessible to all people, I certainly know enough to make them more accessible to more people. You gotta start somewhere. And a good place to start is looking at the three principles of universal design and sharing some ideas of how they can be expressed in education. The first principle of universal design (UD) is providing multiple means of representation. This is also sometimes referred to as the “what” of UD because it’s how we gather facts and categorize what we see, hear, and read. This can function in an educational environment by having multiple means of accessing the same information. For example, creating short videos to help explain confusing processes can give students a reference point for when they are squirrelled away in their residence halls, trying to make sense of their homework. But, a person with a hearing impairment isn’t going to be able to benefit from that video as much. So to applying the multiple means of representation to this instructional video would mean creating a full transcript of the video and making it downloadable. This is also a benefit to language learners as they can revisit the lesson at their own pace, or for students who study in places less conducive to playing videos such as a break room at work. It’s the same information, just multiple ways of accessing it. The second principle of universal design is providing multiple means of action and expression. This is sometimes referred to as the “how” of UD because it’s how we organize and express our ideas through strategic tasks like writing an essay or solving a math problem. An example of the second principle in action would be offering multiple ways to fulfill the requirements of an assignment. Having the option to create a presentation or write a paper as opposed to just writing a paper can offer some learners (like those with dyslexia) the opportunity to express what they have learned in a more fluent manner without getting as distracted by the mechanics of the writing process. This principle is not about giving some learners an “easier” assignment than others, it’s about leveling the playing field among learners and allowing each person to fluently express what he or she has learned. The third principle of universal design is providing multiple means of engagement, and can be referred to as the “why” of UD because it deals with how learners are challenged, excited, interested, and motivated to keep engaged. Having a system for anonymous classroom responses (iClickers, Poll Everywhere, or even Twitter) can offer learners whose cultures’ view students speaking up in class as disrespectful an opportunity to offer real time feedback in a less intimidating manner. As a Jesuit University we strive for education of the whole person, and universal design can be a practical and powerful piece of that vision. I know approaching the topic of universal design can somehow be both encouraging and intimidating at the same time, but like I said earlier, you gotta start somewhere. If you are interested in making your courses more accessible to more people, Colorado State University has a very practical checklist to help you get started as you look through your courses. It’s called “How Do You Teach?” And if you would like to dig deep into universal design check out some of the experts in it at the CAST, (Center for Applied Special Technology) website here: And lastly, the Reinert Center at Saint Louis University has also developed an inclusive teaching resources webpage that includes UD, but also various other resources to develop an inclusive classroom.

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