“A disability may be the result of combinations of impairments and environmental barriers, such as attitudinal barriers, inaccessible information, an inaccessible built environment or other barriers that affect people’s full participation in society[i].”
In the current learning environment, students with disabilities encounter significant challenges due to the lack of inclusivity and accessibility in the education system. This article aims to share ideas and strategies that can help reduce barriers to learning, ensuring equal access to education and the opportunity for all students to achieve their full potential, regardless of ability.
Students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and other cognitive differences often experience auditory, visual, and spatial processing difficulties, affecting their reading, writing, and overall learning. These challenges may include problems with left-right distinction, depth perception, spatial awareness, language skills, and vocabulary. Neurodiverse learners and those with cognitive differences may also struggle with maintaining focus and staying on track, necessitating structured and flexible assessment pedagogical tools.[ii]
Contrary to common belief, neurodiverse students represent a significant proportion of the higher education population. For instance, in 2019, 6.2% of Canadian undergraduate students and 2.4% of Australian undergraduate students reported having a learning disability.[iii] [iv]; furthermore, 19% of US undergraduate students reported having a disability, and of these, 35% reported a learning disability[v] for 2016 (the most current data we could find). It is important to note that these statistics may underrepresent the true prevalence of neurodiversity in higher education since a) the numbers are based on students’ disclosures and do not represent the true prevalence of neurodiversity in higher education, and b) some students may yet to be diagnosed.
Given the sizable population of students with disabilities, including neurodiversity, it is crucial to establish a support system that ensures equal access to educational opportunities for all. Several strategies can help learners participate more fully in the learning environment, including collaborative learning, visual/spatial supports, and individualized instruction. Importantly, these strategies aim to address accessibility barriers for multiple types of disabilities, benefiting a broader range of learners.
To effectively implement these strategies, it is essential to adopt a comprehensive approach that considers the needs of many learners. In the past, educators often made accommodations for the current semester without considering future students’ needs. This approach proved inefficient and led to additional work, such as adjusting closed captions for colour blindness. Therefore, starting with a comprehensive plan that encompasses the needs of diverse learners is critical.
To facilitate implementation, we have categorized the strategies from the perspectives of course designers, content creators, and those delivering the content or workshops. We also list a few simple suggestions for improving learning spaces. The following lists provide an overview of strategies and some suggestions on how to incorporate these you’re your courses.
I. In-person: There are two approaches to accessibility in academia—accommodations and universal design. Accommodations involve individual adjustments like assistive technology or alternate formats. A universal design focuses on creating inclusive products and environments for everyone —for instance, an adjustable-height workstation benefits wheelchair users and students with different statures, reducing the need for individual accommodations[vi]. Here, we focus on accommodations to support and meet mobility and visual/spatial requirements of students.
- Provide mobility aids in learning environments so learners can move around more easily.
- Access to tools such as screen readers, screen magnifiers, and other assistive software that can assist learners with visual and spatial challenges in computer use.
II. Hybrid environments: In hybrid learning environments, technology plays a crucial role in connecting learners from different locations and promoting a safe environment for learners with social challenges.
- Online meeting opportunities and collaboration sessions, such as audio and video conferences and Zoom presentations, allow learners to engage with each other and participate in discussions. (Please see below for a detailed list for creating videos and online teaching resources).
- Asynchronous learning modules and video tutorials can provide learners with the flexibility to choose the pace and timing of their learning. Furthermore, videos can enhance the learning experience by providing visual and auditory explanations of complex concepts.
An effective curriculum acknowledges and accommodates the diversity of the student body with accessible course materials, flexible instructional strategies, and assessments to provide fair opportunities for all students to learn and demonstrate their knowledge. Here are a few key suggestions to make the course more accessible.
- Provide clear and detailed course outlines, with timelines for assessment.
- Offer multiple modes of content delivery (e.g., text, audio, interactive modules).
- Modify curriculum and training material to support learners with visual/spatial, auditory, or cognitive challenges.
These can include:
Designing flexible assessments
Creating a supportive learning experience involves considering the diverse information processing strategies, speeds, and working memories of neurodiverse students. This can be achieved by offering flexibility in assessment delivery, such as allowing students to choose between a final paper, exam, or other projects, ensuring that they can showcase their learning in a way that works best for them. Consider various delivery approaches, like Pecha Kucha[vii] or Universal Design for Learning (UDL), to further supports their diverse needs.
Assisting students in organizing their projects and assignments by offering a comprehensive timeline that guides students in planning and allocating their time for the course and each assignment. Breaking down complex tasks into manageable steps, establishing practical deadlines for each step, and providing templates can facilitate goal attainment.
Furthermore, collaborative learning can greatly benefit neurodiverse learners. Group problem-solving and peer learning approaches can enhance their educational experience. Individualized instruction also significantly supports neurodiverse students, catering to their unique needs in traditional and online learning settings. Additional accommodations, such as extended meeting time, modified materials, and extra training, further contribute to their success. By designing active learning experiences, students’ engagement, critical thinking, and overall learning outcomes are optimized (Allen & Katz, 2023).
In designing course content, it is important to consider the needs of diverse learners, including those with visual impairments, auditory challenges, and other cognitive difficulties. Offer materials in multiple formats such as text, audio, video, and Braille. This allows students to choose the format that best suits their learning styles or specific needs. Additionally, ensure compatibility with assistive technologies like screen readers or text-to-speech software. By designing materials that are compatible with these technologies, students can independently access, convert, and navigate the content. Here are some important recommendations for content creation:
Course media: Audios, videos, and images
- To ensure that videos are accessible to individuals with color blindness, it is recommended to use high-contrast colors in videos, such as black and white, yellow and blue, and orange and green, to make them visible. Additionally, providing color blind-friendly alternatives, such as inversion or grayscale filters, can enhance the visibility of text and images for individuals with different visual impairments (Çankaya & Ataizi, 2016).
- Avoid relying solely on color as the indicator of a specific meaning or to differentiate elements. Instead, use symbols, icons, and other design elements like textures, patterns, and shapes to create visual interest and ensure easy distinction.
- Supplement visual information in the video with text or audio, this can help individuals with hearing impairments or those who prefer to read the content.[viii]
- If necessary, include local sign language in the video to cater to students who rely on it for communication.
- Ensure images have descriptive alt texts. Alt texts provide a brief but accurate description of the content of an image and are an essential component of web accessibility. (Here is a useful resource: https://accessibility.huit.harvard.edu/describe-content-images )
- Captions and transcripts are essential for ensuring accessibility in audio and video content. Closed captioning and text-to-speech technologies can be used to provide captions for audio and video content. This allows individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to access the content. Transcripts of audio and video files can also be offered as an additional means of access for these individuals, as well as for those who prefer to read the content.
- Also offer transcripts of audio and video files, as they can provide an additional means of accessibility.
- Live events: Provide live captioning. Also, use sign language interpreters to make live events accessible to everyone (depending on your audience, Include either local or international sign language). If possible, provide a recording of the event for later review.
Lecture and discussion
Classroom strategies are as important and must provide an inclusive learning environment. Start with inclusive language and encourage active engagement and participation from all students and allow for intermittent breaks.
- Scheduled breaks allow students to recharge and refocus their attention, which can enhance their overall learning experience. Movement breaks can be beneficial for students who may have difficulty sitting still for long periods of time. And to facilitate a seamless transition back to work after a break, encourage students to note their progress. This can be done through reflection activities or by providing opportunities for students to share their achievements or challenges with the class. It is important to establish classroom guidelines prioritizing safety and allowing students to move around, grab a snack, or take necessary breaks without hesitation.
- Providing reminders of deadlines, maintaining an organized calendar, and breaking down class activities into manageable time segments can serve as effective motivational tools, helping students stay on track and engaged. By providing clear expectations and structure, students are better able to manage their time and workload.
These suggestions serve as a starting point to build a community committed to inclusivity. Implementation of these suggestions and strategies may be time and labor intensive, particularly in early stages, and classrooms may require additional support to enable inclusive learning opportunities that address these inequities [ix]. Listening to the needs of individuals with disabilities is the key to fostering a truly inclusive space that promotes learning, creativity, and growth. Let’s continue working towards a compassionate, safe, and inclusive environment.
We are responsible for creating courses and learning spaces that embrace the rich diversity of our students. The suggestions presented here serve as a starting point, aiming to foster an environment where every student feels seen, valued, and supported. As we design our courses, it is crucial to recognize and cater to the unique needs of individuals with disabilities, ensuring that our educational environment promotes their learning, nurtures their creativity, and facilitates their personal growth.
[ii] Díez, A., López, R., Molina, V. (2014). Students With Disabilities In Higher Education: a Biographical-narrative Approach To The Role Of Lecturers. Higher Education Research & Development, 1(34), 147-159. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2014.934329
[iii] National Educational Association of Disabled Students (2020). Post-secondary students with disabilities in Canada: A snapshot.
[iv] Department of Education, Skills and Employment (2020). Students with disability, 2019 higher education data.
[v] National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Digest of Education Statistics, 2018 (NCES 2020-009), Chapter 3.
[vi] Germain-Alamartine, E. (2020). Doctoral Education In the Entrepreneurial University : Enhanced Employability?.. https://doi.org/10.3384/diss.diva-164164
[vii] Shew, D. (2023, January 5). Pecha Kucha is the answer: Faculty focus. Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/course-design-ideas/pecha-kucha-is-the-answer/
[viii] Write good alt text to describe images. Digital Accessibility
[ix] Lewitzky, Rachael and Kari Weaver, 2022. “Developing Universal Design For Learning Asynchronous Training In An Academic Library”, Partnership(16), 2:1-18. https://doi.org/10.21083/partnership.v16i2.6635
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