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As a new semester approaches, the academic's to-do list can fill up pretty fast. All of that course planning you’ve been putting off all summer now seems pretty urgent. Your chair wants a copy of your syllabi by the end of the week. And there’s still the matter of those writing deadlines. I’m here to add one more item to your list. Now is the time — not later — to think about accessibility in your classroom.
For many of us, accessibility is a topic handled by a brief section toward the end of our syllabus — a paragraph detailing the steps a disabled student can take to receive accommodations. Such policies are very much figured as an exception to the norm, an appendix pinned onto the end of the syllabus, as if to say: “Oh yeah, and if you’ve got a disability, we can probably work to find some kind of solution.” For Anne-Marie Womack, assistant director of writing at Tulane University, that way of conceptualizing accessibility is all wrong.
In a recent article in College Composition and Communication, Womack argues that “accommodation is the most basic act and art of teaching. It is not the exception we sometimes make in spite of learning, but rather the adaptations we continually make to promote learning.” Rather than adjustments we make after the fact, accommodations are central to the very idea of teaching. Think about note-taking, Womack writes. We view students taking notes in our classes as a normal part of the learning process, but it’s an accommodation that allows them to process and retain more information that they could otherwise. Using a Powerpoint presentation during a lecture is an accommodation. Conducting an exam-review session near the end of the term is another.
We’re wrong to think of accommodations as exceptions that detract from our normal way of doing things. Accommodating students is our normal way of doing things.
The line between what we think of as normal practice and special accommodations is a thin one, and it’s often based on very little of substance. No matter our students’ ability, we need to try — within reason — to eliminate barriers that keep them from fully participating in our courses. We need to work to ensure that students have every opportunity to succeed. That’s true whether our students are disabled or not.
Of course some of our students will be disabled, and we need to consider their needs ahead of time, when we’re planning for the semester. Treating accessibility concerns as an afterthought can make disabled students feel unwelcome and, even worse, can erect further barriers to their learning. Better to plan for a diverse student population — making sure that accessibility is threaded throughout your teaching practice — than to assume all of your students will be some shade of “normal” and be surprised later when that’s not the case.
Accessibility requires flexibility. As Womack and Rick Godden wrote in a 2016 essay, “Seeing a study body as an undifferentiated group leads to strict rules and single solutions.” To put it another way, adopting strict rules and single solutions assumes your students are an undifferentiated group. Think about how you can be more flexible to adopt your course to students with varying needs. What can be changed and what can’t?
For Womack, her “work with accommodations began when a student requested longer quiz time; I questioned whether there was a good rationale for stricter timing in my context and removed the requirement for all.” Such epiphanies are the kind we should all be chasing. The push to make our courses accessible to all students can force us to get down to brass tacks and think about what’s really nonnegotiable about our course policies. Are there important reasons why your assignment deadlines are strict? Maybe there are, maybe there aren’t. But thinking about them now will allow you to create and justify a policy that is driven by reason, not mere habit.
I am by no means an expert on this topic, but there are many people doing exciting work on the intersection of disability studies and pedagogy, providing the rest of us with helpful resources for making our courses more inclusive. Womack has launched Accessible Syllabus, a website with great ideas for designing a syllabus — and a course — that “plans for diverse student abilities.” A forum on HASTAC — “converging at the intersections of disability theory, pedagogy, and media studies” — offers a lot of provocative ideas for remaking the college classroom. And Jay T. Dolmage, an associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo, has created an excellent guide to integrating Universal Design into many aspects of college classes, something that’s been helping me as I plan my courses for the fall semester.
Accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought, something we consider only because the regulations say we have to. Making sure that all of our students are able to succeed in the classroom should be a priority for every one of us. The sooner we can make that imperative a central part of our pedagogical work, the better.