From Challenges to Solutions: Advice for Enhancing Accessibility in Your Classroom

MarisaBluestone
Community Manager
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Accessibility is fundamentally important to students’ learning journeys. By removing barriers to education, accessibility in both digital and physical spaces helps foster an inclusive environment where every student can fully participate and engage. Importantly, having learning materials and experiences that are accessible helps to ensure that all students, regardless of their abilities, have the same kinds of opportunities to succeed and thrive.

At Macmillan Learning, we understand the importance of integrating accessibility into the design of our courseware and content. We established a board of expert advisors to help us better understand how accessibility is being addressed on different campuses, and what we can do to help foster an even more inclusive learning environment. We discussed with them some of the challenges that they’re seeing most on campus as well as solutions that they recommend to ensure that all students have equal opportunities to succeed. Here are some recommendations from the advisors that can help you on your accessibility journey.

Develop Greater Understanding: Addressing accessibility requires a fundamental shift in perspective toCopy of dei-no-image (2).png recognize and embrace the diverse needs of all students. Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Our Lady of the Lake University, Stacy Ybarra Evans, elaborated on this, noting: "One of the greatest challenges instructors face is the lack of awareness and understanding of accessibility guidelines and best practices. Many instructors may not know where to start or how to incorporate accessibility into their course design without additional support and training." Read on for some ideas on how to start the process.

Conduct Accessibility Audits: Ybarra Evans suggests an audit should be a first step when working towards creating a more accessible learning environment. An audit involves assessing your content for accessibility issues. A common accessibility standard that is used to help identify areas that need improvement is the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The audits will help you locate where you need to revise image descriptions, add captions to videos, or redesign interactive elements to be more user-friendly. “Once you have identified potential barriers, you can start implementing solutions to make your course more accessible," she said. On the Macmillan Learning Accessibility catalog page, you can download some quick checklists for auditing your documents and presentation decks. 

Ybarra Evans shared some resources that could be helpful for educators:

Start Small and Make Incremental Changes. It can be daunting trying to overhaul an entire course to make it accessible, so beginning with small, manageable steps is a practical approach. There are some quick wins that instructors can easily accomplish. "Begin by incorporating basic accessibility practices such as providing alternative text for images and captions for videos,” Ybarra Evans said. She also encourages instructors to gradually explore and implement more advanced techniques as they become more familiar with accessibility guidelines. For some ideas on how to get started, check out Reading Rockets: Accessibility Tools and Resources, a guide to getting started with accessibility, including information on audits, technology, and professional development.

Rethink Your Materials: Instructors may find it more convenient to make incremental adjustments rather than starting from scratch. However, this approach could result in a patchwork of modifications that may resolve only a few accessibility needs. Senior Digital Accessibility Specialist at the University of North Texas, Danae Harris, elaborated on this challenge, explaining: "One frequent challenge I encounter in digital accessibility within higher education is the faculty's preference for remediation over recreation. Faculty often find it easier to modify their existing content rather than create new content with accessibility in mind from the start. However, this approach can diminish the overall learning experience for all students."

Ensure Digital Spaces Are Accessible. Digital educational content and platforms can be complex, incorporating multimedia elements like videos, interactive quizzes, and simulations. Ensuring that all these elements are accessible requires detailed knowledge of accessibility standards and best practices. Samm Nelson, Coordinator of UMass Amherst’s Assistive Technology Center, ensures faculty, students, and staff have equitable access to digital spaces. They help the institution keep up with digital advancements and meet accessibility standards through training, auditing, and remediation. UDL is one way to accomplish this, which is explained in more detail below. 

Implement Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Harris calls UDL "The most important strategy for faculty.” This critical framework enhances learning experiences by catering to the diverse needs of students. It provides learners with various ways to engage with course material. Harris continued that University of North Texas “faculty are encouraged to provide learners with multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation of information and multiple ways for students to express themselves," which are the three core principles of UDL. It’s an effective best practice that minimizes barriers for students with disabilities, “though it may not meet the needs of every individual student it is still a beneficial method of creating an inclusive learning experience,” Harris added. Ybarra Evans shared the official guidelines from the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), the pioneers of UDL. 

Copy of dei-no-image (3).pngNelson shared that “UDL is the best practice, but it will never be a substitute for listening to our disabled community and directly addressing accommodations.” They noted the importance of asking if anyone needs accommodations and listening to what is shared because access needs can conflict between students with various disabilities. “When I am in a virtual meeting with a colleague who speech reads it is important to share my screen as little as possible so my deaf colleague can see my face with ease. When I'm in a virtual meeting with a student with ADHD sharing my screen can help with focus and understanding. When I am in a meeting with both of them together I need to best accommodate both their needs. Often that means sharing meeting materials prior to meeting so we all can follow along and see each other's faces,” Nelson said.

Leverage Student Input: Involving students with disabilities in shaping accessibility policies and practices is crucial. Harris emphasizes the importance of hiring Accessibility Testers who are current or former students and expert assistive technology users. Their input is invaluable in creating and advocating for accessible content.

Accessible materials not only help level the playing field for students with disabilities, they enhance learning, support a more diverse student body, and encourage continuous improvement. Ultimately, making education accessible is not just about meeting legal requirements, but about upholding the moral imperative to provide an inclusive and supportive learning environment for all.  

 

Stacy Ybarra Evans, Ed.D., is the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Our Lady of the Lake University. She collaborates with faculty to design accessible course materials and provides professional development on incorporating Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles into their teaching practices.

Samm Nelson, CPACC is the IT Digital Accessibility and Assistive Technology Specialist at UMass Amherst. They are responsible for ensuring faculty, students, and staff have equitable access to digital spaces on campus. 

Danae Harris is the Senior Digital Accessibility Specialist at the University of North Texas. In addition to reviewing online courses to help faculty create accessible content, she also works with third-party representatives, including publishers and e-learning software providers, to address accessibility concerns and shares best practices and tools for making digital content accessible.