Supporting Students with Disabilities (including the ones you can’t see)

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee
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People watching has become my favorite pastime during the pandemic. I watch out my window while a woman does yoga on her rooftop. Down below on the street there are bike riders, street cleaners, essential workers commuting, and morning runners. From my perch, I can make stories for each of them based on what I see. But what about what I can’t see? Does the woman doing yoga have a new heart? Does that runner have Crohn’s Disease? Is that nurse headed to work dyslexic?

Too often, when people think about disabilities, they imagine individuals in wheelchairs, or a person with a guide dog … and while some disabilities are visible, many are not. These are invisible disabilities, which the Invisible Disabilities Association defines as “a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” And if we are not careful, they can limit a person’s educational opportunities.

According to the National Service And Inclusion Project, among all people with disabilities of working age (29.4 million), 52% are employed. An accessible education is not the only change needed but it’s one important step in helping to increase that number.

Because disabilities are not always visible, it can be a challenge to create assignments and workloads that support all students. It’s an especially challenging time during COVID, where much of learning is taking place remotely. We put together some tips to help instructors support accessibility and all student learning, including those with disabilities they may not be able to see.

Tip One: Sometimes, students with invisible disabilities are perceived as lacking in intelligence, not paying attention, or even lazy. While some students will choose to disclose a disability to instructors, many will not. And, even if your student does share that they have a disability, they are not required to give you the details. Assuming that a student that isn’t achieving with the existing course structure is anything but doing their best is a dangerous path to go down. Work with these students to identify the points where they are struggling. It’s possible that being easily distracted or frequent bathroom trips might mean that they need extra time on tests. Chronic pain or fatigue may mean that a student needs extra time to turn over assignments or opportunities to use alternative formats. In Macmillan Learning’s course platform, Achieve, instructors can create student exceptions for assignment deadlines.

Tip Two: Find course materials that all students can use. For example, Macmillan Learning produces e-books in EPUB3 format and include accessibility metadata, short and long alt text, clear structure and organization, and a variety of navigation methods including page and heading navigation. The e-books reflow and respond to magnification, so the text is readable at 200% magnification. We also prioritize keyboard navigation and reading order in our e-book development. Macmillan Learning has a policy that allows 10 pages to be printed at a time and the copy/pasting of 2 pages at a time. And of course, beginning in 2019, all our e-books are Global Certified Accessible by Benetech. Bringing products that are already accessible to your class gives students the chance to be successful from the onset and allows them to make the personalizations they need to be successful.

Tip Three: If you’re creating materials and documents for your class or sourcing open educational resources, make sure they are accessible before you post them. Here’s a checklist to help you make accessible documents. We also have free checklists for .pdfs and slides on our Accessibility page on our website. Remember that accessibility is about more than passing the automated checkers that you can find in these tools. Try to limit the quantity of information you provide on slides - packing a single slide with information can be overwhelming for students. Could that pdf be a word document? Students can resize text, change the amount of information on each page, and resize images in a word doc in ways they can’t without an expensive editor in pdf.

Tip Four: Are your students no longer in your classroom? Consider how Universal Design could help enable teaching and learning. Reading from the text is a helpful learning experience for some students but can you present the information in the textbook in additional, alternative formats? Consider integrating an online lab experience so students can have a more hands on interaction with the materials or integrating interactives that focus on important concepts

Recently, I was sent the definition of disability used by We Need Diverse Books:

“We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization.”

The reason this definition resonates with me is because it includes not only what disability is but also how we can, unintentionally, create an ableist environment. Building, buying, and implementing accessible environments for students is important to their future whether they are continuing to more schooling or entering the workforce.

At Macmillan Learning, we take our commitment to providing accessible materials seriously. If you’d like to learn more about accessibility visit the Accessibility page on our website. We also encourage feedback from students and instructors on what we can do to improve and welcome any feedback about our resources or suggestions about future resources at

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