Author: Austin Craven, UNCG Accessibility Fellow
As a biology instructor, I teach evolution theory multiple times every semester. One of the key concepts is that evolution through natural selection relies on genetic variation in a population. We see this kind of variation in every natural population I’m familiar with. Some examples in the human population include differences in height, hair color, taste preferences, or other behaviors. It is, therefore, no surprise that our student body here at UNCG also expresses large amounts of variation for a variety of traits. This can especially affect our education efforts, especially when that variation makes it more difficult for a student to access our educational materials and instruction. To put this in perspective, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 19.4% of undergraduates in the 2015-2016 school year reported having a disability. What’s more, the Post-Secondary National Policy Institute estimated that at public institutions only 6% of students registered as having disabilities in that same academic year. There are various reasons for this discrepancy and our institution is already working to solve many of them. These challenges are not small, however, and will take considerable time to address at a systemic level. As faculty, we can help decrease how many students experience additional challenges in our classrooms and lecture halls by being mindful of best practices for accessibility.
To steal a phrase from filmmaker Nigel Evens, as faculty we can help assist this “silent minority”. There are current movements in education that attempt to take these challenges into consideration. One of these is Universal Design of Learning (UDL) created by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). This approach involves focusing on providing multiple means of engagement, representation, and expression of the educational material. The complete guidelines are far too extensive to describe here but an example would be presenting media in multiple formats such as visual, audio, and textual. Often, this approach will help educators reach more students with educational challenges by presenting and assessing the information in multiple formats, therefore, increasing the chance that one of the formats is accessible. It also helps with connecting to students who may not find one format accessible by providing students with the choices of learning style. By creating this variation in our teaching styles, we can therefore reach the variation of learning styles we see in our students, and improve our educational outcomes. As this approach works for both accessibility concerns and learner variability, I think the guidelines for designing UDL courses are excellent tools to follow when applicable, but as a current faculty I understand the challenges of retrofitting entire courses to comply with such an extensive rubric.
In situations where development time is limited, we can still make changes where possible. One of the excellent tools we have at UNCG is the Web Accessibility 101 course. In most courses I am familiar with, we all utilize online tools to communicate and distribute educational resources. This may be as simple as using a home page on canvas, or as complex as creating a fully online course. Web Accessibility 101 provides the best practices for making these resources accessible to everyone, including our silent minority. Many of the practices are simple and quick to implement, such as enabling captions in your online meeting spaces or utilizing the header structures built into word processors. If your situation is more complicated or you’re a group of faculty who would like specialized training, UNCG has staff who can provide customized training for individuals or groups.