Designing for Access

Just as our students come to us with a range of skills, they also come to us with a range of abilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Some students have visible disabilities, such as mobility. Others have less visible disabilities, such as blindness/visual impairment or deafness/hearing impairment. Many others have invisible disabilities, including ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, brain injury, learning disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, and/or systemic health disabilities (asthma, cancer, chronic fatigue, diabetes, epilepsy, HIV, or heart disease). For all these students, instructors have a responsibility to make learning accessible.

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Making Active Learning Accessible

Research over the past decade leaves no doubt that active learning improves student success. By incorporating techniques like discussions, group work, in-class writing assignments, two-stage exams, projects, and clicker questions into their classes, instructors can improve student learning. The activities involved in active learning can pose challenges for students with disabilities, though. By making some adaptations, instructors can make their student-centered classes accessible to everyone. 

Forethought is crucial to any adaptation, according to Andrew Shoemaker, director of the Academic Achievement and Access Center (AAAC). It's much easier to design accessible work in advance than it is to try to adapt assignments or technology at the last minute. The AAAC provides advice for making many types of digital content accessible. This webpage is intended to supplement that by identifying common active learning techniques and offering suggestions on how to make those techniques accessible.

Pay attention to the design of the classroom and make sure the arrangement can accommodate students with disabilities.

  • Spacing: Provide additional room at tables for students who use wheelchairs or crutches or have other mobility issues.
  • PositioningIn rooms without tables, make sure students with mobility issues can position themselves so that they can easily join conversations.
  • Speaking: Reading aloud can be difficult for some students with disabilities, so it is better to have someone else take that on.
  • Noise: Position groups within the class as far apart from each other as possible, or allow a group to relocate to an adjacent room or work space to minimize background noise, which limits the ability of students with hearing loss to participate fully.
  • Student anxiety: An increasing number of students are telling instructors that group work triggers their anxiety and that they need to work alone. That anxiety is often real. The number of students who have documented anxiety issues with the AAAC has more than tripled over the past six years. Even so, group work is often an essential part of learning in a course. It helps students think through problems more deeply and helps prepare them for the dynamic atmosphere they will face in many careers. Don’t simply dismiss students’ concerns about anxiety, though, or automatically give them permission to work alone. Instead, consult with the AAAC to find potential alternatives. In many cases, the student may need counseling to help with anxiety, and the AAAC can make referrals.

Students who have problems with vision, dexterity, or mobility may have aides who accompany them to class to take notes and to help with activities like whiteboard work or using manipulatives. If they don't, the student may contact the AAAC to discuss the need for an aide.

Clicker technology isn't always accessible, so it is important to have another option for students with a visual impairment or dexterity issues. Having a partner read a question aloud and helping the student respond is one option. Technology is available that will send questions to students' smartphones so that they can hear questions and respond. (Contact the AAAC for more about this.) This may require additional time, so work with the student and adjust response times.

With a two-stage exam, students start by taking an exam on their own. After everyone has finished, they take the exam again in groups or with partners. Students who have a disability may need additional time, so direct the student to work with the AAAC to arrange accommodations. This often involves having students complete the individual exam in a separate room and then rejoining the class for the group exam.

Students who are visually impaired will need electronic versions of handouts, and students with authorized accommodations may need more time to work through documents. Rather than hand out documents in class, it is better to make them available on Blackboard before class.

If you are providing transportation for an off-campus trip, make sure the vehicle can accommodate students who use wheelchairs, scooters, crutches, or other devices. If the off-campus work is a regular part of the class, the student is responsible for arranging transportation. Most students who need that type of transportation have arranged for it as a part of their regular routine. If they haven’t, though, work with the AAAC to consider options.

U.S. accessibility laws don’t apply in other countries, and students may have difficulty accessing historic buildings, finding transportation, and maneuvering through international cities where accessibility has never been taken into consideration. If study abroad is an essential component of a degree or a course, consider allowing the student to visit countries like the U.K. or Australia, which have modern accessibility laws. If that isn’t possible, work with the AAAC to find other options.

The best way to know whether an accommodation is working is to talk to students privately. Ask what sorts of problems or challenges they are having and how things might be improved. Some instructors shy away from these sorts of conversations, but they are important to make sure accommodations are working and to identify areas where a student may need additional assistance.

Accessibility Checklist for Online Course Materials

Active learning requires students to complete some type of work before class. Making that material accessible on Blackboard and other digital sites isn't difficult, but it does take time and planning. Quick checks for accessibility and revisions ahead of time will reduce difficulty for students. The AAAC’s site on making digital content accessible offers advice on a range of online content. In regard to online courses, the Center for Online and Distance Learning has valuable resources for creating an inclusive online learning environment. Here are things instructors should keep in mind:

Video files should have closed captioning or have an accompanying transcript, or both. Audio files should have transcripts for students to review. That is important not only for students with disabilities but for international students who may have trouble following or keeping up with a conversation. Video demonstrations of concepts may also need further description for students who are visually impaired.

Blackboard and other websites provide ways to add visual descriptors to photographs and other graphical elements. Make sure to fill that in so that screen readers can provide adequate information to students who are visually impaired.

PDFs aren't always accessible. Acrobat Pro includes a tool for checking accessibility and will flag issues like inaccessible text and tables, visuals that lack alternative text, and color contrast that may make the document difficult for some students to read.

Common accessibility issues in Word documents include unidentified headers, images without alternative text, lists created with hyphens rather than bullet points, and columns created by tabbing rather than with the column tool. Word has an accessibility checker than can identify other potential problems.

Many of the same areas of concern in Word apply to Excel and PowerPoint files. In Excel, though, avoid blank columns, rows or cells because screen readers often identify those as the end of a page's content. Also use descriptive titles for each sheet in an Excel file.

Slides generated with the "new slide" function are automatically accessible, so it is best to use that function. Each slide should also have a title. This makes each slide easier to identify and adds the slide to a table of contents.

Some online textbooks aren't accessible, so it's important to check.

This can be a challenge for students who are visually impaired because most screen readers can't read advanced or complex scientific notation. Work with students to find a solution that works for them.