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How Making My Teaching Accessible Made It Better

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Disability studies was my field of research for nearly a decade. But it wasn't until I had a visually impaired student in my classroom that my teaching finally became accessible. Making my teaching accessible made my teaching better—for all of my students.



The posting below looks at how making your course accessible to students with special needs can redound to the benefit all students. It is by Katie Rose Guest Pryaland is from the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 29, Number 4, May 11, 2020It is from a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at:  The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. ©2020 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published by Wiley Subscription Services Inc., a Wiley Company, 111 River St., Hoboken, NJ 07030-5774 Reprinted with permission.




Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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How Making My Teaching Accessible Made It Better 

Disability studies was my field of research for nearly a decade. But it wasn't until I had a visually impaired student in my classroom that my teaching finally became accessible. Making my teaching accessible made my teaching better—for all of my students.


Accessibility vs. Accommodation


As a teacher, it can be easy to feel put upon to have to accommodate the needs of a student with a disability. You have your way of teaching, and it works for you. You're good at your job. Then, suddenly, a student shows up who is hearing impaired, visually impaired, cognitively impaired or what have you, and suddenly, you must accommodate that student's impairment.


In reality, you have students with disabilities in your classes all the time. Many students don't seek official accommodations. Many students do seek accommodations through student services but don't tell their professors out of fear of engendering bad feelings. It's unusual for a student with a disability to want special treatment. They just want to be able to get by, just like everyone else.


The difference between “special treatment” and getting by like everyone else is the difference between “accommodations” and “accessibility.” As I've written before, “accommodation requires a person with a disability to interact with a gatekeeper, to ask for something extra, and often to prove that she deserves accommodation in the first place” (Pryal, 2016). The very word “accommodate” implies that the world is basically doing a favor for the student with a disability. Or worse, doing something required by mandate.


Accessibility, as I explained, “means that ‘accommodations’ are integrated into a space and are not particularized to an individual—but rather created for our society as a whole” (Pryal, 2016). Accessibility should be our goal, not accommodation. Accessibility requires a change in mindset and teaching tactics.


The goal, in our courses, should be “universal design.” The North Carolina State University Center for Universal Design ( has great resources on the topic. Universal design, according to the concept's founder Ron Mace, “is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”


Universal design is the goal of accessibility for everyone.


How My Teaching Changed


After my visually impaired student let me know about her disability, I asked her to tell me what sorts of things I could do to help her have a better experience in my class. For a moment, she stood there in silence. Apparently, professors rarely asked her for her wish list.


She told me that because she couldn't see the whiteboard, describing what I was writing on it would be helpful. Even better would be having access to my lecture notes. She would need handouts in PDF form rather than printed out on paper, and ideally in advance of class, so she could read them using her laptop.


These requests seemed so reasonable to me. Wouldn't everyone do better if they could read the handouts before class? Wouldn't everyone prefer to have a PDF copy they could access whenever they needed to, rather than having to keep up with a paper copy?


I considered her whiteboard request. What happens to all of that information that I sketch on the whiteboard during class? I've had more than one student come up with a cell phone to photograph the board to reference later, preserving the graphical representation of our class discussion. Was there an alternative to the whiteboard that would allow for our class discussions to happen in real time and be preserved? Better yet, could this alternative be accessible?


A Universal Design Alternative to the Whiteboard


The first day of class, I projected a blank document from my laptop onto the room's projection screen. At the top of the document, I'd typed the class meeting date and the name of the class. I told the class that this document would be our “Class Record.” I told them that for the rest of the semester, at the end of each class meeting, I would review the Class Record for errors and completeness, and then post it as a PDF to our course management system for all to have.


Our class discussion began, and I proceeded to type. I couldn't draw diagrams, so I had to get more creative with my use of words. Also, it was hard at first, typing while running a class discussion. But it wasn't any harder than learning how to write on a blackboard or whiteboard. Honestly, after a few classes, it got easy. After all, I don't have to look at the keyboard to type.


And my students really got into it. “Put that on the Class Record!” they would request when I said something they found particularly helpful during class. They would take their own notes, and then supplement those notes with the record.


I started using the record to prepare my lectures. I would type up an outline of the class that I'd prepared in advance, and then fill in the blanks as we went through class. And at the end of every class, I'd review, fix typos, explain a few things that needed further information and then post the PDF. And if I forgot to post that PDF, I'd receive no fewer than five emails from students politely requesting I do so. In short, all of my students loved the Class Record.


Better still, the Class Record cut way down on follow‐up questions. Students knew to check the Class Record first. Most of the time, a question about class was answered in the record. Students who missed class knew they needed to get notes from classmates and download the Class Record. In the end, the Class Record actually decreased my workload as a teacher.


I'd made the ephemeral, messy whiteboard into a readable, accessible, reproducible document, and all of my students benefited—including the ones with disabilities who'd never told me about their disabilities and never will. After that semester, the Class Record became an integral part of my teaching.


That's accessibility—integrating the needs of all students into your teaching, including the students whose disabilities you will never know about.



Pryal, K. R. G. (2016, April 12). Can you tell 

the difference between accommodation


Pryal, K. R. G. (2016, April 12).  Can you tell the difference between accommodation and accessibility? Medium. Retrieved from‐acts/can‐you‐tell‐the‐difference‐between‐accommodation‐and‐accessibility‐7a7afd9dacd7


·       Dr. Katie Rose Guest Pryal is a columnist for Women in Higher Education and author of The Life of the Mind Interrupted (Blue Crow Press, 2017). This article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of WIHE .