After reading about the unique difficulties remote learning can present for students with disabilities, we invited the Learning Assistance Center-Disability Services to share tips for inclusive course design. They answered the call and today’s guest post is by Davita DesRoches, WFU MDiv student and graduate assistant for the LAC-DS.

Universal design—defined as a way of designing spaces, products, and services to make them as functional as possible for people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds—may seem like a lofty goal in the midst of pandemic-induced (and panic-inducing) remote learning. This blog post will offer some general tips about universal design, with a list of resources for those who would like to dive deeper.

For faculty and students alike, remote learning presents a new educational environment to navigate, with new tools and new norms. Our advice is, above all, keep it simple.

With simplicity as a model, it helps to be aware of the basic accessibility features of the tools on which you will rely.

  • Most learning management software has built-in accessibility features, so publish text (class instructions and updates) directly onto your class site using the default HTML environment instead of posting a Word document or a PDF.
  • When using a video conferencing platform like Zoom, slides and handouts shared with students using the ‘Share Screen’ function cannot be read by screen readers, so provide your students with all class materials in advance.
  • If you make use of the chat function in Zoom during a lecture, save the chat transcript as the meeting host and share it with students as an additional reference material.

Introducing New Texts or Readings

Providing accessible texts—whether textbooks, book chapters, or articles—is an important aspect of universal design for both in-person and remote instruction.

The following are some general principles to keep in mind when introducing new resources:

  • Use resources that are already available in a digital format—a chapter from an ebook, a digital journal article, an online news article, etc.
  • Scan print resources for readability (both human & digital): scan one page at a time & avoid scanning books with annotations or marginal notes.
  • Provide new resources to students well in advance of use in class to allow time for conversion and remediation.

Avoiding Cognitive Overload

Students and faculty alike are facing a significant learning curve in this time of transition. When asked for feedback after the first week of remote learning, one LAC-DS student observed that their practices of processing information had been disrupted, and as a result, “it has taken me an extremely long time to watch and process all the lectures.” Another student identified the logistical challenge of juggling learning management systems: “Switching between Sakai, Google, and Canvas while still keeping track of all [my] assignments is quite cumbersome.” Another student highlighted the significant interpersonal loss of synchronous learning, saying that having lectures posted online as opposed to a Zoom class meeting made it “hard to find motivation to actually sit down and do work.”

Deborah Armstrong, alternate media specialist with DeAnza College’s Disability Support Services, identified cognitive overload as a common and collective experience in this transition to remote learning. Her advice is to give advance warning and detailed instructions to students when switching between class materials during lectures and to add variety to the class structure as you are able. Remember that students can no longer easily nudge a classmate to ask for a page number or gather in small groups for discussion.

A clear line of communication and clear instructions are vital for all students as they attempt to set routines and continue learning amid much uncertainty and instability in their immediate surroundings. Clarity and compassion are especially vital for our LAC-DS students who are working with our staff to adapt their accommodations and assistive technology to a new learning environment. Remember that learning curve, especially for those for whom the curve is steeper, and prioritize consistency and simplicity in your remote course delivery.

If you would like to know more, our office has collated additional resourceshere—a document that we will continue to update as we find new resources. Feel free to reach out to lacds@wfu.edufor questions, support, or to schedule a meeting with a member of our staff to discuss specific accessibility concerns for your courses.



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One Comment

Heather says:

I just wanted to say I use jaws for windows and NVDA and Narrator. I do not agree with the screen share statementThe National Federation for the blind used the screen share off zoom during our national convention. They were using jaws for windows and NVDA. To say it is not accessible, what are you basing this statement off of? Perhaps your students need better screen reader training before someone says the screen share with zoom is not accessible! I think you can say that the screen sharing can be difficult for the novice screen reader user but, that in know way is the screen sharing off zoom, inaccessible.