Now What? Adding Accessibility Midstream

Accommodations in the online classroom.
By Martina Svyantek, Scott D. Dexter, and Ashley Shew

Yellow curb cut on a sidewalk with an orange safety cone

Colleges and universities made a rapid shift last spring to online modes of work, research, teaching, learning, and campus engagement. The shift online happened almost overnight, with little time for either faculty members or students to grasp the implications of remote teaching and learning. Few of us have homes—or offices—tricked out with the right technology to support our teaching, and many instructors felt deeply uncertain about adapting (or simply bludgeoning) our usual pedagogy into a fully online mode.

As the nature of our teaching (and the work of higher education in general) becomes more reliant on digital technologies, disability is manifesting in higher education in new ways. New modes of engagement and developing norms are bringing new concerns to the forefront. In part, this is because some aspects of disability are becoming newly salient as the learning environment shifts. Some aspects of the digital learning environment allow accommodation of faculty, staff, and students with disabilities much more fully than the in-person context—for example, reduced encounters with physical obstacles on campus and increased temporal flexibility, especially asynchronous collaborations, make most campus roles more accessible. But some technologies greatly impair access to university functions—for example, limited accessibility in videoconferencing tools may taint democratic governance by impeding the votes of people with disabilities, as recently happened in a meeting of the University of Michigan faculty senate, when poor integration between videoconferencing and screen-reading applications prevented faculty members reliant on screen readers from voting on significant governance matters. (The assembly further voted down motions both to pause for discussion of these immediate accessibility issues and to allow screen-reader users to vote later or to vote using more accessible technology. Accessibility is always political.)

What “counts” as disability, and the extent to which a disability actually limits someone’s ability to fulfill their campus roles, depends heavily on environment and context, including architectural and technological elements as well as institutional policies and procedures. The shift online gives us, as instructors, an opportunity—even partway through the semester—to increase the accessibility of the learning environments for which we’re responsible.

Swerving into Accessibility Now

The 2020‒21 academic year is well underway, and, after months of intensive labor, maybe you entered the new semester feeling a little better prepared for pandemic teaching and learning, whether you’re mostly online or online just a little. Perhaps, though, you’re also realizing that learning online presents students with a different set of obstacles—and, in the rush to get your courses ready, you gave less attention to the accessibility of your materials and techniques than you usually do. Maybe this realization was triggered by receiving a letter from the campus disability office requesting an accommodation for one of your students (which probably arrived a few weeks into the semester; everyone has a backlog).

What happens now? What can you do? All of us are navigating new classroom spaces and configurations and discovering facets of digital accessibility that are only now becoming relevant to our teaching. How does improving access—whether prompted by an accommodation request or not—differ in an online or hybrid setting from physical learning environments? It’s never too late to enhance the accessibility of your teaching—and simply taking a step in that direction is significant.

Under the terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), students with disabilities can apply for accommodations—it is their responsibility to apply, and they may be required by the university to provide documentation of a pertinent diagnosis. We also know that many disabled students don’t file for accommodations, and still others may only now be realizing their disabilities in new instructional contexts. In particular, we are hearing about people with ADHD struggling more with online education, people with hearing disabilities being negatively affected by different audio configurations, and blind and low-vision students encountering problems even being able to use materials that aren’t put in accessible formats. Access is neither gift nor burden: most of us teach because we like engaging students in the process of learning, research, and discovery. When we think about making things more accessible, we’re thinking about methods to make way for greater student participation and engagement.

Faculty members can go beyond legal frameworks for access—beyond merely honoring accommodations—and start intentionally designing their online classrooms for greater access. Materials and infrastructure created to address disability often end up benefiting everyone through what is called “the curb-cut effect.” The classic example of this effect is the eponymous curb cut, whereby stroller users, package handlers with dollies, bicyclists, and others all benefit from the hard-won infrastructure design advocated for by disabled people.

The curb-cut effect is present, for example, in captioning: though developed largely as a result of Deaf advocacy, captions are useful for people learning a new language, help children learn to read more quickly, and let anyone stream a video without disturbing their family or a roommate. Autogenerated live captioning—offered free through Web Captioner and Google Meet and Google Slides—won’t be up to ADA standards for deaf or hard-of-hearing people but can be useful for class participants who might be having audio issues on their computers or have an audio-processing disorder.

Another curb-cut effect is evident in text descriptions of images used in class, such as charts and graphs in a textbook. When teachers explain what’s salient about a graph or a chart in a textbook or course material, the whole class better understands the image and why it’s used—access, that is, is often inextricable from teaching and learning. (Note that digital images of text are inaccessible to those using screen-reading software, so those images need descriptions that include a transcript of the text in the image.)

Building In Accessibility

Increasing the accessibility of our courses is a long-term process; the primary motivation is supporting our students, but we also need to make sure we are finding supports for ourselves. As you continue to think about how to build accessibility into your teaching, both now and in the future, these strategies may provide support:

  • Start with one thing now: Adding accessibility midstream can be a daunting challenge, especially if it’s a new experience for you—the list of things you “should” do can seem unending. So make just one change, starting today. This might be making sure that you have enough contrast in your slides by using an online color-contrast checker (quick hint: an orange font on a red background is not a great choice, even if those are your school colors).
  • Universal Design for Learning (UDL): The three core principles of UDL advise us to offer multiple means of engagement, of representation, and of action and expression. Exploring specific ways to instantiate these principles will help you identify concrete ways to build greater accessibility into your course materials, activities, and assignments.
  • Training: Seek out professional development opportunities related to accessibility. This might include training on using your learning management system, on using automated accessibility checkers, on developing image descriptions, or on providing captions. Learning these skills as an instructor also benefits your other professional roles. As a researcher, for example, your awareness of color contrast issues might lead you to develop charts and graphs that do not rely solely on the availability of projectors or colored printer ink to convey information to an audience.

Most campuses offer resources to help faculty members and graduate student instructors make their courses more accessible. Your campus can be a crucial source of support for both you and your students.

  • Online campus resources: A good place to begin is the university website. Look for a link in the footer of the home page (often titled “accessibility” or “campus accessibility”). You might also find resources buried deeper on the website. Bookmark these pages. Online campus resources are the starting point for answering questions you might have, as well as questions from your students.
  • Campus offices: Whether your campus has moved to completely online instruction or courses are still being taught face to face, you can familiarize yourself with the campus offices that can offer support and help you gain experience with accessibility and accommodation matters. On some campuses, disability and accessibility might be in the portfolio of a central office managing all aspects of learning, working, and technology. On other campuses, several offices may contribute services. The office that provides services to students with disabilities may or may not have teaching resources for faculty members. If your campus has a center for teaching and learning, the staff may be able to offer support or help you find it. Knowing where to find support for yourself as a faculty member as well as for your students is vital. If you have a difficult time finding this information, imagine how your students feel!

Faculty Advocacy for Long-Term Changes

Our students’ experience of accessibility on campus is only partially determined by their learning experiences. Fortunately, faculty members—especially those oriented to the mission of the AAUP—can be powerful advocates in community with disabled people on campus, who of course include not only students but also faculty, staff, and administrators. Here are a few ways faculty members can work with others to make campuses more inclusive:

  • Policy: Federal law—the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act—prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in colleges and universities and has led many more students with disabilities to pursue higher education. But, as with any other civil rights movement, the law alone cannot bring about the changes we need: the changes to campus spaces, processes, and cultures that will transform higher education into a truly accessible sphere. Does your institution have policies and practices on disability that go beyond compliance with the law? Thinking beyond the legal minimums can broadly benefit the campus community.
  • Campus “maintenance”: Actual curb cuts are a crucial element (though only one element) of physical accessibility on campus. Where are the other “curb cuts” on campus? Which elements of campus infrastructure—policies, services, offices, architecture—support accessibility on campus? How will that accessibility be protected during renovations, reorganizations, and other “improvements”? Part of advocating for accessibility is monitoring and preserving the gains that have already been made.
  • Activity reporting and reviewing: As Sara Ahmed has brilliantly pointed out on her blog feministkilljoys, complaining about institutional issues, such as accessibility, should count as diversity work. All of the time and energy you dedicate to providing accessible materials to your students should count for something. Put it into your annual reports and reviews. Include training and workshops (especially those that come with certificates or other recognitions) on your CV. Accessibility doesn’t just happen, so start acknowledging your own efforts.
  • Campus carrots, kudos, and culture: At its best, working for accessibility can be an incredibly joyful community effort. Ensuring that our own efforts are recognized and reckoned with is a first step. How can your campus more effectively celebrate this work? Which office on campus could showcase accessible teaching practices? Could increasing access be among the considerations for annual teaching awards? Could you institute an employee-of-the-month program that focuses on accessibility? Small celebrations like this can lead to profound changes to campus culture.
  • Tracking results: Academic organizations tend to value (perhaps excessively) that which can be measured, especially that which has a measurably positive effect on the bottom line. Assessing the direct impact on students with disabilities is often difficult, because disability status is protected as confidential and records retained by any office serving students with disabilities are further protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. But accessible teaching benefits all students, including those with undiagnosed disabilities and those currently without disabilities. Can you use campus measuring practices to support accessible teaching? Perhaps there’s a way to connect with retention initiatives, or with academic assessment structures more broadly.


A lack of resources related to disability and accessibility on campus is a product of an institution’s history as well as a consequence of leaving disability out of larger discourses throughout educational systems nationwide. In terms of demographics, data on and about disability are frequently left out of institutional record-keeping. When this information does exist, it tends to be part of confidential files in offices providing services, and when people are unable or unwilling to “register” with their institutions, they are not counted at all. Registration often takes resources (time, energy, funds for testing, access to medical care, and insurance) that might be unavailable for a myriad of reasons.

During this pandemic as well as in the “before times,” disability has existed as a weird demographic category that people argue into and out of based on their personal experiences and expectations. We know this in part because we live it—there are constant cost-benefit analyses determining the overall benefits and harms of claiming disability in a given context. Disability becomes salient in unexpected ways and at unexpected times as a result both of policy enforcement (and the lack thereof) and of the availability of “curb cuts” in the digital and built environments. It is incumbent upon all faculty members to be invested in and working toward accessible materials and practice.

Those who get to have longer institutional memories—that is, tenured, tenure-track, and long-term non-tenure-track faculty members—need to pay attention to the accessibility resources at our universities to make sure they are maintained. It’s great when everyone wants to create some shiny new disability widget, but these gains are often lost over time as new administrations and programs shift the institutional landscape. We don’t want to fight continually for the same accessibility gains only to have them lost and forgotten once again in an organizational shuffle.


Martina Svyantek is a doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech studying accessibility issues within higher education; Scott D. Dexter is professor of computer science at Alma College in Alma, Michigan; and Ashley Shew is associate professor of science, technology, and society at Virginia Tech.