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Accessible Teaching Practices for Students with Disabilities

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), 19% of post-secondary students identify as having a disability (NCES, 2022). This means you will likely have students with disabilities in your classes. The resources below will assist you in navigating university policies for students with disabilities, provide you with strategies to proactively build flexibility into your course policies, and offer considerations to make your classroom and materials accessible for all students. 

CETLI can support all instructors in ensuring that their classes are inclusive and accessible. Please send us an email to schedule a consultation. 

Guidance & policy for academic accommodations

Students who report their disability status to Disability Services may be entitled to academic accommodations in some or all courses. If so, the instructor of record will receive an accommodations letter from the Weingarten Center detailing which accommodations are necessary. This letter represents the accommodation that the student is entitled to receive. 

Instructors are expected to understand the responsibilities they have to students with disabilities. Disability Services outlines some of the instructor’s responsibilities as follows: 

  • Include a statement in the syllabus about how to access Disability Services. Recommended syllabus language is available from Disability Services.  
  • Read and sign accommodations letters in MyWeingartenCenter. 
  • Meet with student(s) to discuss how accommodations will be applied to your course. 
  • Contact Disability Services with concerns about complex accommodations or accommodations that you think may fundamentally alter your course for the student. 
  • Review test booking appointments to ensure the information is accurate, and communicate with student(s) how they can contact the professor or TA with questions during the examination.  
  • Provide instructions to Weingarten on test administration and upload exam copy in a timely manner. 

If you notice a student struggling in your course and believe they might benefit from any of the resources at the Weingarten Center (learning consultations, tutoring, or Disability Services), you can reach out to the Weingarten Center. Alternatively, you can inform the student of the services provided by the Weingarten Center and encourage them to contact the center directly for additional support. 

Disability Services’ Academic Accommodations FAQ provides information on implementing accommodations. If you have additional questions or concerns please email Disability Services or call 267-788-0030. 

Exams 

Students with disabilities may receive testing accommodations, such as extended time or a distraction-reduced testing environment. You may want to proactively consider how you will address testing accommodations so that students can complete their exams in a timely manner. Some ways you might address students’ needs include: 

  • Directing students to initiate the test accommodation process by reserving a seat at the Center for Accommodated Testing. 
  • Arranging to administer the exam at a different time. 
  • Setting up modified time limits for individual students in a Canvas Quiz. 

Due dates 

After reviewing the student’s accommodations letter, you may need to meet with the student to agree on the process for requesting an extension that will accomodate the student’s need while enabling them to achieve the course aims. For some assignments, such as group work or a class presentation, it may not be possible to offer an extension. In these cases, it is best to email Disability Services or call 267-788-0030.  

Note-taking 

In most cases, a note-taking accommodation will have minor impact on the instructor. Many students with this accommodation will utilize note-taking apps that involve audio recording and transcription, but some may request peer note-takers. The student will work with Disability Services to come up with the best option. In any case, the instructor may limit the use of note-taking aids during portions of the class, particularly during sensitive class discussions.  

Attendance  

Attendance accommodations that require modification of a course attendance policy are becoming more common, especially for students with chronic conditions that may cause flare-ups or a student whose symptoms may be unpredictable. If instructors are concerned about how an attendance accommodation might fundamentally alter their course or have questions about how to implement that accommodation, they are encouraged to contact Disability Services. 

Course materials 

For assigned readings and textbooks, post the syllabus as early as possible so that students have ample time to request alternative format materials. Disability Services assists students with procuring accessible electronic versions of course textbooks and other course materials, but doing so can take time. According to Disability Services, the average turnaround time for these materials is three weeks, but some requests may take up to two months. 

Transparent communication & flexible course policies

Flexible course policies are most helpful for all of your students when the policies are transparent and shared with students early and often. For example, a student who experiences a flare-up of a chronic condition, a student athlete, and a student who observes religious holidays not recognized by the university can all benefit from a balance of structure and flexibility in your course policies. Consider the most important learning goals for your course and think about where you might and might not be flexible with your policies while still reaching the course aims. It is also helpful to communicate how you came to these policies so that students can understand the importance of certain course elements. 

For additional guidance on incorporating flexible course policies, read Combining Structure and Flexibility in Your Courses. 

Syllabus  

The syllabus, both in print and on Canvas, can be a useful tool for communicating course information. To make course policies clear to students, you may consider including sections that detail:  

  • Attendance policies and what constitutes an excused vs. unexcused absence. 
  • All assignment deadlines. 
  • Late assignment policies. 
  • Communication guidelines for late assignments and absences. 

In class 

On the first day of class and at regular intervals throughout the semester you may want to remind students of your course policies. Prior to an assignment due date reiterate your policies for late assignments and extensions.  

Exams  

Inevitably, you will have a student who needs to miss an exam. It will be helpful for you to have a policy in place that you can share with the class at the beginning of the semester.  Accommodating policies include: 

  • Providing students with the option to make up an exam. 
  • Dropping one exam per semester. 
  • Offering take-home exams with a set time or date during which a student must take it. 

Due dates 

Course policies that are universally applied in your class can provide all students with flexibility when an extension is needed. Very rarely is this flexibility intended to be unlimited. Course policies can include: 

  • Having a bank of late assigment passes that students can use at any time for any reason. 
  • Giving students a range of dates to submit work rather than a single deadline. 
  • Allowing students to drop one or two of the lowest scores for homework. 

Consider options for participation 

Consider the types of participation that are valuable in your course. Verbal discussion participation is a hallmark of many courses, but it can present challenges for students who need extra time to organize their thoughts. This may deter some students from contributing in ways that are valuable to their learning. Varying modes of participation can also provide opportunities for students to strengthen and showcase different communication skills. Are there methods for participation and interaction that could be integrated as a complement to verbal discussions?  

Some options for participation include: 

  • Ask students to pause, think, and write before speaking in class. This allows time for students who process information more slowly. 
  • Offer asynchronous participation options, such as a discussion board in Canvas. 
  • Post some discussion questions on Canvas before class so that students can prepare ahead of time. 

Absences and in-class learning 

Your students will inevitably miss class. Having plans in place for how students can catch up on in-class learning, no matter the reason for the absence, will keep them from falling too far behind. Some options for supporting students who need to miss class include: 

  • Use the syllabus to describe what topics are covered in each class so that students know what they missed and should review. 
  • Assign students to get each other’s contact information early in the semester so that they can obtain notes or other materials they might have missed.  
  • Assign a designated note-taker for each class who then shares the notes with the entire class. 

Making your classroom & materials more accessible

Making your classroom more accessible prior to the start of the semester creates a welcoming environment for all students and saves you time, both during the semester and in the future if you teach the course again. 

Before the semester begins, instructors can visit their classroom and familiarize themselves with potential barriers to access. Points of access to familiarize yourself with include the locations of the nearest accessible entrance, elevators, ramps, and accessible and gender-neutral bathrooms. PennAccess details access information for campus buildings and public spaces. 

Some classrooms at Penn may be more or less accessible given the specific structure of your course. Here are some considerations for making your classroom’s physical space more accessible:  

  • If the classroom has a microphone, use it. 
  • If you incorporate a lot of group work into your class or anticipate students will move around the classroom, consider whether the classroom can accommodate students using wheelchairs or other mobility aids. 
  • Know where the closest and accessible men’s, women’s, and gender-neutral bathrooms are, and share this information with your students on the first day of class. 
  • Consider the physical accessibility of any office hours spaces and make appropriate accommodations as needed, which might include offering some office hours on Zoom or in a hybrid format. 

Digital course materials can be made accessible once and used throughout the life of the course. This saves you time during the semester, makes it easier for students to be prepared for class, and signals to students with disabilities that you are invested in their success.  This CETLI guide to Universal Digital Practices provides an overview of common digital elements that require accessibility consideration. You can make course materials accessible by: 

  • Captioning multimedia proactively, before you show it in class.  
  • Making slides available before class so students who need text formatted differently can adjust it before class. 
  • Vocalize words as you write them on the board and describe images on slides or boards for students who may have impaired vision.  

Use the Accessibility Checker built into Canvas to identify potential issues such as low color contrast ratios or images without alt text. For more information on web resources, including your Canvas page, Penn’s Web Accessibility site offers guidance for faculty.